Thomas Edison is often described as America's greatest inventor. Phonographs. Motion pictures. Microphones. Electrical grids. Light bulbs. Medical devices.

He even created the first industrial research laboratory, turning creativity into a rigorous process.

The result? Edison held over 1,000 patents in a staggering variety of fields, making him a role model for people who hoped to come up with their own big ideas.

But according to Edison, he never had a single idea.

Not one.

In his book Edison, Edmund Morris quotes this self-appraisal from the famous inventor:

Everything on earth depends on will.

I never had an idea in my life. I've got no imagination. I never dream.

My so-called inventions already existed in the environment -- I took them out. I've created nothing. Nobody does.

There's no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment; the drone lets it lie there while he goes off to the baseball game.

The 'genius' hangs around his laboratory day and night. If anything happens, he's (sic) there to catch it.

If he wasn't, it might happen just the same... only it would never be his.

One example?

Light Bulbs

Edison didn't dream up the idea for incandescent lamps; arc lights already existed. But they were too bright -- and used too much power -- for use in homes. 

So he worked the problem, testing thousands of materials to find an efficient, long-lasting filament. 

The solution "existed in the environment." He just had to stay the course until he found it -- hence his famous quote, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

Another example? 

The New Tesla Truck

Electric vehicles aren't new. Trucks definitely aren't new. Speed, towing capacity, bed security, onboard electrical outlets... those things aren't new. 

Musk and company just worked the problem to find a way to combine existing elements in a different package. (A fairly ugly package, but as Inc. colleague Justin Bariso writes, that might be the smartest thing Musk did.)

There was no big idea; the only "idea" was to "take out things that existed in the environment."

Stop Waiting For That Big Idea

Most of us won't hit the big-idea lottery. 

And even if you do come up with that elusive big idea, could you pull off its implementation? Do you have the skills, experience, and funding?

You might. I don't.

But what we all have are hundreds of small "ideas." Problems that bug us. Challenges that derail us. Needs we can't fill. Wants we can't satisfy.

Those things already exist. And the solutions to those things already exist as well.

Which means you don't need to look for a big idea. You can just work the problem.

Sure, you may occasionally experience a momentary flash of inspiration. Most of the time, "innovation" is the result of effort, application, and perseverance.

You probably don't have a "creativity switch" you can turn on and off at will.

But you can start working the problem.

Whatever that problem might be.

Because you can't control inspiration... but you can always control effort and application.

Published on: Dec 5, 2019
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