Nikola Tesla has sparked so many of today's technology marvels--from Elon Musk's line of electric cars to Nvidia's lightning-fast processor. The Serbian American inventor has also ignited imaginations, as his likeness has been the subject of a video game, a rock and roll band and a short film from Jack White. The History channel's Ancient Aliens also spent an episode trying to figure out if his brilliance had extraterrestrial origins.
And even though he is about to serve, yet again, as inspiration for more creative endeavors--a new novel and a movie are slated for release this year, for example--one has to wonder whether he really deserves the attention. After all, Tesla is remembered as a bad businessman who ended his life in obscurity and was overlooked throughout much of the 20th century. What could he possibly teach today's inventors and entrepreneurs?
Surprisingly, a lot, say experts who've studied his life. "He was a disruptive technologist," says Jane Alcorn, president of the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe in Shoreham, New York, a group dedicated to restoring Tesla's last existing laboratory.
If you're similarly disruptive--or aim to be--you can learn from Tesla's failures as much as his successes. Here are a few lessons that, more than a century later, still speak volumes:
1. Put on a show.
First, consider what Tesla did right: He was a consummate showman. At a time when people were afraid of electricity, he held crowds spellbound by letting current pass through his body to illuminate a bulb held in his hand. He also posed for photos (actually double exposures) in which he appeared to sit calmly next to massive bolts of artificial lightning.
"He would let very high currencies of electricity through his body," says Vladimir PiÅ¡talo, author of the newly released novel Tesla: A Portrait with Masks. "His hair stood up and sparks would come out," he says. "He would become a fountain of sparks and his body and clothes would emit very slight auras."
Are your presentations generating sparks? If not, it's time to brainstorm some ways to dazzle.
2. Know your backers' hearts.
Tesla will always be remembered for his clash with uber-financier J.P. Morgan. After Morgan withdrew his backing from Tesla's project for wireless power transmission, Tesla lost his Wardenclyffe facility and became an untouchable to other potential funders. Tesla could have stayed in Morgan's good graces if he'd had a better understanding of what Morgan wanted from the research, PiÅ¡talo says.
"Morgan basically just wanted to get the results of the races in his yacht, while Tesla had his monumental dream of free energy," PiÅ¡talo explains. How well do you and your investors' dreams align?
3. Spread out, then focus in.
From the induction motor and alternating current to the wireless transmission of energy, Tesla was a champion idea man. But he only brought a small number of those ideas to market. That was because he was a classic divergent thinker who didn't know when it was time to zero in on a single project, says W. Bernard Carlson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.
"In the creative process you have both a divergent period and a convergent period. In the divergent period you've got to have lots and lots of ideas," Carlson says. But, he adds, you have to "make that switch, and there's always a switch, from divergent to convergent thinking." Tesla, by contrast, prided himself more on the number of ideas he generated than on how many he actually developed.
If you're a divergent thinker with more ideas than you know what to do with, you probably need a partner to provide some grounding.
4. Attract loyal supporters.
Good partners and seconds-in-command do more than keep you focused: They keep your research alive when you've moved on. Everyone knows Thomas Edison because he had people to carry on his work after he died, says Alcorn. "Edison had family and a whole workshop of people." She adds: "Tesla was more of a lone worker."
Insightful, committed partners can also keep you from forgetting your ultimate goals. Tesla's overarching ambition was to spread new ideas and keep moving--"patent, promote and sell," Carlson says. If you're bursting with creative ideas, you may need someone to remind you how to make the most of them. As Alcorn says, "You don't necessarily want to get rich off your inventions, but you want to protect your work and further it."
Are you a divergent thinker, an upstart, a showman? How do you make the most of your Tesla-like qualities?