Thomas Edison was an American inventor, he invented the lightbulb among other things. In 1914 when he was 67 years old, his factory caught fire and was destroyed. The building was thought to be made of reinforced concrete and so although the contents were worth over $2million the building and contents were only insured for slightly less than $240,000. No matter what way you look at it this was a disaster. His entire life’s work was gone up in flames. Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the scene of the disaster and found his son, Charles. His son was in a panic but his father simply asked ‘Where is your mother?’ When Charles told him he didn’t know Edison replied ‘Go and find her and bring her here, she will never see anything like this in her life’.
What kind of reaction is that to your life’s work going up in flames?
Surely he should have gone into crisis mode or at least been a little bit more upset about it. So let’s think about it, why was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century so calm about losing everything he worked for?
Well the next day when the fires were eventually put out with the help of 9 fire engines and their firefighters he was asked that very question by a journalist. His answer much like his answer about inventing the lightbulb is inspiring. About the lightbulb he was asked years previously if he ever felt like giving up following hundreds of iterations that simply did not work. His reply was that he had not failed hundreds of times he had found hundreds of ways that did not work so he could disregard them. Having lost his entire life’s work through the burning down of his factory and again faced with the same type of question about how he could be so calm he replied: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.”
related podcast: Black Box Thinking (your failures lead to your success)
Think about that for a second. A world famous inventor loses everything, EVERYTHING he has ever worked for and his reply was to rejoice in the fact that he could start all over again. And by the way….he was 67 when this happened. A spring chicken he was not.
When I first heard this story I asked myself if I could (or would) react in the same way. Thomas Edison knew something that the reporter did not. He knew it was his choice to decide what the burning of his factory meant. He could have got angry, sure. He could have started an inquiry to figure out who was to blame and have them fired. He could have quit and retired. All of these were options. None of them were that useful an option. None of them would actually reverse time and stop the fire from happening. Although yes they were options, he chose something different. He chose to embrace it. He wanted his wife to see this fire that had multi-coloured flames due to all of the weird and wonderful chemicals he was using. There was no point in being upset about it because that would not change the outcome. He was literally accepting reality and taking the positives from it.
This was not a disaster, it was an opportunity. How many times in your life have you had so called disasters? Times where you lost a job or got sick or found yourself in a rut. Is it possible that when these things happen that they are not in fact disasters but opportunities to learn from? These events are either the end of something or the beginning of something.