Thomas Edison on Reading

As one of America’s foremost inventors, Thomas Edison was certainly adept at questioning the world around him.  In order to better understand the natural world, Edison was constantly developing new context by asking different questions. And the framework for formulating these challenging questions?

Edison read – broadly.

I didn’t read books – I read the library.

 Thomas Edison

Among Edison’s first steps when undertaking a new collaborative effort was zeroing in on reading material with themes aligned to the subject matter he was evaluating. This often meant plowing through textbooks and papers spanning diverse scientific topics. But he also read fiction and fantastical works that were completely unrelated to the subject of his endeavors.

Edison believed feeding his mind diverse perspectives through the written word was critical to prevent specifically shaping or tainting his perceptions in any one direction as he began his questioning process.

Thomas Edison LibraryAn ardent lover of books and newspapers, by 1887, when Edison was 40, his personal collection at his laboratory exceeded 10,000 volumes. Though seemingly small by today’s standards, it was one of the top five libraries in the world during the late nineteenth century.

Drawn from the reaches of acoustics, botany, electricity, mathematics, photography, chemistry, materials sciences, and physics, Edison shared the resources of his library with his employees, encouraging them to continually stimulate their own thinking and questioning skills.

Reflecting on his love for storytelling and the deft use of language, Edison’s library also embraced extensive works of classical Greek literature plus a vast collection of Shakespeare. He particularly valued science fiction novels by pioneering French writer Jules Verne for the flights of fantasy and freedom from logic they spurred.

We can link Edison’s reading to many of the provocative questions he asked. Diligently recording his queries and insights in the notebooks that were ever-present at his side, Edison returned to these deep, probing questions again and again. His intentional gathering of questions became a pivotal spur for experiments and hypotheses that he later introduced when working jointly with his team.

Just as Edison’s hours of reading in his library sparked questions to be pursued via new hypotheses and experiments, your own reading endeavors can yield serendipitous yet brilliant questions from angles you least expect.

For Your Consideration

  • When was the last time you reached for a new hardcover book or bought an e-book?
  • How frequently do you change the types of materials you read?
  • Do you follow the same reading routine over and over again?
  • Why not experiment and select three new bloggers to track over the next month?
  • Why not take a reading retreat?
  • If you were to shift your reading list so that it looks something Edison might devise, what would be on it?

Material from this post adapted from Innovate Like Edison by Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott and Midnight Lunch, by Sarah Miller Caldicott



Innovation Competency # 5 – Super-Value Creation

One definition of innovation is “the process of creating and delivering new customer value in the marketplace.” Thomas Edison’s philosophy of value was “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of man.”

Authors Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott, writing in Innovate Like Edison, call this approach super-value creation.

Why “super”? Because it suggests creating value above and beyond your competitors. It is the ultimate innovation competency. Edison knew of “no better service to render during the short time we are in this world.”

Once he had gathered information about openings in the market and the needs of the consumer, Edison analyzed how his observations meshed with what his laboratories could deliver – or could learn to deliver. He then calculated how much it would cost to go after the market –or markets – he had in mind, creating an innovation plan including commercialization options. Finally, he placed the finish touch on his products: the mystique of the Edison brand name.

Edison was a master at anticipating trends and spotting gaps in the marketplace. His approach used both analytical and intuitive tools to help determine market size and the best target audience.

Thomas Edison drew customers to his products with sophisticated branding techniques plus a wide array of media and communication tools. Using Edison’s ideas of super-value creation as your guide, you can learn how to design a business model that is best suited for your ideas, or for your organization and its innovation endeavors.

Read on overview of Edison’s Five Competencies for Innovation here.

This material adapted from Innovate Like Edison, by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s birth February 11, 1847

Next: An introduction to Sarah Miller Caldicott’s book on innovation, Midnight Lunch

Innovation Competency #4 – Master-Mind Collaboration

What happens when you combine the talents of a British textile merchant, a Swiss watchmaker, an American mathematician with a master’s degree in physics, an Irish electrician, a German glassblower, and African-American electrical engineer, and a partially deaf telegrapher?

For Thomas Edison, the result was a world-beating team of collaborators who churned out hundreds of commercially viable patents and products.

