There was a single thing on the mind of Thomas Edison in 1878. The incandescent light bulb. It wasn’t exactly a novel idea, as gas lights had been around for some time, but he wanted to create an electric alternative. A light bulb that would be accessible to the masses. It was a puzzle that hadn’t been cracked for over 50 years. Ripe for disruption.
Edison had the idea, he could envision the end goal, but now he had to make it happen.
Holed up in Menlo Park, his research laboratory in New Jersey, Edison experimented on design after design, trying to invent the perfect light bulb. It needed to be both safe and inexpensive – a difficult combination to achieve.
The challenge was finding the right material to use for the filament. He tried everything he could think of. In fact, as the story goes, he tried 10,000 different combinations before finally making a breakthrough.
That breakthrough was nearly two years later in the form of a carbonized bamboo filament. When asked by a reporter how it felt to fail 10,000 times, Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 10,000 times. The light bulb was an invention of 10,000 steps.”
Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do doesn’t mean it’s useless.Thomas Edison
This simple rebuttal perfectly personifies Thomas Edison the inventor. Failure was not to be viewed as something negative, but rather as progress on how not to do something, which was just as useful in his mind.
Edison was told by his teachers in school that he was too stupid to learn anything. He was fired from his first two jobs for being non-productive. Things didn’t exactly go his way growing up. Yet this is the same man who attempted 10,000 different ways to perfect the light bulb.
Clearly, he wasn’t discouraged by criticism, let alone failure.
We should count ourselves lucky because that same stupid, non-productive man is responsible for more than 1,000 patents in the fields of energy, electricity, phonography, and telephony. He created the world’s first state of the art industrial research laboratory, Menlo Park, where he was known as the Wizard. He invented a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, and the phonograph.
And of course he’s best known for the perfection of the incandescent light bulb, the very same bulb that hangs in every bar or coffee shop across the country. Not too shabby.
Edison brings to light (get it!) a very important skill that we often overlook, the willingness to tinker, in spite of everything else. To experiment no matter any setback or challenge or pitfall. It’s a powerful trait and one we all need to leverage more often.
There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.Denis Diderot
We often talk about the value of learning and the importance of creativity. They are seen as essential attributes for innovation, success, and progress. But one critical piece of the equation is often overlooked: the power of experimentation.
While knowledge and creativity lead to ideas, it is experimentation that brings about results. Edison had the idea of the light bulb, but if he hadn’t relentlessly experimented with different filaments, he never would have invented it.
The fact is that without testing an idea, it holds little merit. There needs to be results and data, not just theories and conjecture.
The value of experimentation is seen in all domains of life: startups, healthcare, science, lifestyle, and more. Without it, progress stagnates, with it, innovation is possible. So why don’t we experiment more?
It seems that part of our hesitance comes from fear. We fear failure or not being good enough or looking stupid. The reality is these fears are mostly unwarranted. When experimenting, we need to shift our mindset to accept that failure is just part of the process. It should be embraced not feared.
Failure happens in every experiment. How else was Edison able to keep going, trying filament after filament. He was learning along the way and getting ever closer to the solution. Knowing what not to do was just as valuable as knowing what to do.
If we can learn to accept this idea of failure, then we can fully unlock the power experimentation. After all, the actual process of experimentation is fairly straightforward. It consists of three core steps: hypothesize, test, and analyze.
This is essentially where ideas are born. We imagine the next big thing that could change the world and of course we fall in love with. We form assumptions and theories around it. But before we get too attached, we should form a simple hypothesis and see if it holds up.
We have to experiment with it to see if there’s truth to our assumptions, which is where step two comes in.
This is where things get real. We need to go out into the real world with our idea and see how people react to it. This can and should be done as early as possible. We’ve all heard about the importance of the minimum viable product when it comes to startups, but it is an idea that applies to everything.
If you are writing a book, test parts of your work on a blog. If you are building an app, get a prototype in front of users sooner than later. Your goal is to get some sort of feedback that shows you are on to something.
You just want to show a glimpse of what your vision entails, enough to get your idea across, no matter how imperfect or slapdash it may be. Building out an idea in its entirety and then seeing if anyone wants it can be a massive waste of time. Test a version of it early.
The final step may be the most important. The hypothesis and the testing is useless if we don’t measure the response and analyze the results. We are looking for feedback on our idea.
It will never be perfect, but if you are able to get your idea across, you’ll get valuable data. All you’re looking for is a hint that you should keep going. That your idea has some legs.
All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.Ralph Waldo Emerson
That’s the process, but the key is to do it quickly and repeatedly. Iterating on ideas and experimenting is what brings you closer to the truth. The outcome should lead to some form of validation, whether good or bad.
Moreover, it is important to know that it is never to early to start testing. Whether it’s as simple as asking questions to possible stakeholders or building a mock-up of the idea, testing is always within reach, and should be leveraged.
This seems obvious when looking at the alternative, which is more like guess work. Imagine spending countless years and millions of dollars building a product, only to realize that no one wants it. Maybe the fit is poor, maybe the problem isn’t as big as you thought – whatever the reason, wouldn’t it be better to know these issues sooner than later?
Instead, experiment, iterate, and move fast to get the answers you seek, no matter the endeavor. You will fail, but you will also learn, and along the way you’ll get closer and closer to an answer.
After all, you don’t know, until you know.