Recently I was going through the life history of Thomas Alva Edison, the American Inventor (in which role he is more famous) and businessman. His inventions, which had straddled, widely divergent fields had a phenomenal impact on Industrial Growth in the 19th and 20th centuries. While he developed devices in fields of electric power generation and mass communication, to a lay person, it is inventions such as the ubiquitous incandescent electric bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera, which impact our daily lives. For the record he held a phenomenal 1093 patents in the US alone, apart from those in other countries.

While the above facts and achievements and his life story are indeed inspiring, what caught my almost immediate and riveting attention was the following quote attributed to him.

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up,

The most certain way to success

is always to try just one more time.”

Even while dwelling on failure or more topically the fear of failure he very tellingly puts it: -

“I have not failed,

I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.”

Coming from a modern day scientific genius who exhibited a more than reasonable degree of business acumen, the above quotes are reflective of his practical approach to life bringing out the slight, but defining difference between success and failure and more particularly our reaction to failures which we are invariably destined to face at different stages of the journey called life. They also reflect the culmination of experiences and happenings of a life time devoted to research and innovation — while his inventions and the patents registered in his name are symbolic of his success, the underlying efforts and the obstacles, roadblocks and of course “failures” he faced in the process remain undocumented — save for the quotes reproduced above which reflect his positive and balanced approach and pragmatic attitude to the entire process before he achieved acclaim, success and unqualified success.

Undoubtedly, while Edison’s life and achievements and his approach is worthy of emulation, such examples reflective of conquering your demons abound in all fields of human endeavour — whether academics, sports, media, entertainment industry, business and what have you. To take an example, which we can readily, and immediately relate to, the reigning Superstar of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan is an undoubted story of success. Dig deeper and what would be unearthed is a string of failures before he attained super-stardom. He was initially rejected by All India Radio for having a “heavy voice” and his first “nine films” were box office disasters before he tasted success with “Zanjeer”. Ironically, his heavy voice became the springboard for his subsequent phenomenal success. Even subsequently, a couple of decades later his business ventures failed and he came under debt and faced a lot of flak, but one not to give up, he came, nee bounced back, with even greater glory to become a national hero and icon.

In the field of literature, the story of J K Rowling, the woman behind the Harry Potter series comes across as an unqualified success. However, hidden behind that mask is a litany of failures and struggles both in her personal and literary life. Her initial foray into writing was interrupted successively by the death of her mother, a series of divorces and acute financial insecurity arising out of joblessness compounded with a dependent child. On the professional front, her script for Harry Potter was initially rejected by twelve major publishers, before a small publishing house accepted it for a very small advance. Overcoming the series of failures, seemingly unsurmountable to many, she has achieved unqualified success and acclaim to the point where more than 400 million copies of her books have been sold and they are a constant on the list of must reads for children across all continents. To put the icing of the cake, J K Rowling is considered to be one of the most successful woman authors of U.K.

Coming to the world of sport, not many in the current era would, remember the name of Gundappa Vishwanath, Indian Test Cricketer in the 1970s and 1980s who was known for his wristy elegance and relied on poetic charm rather than brute power while at the batting crease. On his debut in 1969 he scored a duck in his first outing and was pilloried by the press who also raised questions about his talent and selection. However, setting the failure aside and conquering his demons he came back to score a century on debut in the second innings and putting the initial failure behind he had a stellar international career. In his career he produced a series of match winning performances, in the face of a steely approach and on the trickiest of wickets unaided by the paraphernalia that modern day batsmen are accustomed to and take for granted. His innings of 97 not out at Chepauk Stadium, Chennai (then known as Madras) in 1974 against a rampaging West Indian attack led by the fiery Andy Roberts unaided even by a helmet, on a tricky surface and when all his colleagues were falling like nine pins is regarded as one of the best innings ever to have been played in India. He was also the first Indian batsman to have scored a century on debut and also thereafter. Indian cricketers preceding him who had recorded a century on debut had ended their careers with that solitary century, unable to reach the coveted figure mark again.

While such cases can be found in plenty in any field of human endeavour, they teach us a couple of life’s invaluable lessons. The first lesson is that failure is not a crime, but the lack of effort certainly is. Unstinted effort combined with a dose of extraordinary commitment, steely dedication and pin-pointed focus is certainly the sure shot recipe towards success, if not immediately, but ultimately. Conventional wisdom also says that immediate success with its accompaniments of fame, fortune and material comfort, the proverbial rags to riches story, is invariably, not sustainable. However, success achieved after prolonged effort with a fair share of setbacks and failures thrown in for good measure sustains and endures.

The next lesson more particularly brought home by the examples discussed above is that invariably failures are just transient pit-stops on the road to ultimate success. Moreover, each failure, if analysed and introspected to the full, has the potential to be the bulwark of success by ironing out the shortcomings and weaknesses in the entire process. Each failure is a lesson to be learnt, teaching us the pitfalls to be avoided in future and to look for an alternate path to realise the ultimate goal. History and all fields of human endeavour are replete with instances where people who have been demoralised by failure have been consigned to history whereas people who have bounced back, buckled up their straps, got back on their feet, took failures in their stride and learnt therefrom have invariably tasted unquestionable success. It is they who have been path-breakers, role models and trail-blazers. The lives and instances of various high achievers would invariably bring to light a litany of failures on the pathway to success.

Before concluding it would be relevant to reproduce a remarkable quote by John Lennon, one of the founding members of the Beatles reflecting an attitude of defiance to failure and positivity towards life :

“Everything will be okay in the end.

If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

P.S There is an interesting footnote to the life of Thomas Alva Edison, not related to the subject of our blog. Henry Ford idolised Edison and the mutual respect and admiration between these two highly successful businessmen was profound. The relationship between them transcended to such a level that Ford wanted something to remember after Edison passed away and asked Edison’s son Charles to sit by his dying father’s bedside and hold a test-tube next to his father’s mouth to catch his last breath. The fact that this story is not to make believe or a mere figment of imagination is testified by the fact that an exhibit featuring a plugged test tube with the caption “EDISON’S LAST BREATH” is displayed in the Henry Ford Museum in Greenwich Village, Dearborn Michigan(USA). This act not only defines the respect that Henry Ford for Edison, but also his desire to preserve a portion of Edison for posterity so that coming generations may be inspired it. Appearing somewhat eccentric with a tinge of irony as to how an educated right-thinking man could determine which was the last breath and how it could be captured, one may view it with scepticism but the fact remains that this act, perhaps only symbolic, is a tribute from a successful entrepreneur to one of the greatest scientific minds of all time.


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