Although Edison was an incomparably brilliant independent innovator, he understood and valued the importance of working with others. He knew he needed a trustworthy team of collaborative employees who cold illuminate his blind spots and complement his talents.

The word “collaboration” comes from the Latin root collaborare, meaning “to labor together, especially intellectually.” The term “master-mind” was introduced by success expert Napoleon Hill to refer to a very high level of collaboration. He defined it as a “coordination of knowledge and effort in a spirit of harmony, between two or more people, for the attainment of a definite purpose.” Hill emphasized that when people come together with their passions aligned with common goals, they can multiply their individual intelligence in an expanding framework of positive, creative energy. Hill witnessed the living expression of this idea in the laboratories of Thomas Edison.

Contemporary sociological and psychological studies demonstrate consistently that the collaborative, open model developed by Edison optimizes the confluence of creativity, strategy, and action.

Edison’s approach to master-mind collaboration allowed his teams to be exceptionally productive in generating, developing, and testing his innovations. Edison always understood, however, that the ultimate purpose of all their efforts was to crate exceptional value for their customers.

Next: Super-Value Creation

Read on overview of Edison’s Five Competencies for Innovation here.

This material adapted from Innovate Like Edison, by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s 166th birth February 11, 1847

Innovation Competency #3 – Full-Spectrum Engagement

When you are overworked and stressed out it’s very difficult to focus effectively on innovation. How can you successfully manage a massive workload, like Edison did, without succumbing to exhaustion and burnout?

Time management isn’t the answer.

Edison understood that although time on the clock was limited, the wellspring of creative inspiration was boundless. He drew on a seemingly endless source of energy and he had a remarkable range of expression.

No matter what he was doing, he was fully engaged, living life in the present. His ability to move freely, efficiently, passionately, and creatively through a day’s many activities and roles was a critical aspect of his success method. Edison discovered an optimal rhythm to facilitate amazing stamina and high performance.

Authors Michael Gelb and Sara Miller Caldicott, writing in Innovate Like Edison, call Edison’s approach full-spectrum engagement. It is a competency that you can cultivate to access the same boundless energy that fueled Edison. His approach balanced work and play, solitude and collaboration, concentration and relaxation.

Edison knew the value of how to discover simplicity and clarity in the midst of ambiguity and complexity.

Next: Master-Mind Collaboration

Read an overview of Edison’s Five Competencies for Innovation here.

This material adapted from Innovate Like Edison, by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s 166th birth February 11, 1847

Innovation Competency #2 – Kaleidoscopic Thinking

Edison’s ability to generate a vast range of ideas drove his world-beating approach to practical solution finding. He could consider many problems at the same time and was able to look at each one from multiple angles. At the height of his exploration into electrical power, for example, he worked on forty projects simultaneously. Edison credited his remarkable facility for making creative connections to his “mental kaleidoscope.”

Kaleidoscopic thinking is the term Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott developed for Edison’s unparalleled approach to practical creativity. He had strategies for juggling multiple projects and how to “turn a problem around” from every angle. Kaleidoscopic thinking will help you develop your ability to generate ideas, make creative connections, and discern patterns. Using both your imagination and your reasoning ability, you can discover how to liberate your mind from the constraints of habitual thinking. Edison cultivated the use of metaphors, analogies, and visual thinking. His down-to-earth way of picturing things first in his mind’s eye and then on paper is surprisingly easy to learn.

Edison’s kaleidoscopic mind brought forward revolutionary ideas that changed the way we live. In bringing the world electric light, Edison bucked conventional wisdom. His ability to manage dozens of projects simultaneously at the height of developing his electrical power system stands as testimony not only to his exceptional kaleidoscopic thinking abilities, but his capacity managing complexity is a key skill covered in Competency #3: Full-spectrum Engagement.

Next: Full-Spectrum Engagement

Read on overview of Edison’s Five Competencies for Innovation here.

This material adapted from Innovate Like Edison, by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s 166th birth February 11, 1847

Innovation Competency #1 – Solution-Centered Mindset

The phenomenon of seeing what we expect or want to see is called “mindset.” It functions all the time, consciously or unconsciously, for better or worse. Your mindset reflects your sense of purpose, and your sense of purpose organizes your purpose. In other words, purpose determines perception.

