Inspiration vs. Perspiration
A Light Bulb Moment on Edison's Creative Genius
By Chris Dunmire | 2/21/15
Thank goodness for Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). This passionate man — credited with having a hand in creating useful, life-changing inventions such as the phonograph, light bulb, and telephone, along with having multiple electrical, mechanical, and chemical patents behind his name — left us with an incredible insight about genius. (Who First Studied Genius?)
Uttering just seven words, Edison couldn't fathom how future generations would hold his luminous life to high heaven while engraving his utterance into a famous quote about hard work and creativity during thousands of Toastmaster speeches, innovation seminars, brainstorming sessions, and invention collaborations. He said:
“Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.”
Continuous Improvements on the Typewriter
Think about how far the typewriter has come since it was patented in 1714 by Britain's Henry Mill. At first it was a big clunky piece of mechanical machinery that made wordy compositions plain cumbersome and editing almost impossible. Now, three centuries later, the keystroke machine has become a standard, everyday communication device integrated nicely into computer apps and hardware that swiftly edits, cuts and pastes, and move entire blocks of text from one page, program, iPhone text, or tablet e-mail into another with ease. Spelling and grammar optional. R U srius? Yes!
‘Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration,’ clearly shows us that without the follow-through of good 'ol elbow grease (hard work), even the best of ideas are ephemeral dreams.
Yes, there's a larger creative process at work that encompasses not only the flash of an idea (inspiration), but the added follow-through (perspiration) of planning, design, building, experimenting, testing, etc. to accomplish the end result. The follow-through indeed requires a lot of sweat. Maybe even blood and tears, if you break a lot of shardy bulbs in the process.
If you study Edison's life and work, you'll find his inventions were largely improvements made upon existing products. For example, he really didn't invent the first light bulb. He invented the first ‘commercially practical’ incandescent light, after the first light bulb was already invented. So building and improving upon existing ideas, what we call innovation today, was one of Edison's personal forms of creative genius.
in·no·vateverb make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.
If you're curious about how all this plays out in real-time, you can gain an appreciation for the effortful 99% that goes into the creation and invention process by hanging out at a one or more of the crowdsourced product development communities online like Quirky or Kickstarter. Millions of inspirational ideas are submitted. Few are accepted. You may (or not) be surprised, however, at all the flash-in-the-pan 1% genius going on in these places followed by the certain echo of, “Hey, I could have invented that!”
in·gen·iousadjective (of a person) clever, original, and inventive.
Coming full circle on Edison's words in the realm of innovation, we've established that manifesting creative ideas after the initial zap of inspiration hits takes work. For Edison, ‘99% perspiration’ supports the host of intriguing inventions and innovations his laborious life helped produce for everyone's benefit today (not to mention a kick-butt quote for our collective consciousness). And with further genius from today's growing number of collaborators and innovators,ideas from today will be further improved for tomorrow and beyond. •
© 2007, 2015 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.
About Chris Dunmire
Chris is a deeply engaged creative spirit, lover of wit, words, and wisdom, and the driving force behind the award-winning Creativity Portal® Web site. [...]
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This line is commonly believed to have been spoken by Thomas Edison, as told in Harper's Monthly Magazine (1932).
You're chillin' on your bed with your headphones on, when suddenly, an idea pops into your head. It's brilliant. You're a genius. See how much effort that took? One percent. And when you wake up the next morning, is the idea still brilliant? Yes?
Now how do you take that idea from inspiration to real-world application? Edison is giving you a little forewarning with this quote; you'll have to dial back your personal life and focus on work, work, work. That's the 99 percent.
There is some doubt, though, on whether or not Edison said these words exactly. In an 1898 issue of Ladies Home Journal, he used the ratio of 2 to 98, and in a 1901 Idaho newspaper article, he used the ratio of 1 to 99. But the most often cited reference is to a 1932 article in Harper's Monthly Magazine that said, without providing any proof, that Edison gave this quote around 1902ish. So, as with all antiques—without provenance, ya got nothin'.
Where you've heard it
You'll hear this at the gym. "I was so inspired to work out I left a whole pool of perspiration on that machine." Ew. Makes you want to skip that treadmill for the one beside it, right?
Additional Notable References:
- In case you need help imagining what Edison sounded like when he (maybe) said this, here you go.
- Tips for the 99% part.
If you were to drop this quote at a dinner party, would you get an in-unison "awww" or would everyone roll their eyes and never invite you back? Here it is, on a scale of 1-10.
Good quote for a motivational speech, not so much for a dinner party. If the speaker is one of those 99 percent-ers, congratulate them for making it to the party at all, and hope their antiperspirant is industrial strength.
See All Quotes
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.