A solution-centered mindset gives you access to a wide range of tools for innovating.

Thomas Edison’s purpose was clear: “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of man.” He believed that his success was inevitable and this belief energized his every endeavor. Edison’s unwavering focus on finding solutions allowed him to embrace incredibly complex challenges and overcome many setbacks.

His solution-centered mindset allowed him to embrace seemingly fantastic goals – like lighting the world – and make them come true. Edison aligned his goals with his passions and cultivated a powerful sense of optimism that had a magnetic, positive effect on his coworkers, investors, customers, an d ultimately the entire nation. It’s called charismatic optimism.

Edison’s passion for his goals and his charismatic optimism were nurtured by an unrelenting desire to learn, especially by reading. Throughout his life, Edison devoured books, plays, journals, magazines, scientific papers, and newspapers. Edison’s voracious reading created a constant stream of ideas, insights, and inspiration that led him to breakthrough solutions. His never-ending quest for greater depth and breadth of knowledge helped him develop an unprecedented approach to experimentation in service of innovation. His experiments were characterized by a remarkable combination of persistence and rigorous objective that accelerated his success.

A solution-centered mindset is the launching pad for the realization of your most ambitious innovation objectives and the fulfillment of your highest personal aspirations.

Next: Kaleidoscopic Thinking

Read an overview of Edison’s Five Competencies for Innovation here.

This material adapted from Innovate Like Edison, by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s birth

February 11, 1847

Turning On the Light: Learn to Innovate Like Edison

Every organization – not just business – needs one core competence: innovation. –Peter Drucker

Thomas Edison was the most outstanding figure in an era marked by an extraordinary confluence of American innovation – including the work of Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, George Eastman, Harvey Firestone, John D. Rockefeller, George Westinghouse, and Andrew Carnegie – that accelerated America’s leadership in global business.

Edison understood that innovation is much more than invention. Through the establishment of his two extraordinary laboratories at Menlo Park and West Orange, NJ, Edison drove innovation on many levels, including strategic technological, product/service, process, and design innovations.

How did Edison excel in so many different kinds of innovation?



Innovate Like Edison presents Thomas Edison’s essential approach to innovation success. His approach is based on what authors Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott call The Five Competencies of Innovation. The five competencies are comprised of a total of twenty-five elements – building blocks – that support them.

The five competencies and twenty-five elements represent a core curriculum for you to achieve innovation literacy. If you are new to innovation, there’s no better way to get started on the journey. Innovate Like Edison is a guidebook enabling you to thrive in a world that increasingly rewards efforts. Ready to start classes?

Edison’s Five Competencies of Innovation

Solution-Centered Mindset

  • Align Your Goals with Your Passions
  • Cultivate Charismatic Optimism
  • Seek Knowledge Relentlessly
  • Experiment Persistently
  • Pursue Rigorous Objectivity

Kaleidoscopic Thinking

  • Maintain a Notebook
  • Practice Ideaphoria
  • Discern Patterns
  • Express Ideas Visually
  • Explore the Roads Not Taken

Full Spectrum Engagement

  • Intensity and Relaxation
  • Seriousness and Playfulness
  • Sharing and Protecting
  • Complexity and Simplicity
  • Solitude and Team

Mastermind Collaboration

  • Recruit for Chemistry and Results
  • Design Multidisciplinary Collaboration Teams
  • Inspire an Environment of Open Exchange
  • Reward Collaboration
  • Become a Master Networker

Super-Value Creation

  • Link Market Trends with Core Strengths
  • Turn In to your Target Audience
  • Apply the Right Business Model
  • Understand Scale-up Effects
  • Create an Unforgettable Market-moving Brand

As you scan the 5 Competencies and 25 Elements above, consider how you might apply them to your most important innovation challenges. Think about questions like:

  • How did Edison develop his resilient, creative, and optimistic attitude toward life?
  • How did he find the right people to hire?
  • Why did he choose the collaborators he did?
  • What techniques did Edison use to teeth his ideas and then scale them up?
  • Are there implicit “rules” to follow in Edison’s approach to innovation?

Next:  Solution-Centered Mindset

A multi-part series being reposted in honor of Thomas Edison’s birth February 11, 1847