Even a growth mindset genius can be fixed
One person we like to quote as having the growth mindset is Thomas Edison. After all, he was famously quoted as saying that he did not fail 10,000 times, instead finding 10,000 ways how not to build a lightbulb. But did you know that Edison had a fixed mindset streak that caused him to lose the War of the Currents? But worse still, it also drove him to bankrupt the man whose invention now lights all the world's cities, forcing him to die penniless in 1943 in a hotel in New York. How does a man who is widely respected as the "Wizard of Menlo Park", the founder of General Electric, the holder of more than 1,000 patents, and the inventor of so many products, have a fixed mindset streak that borders of sadism? In this article we look at the duality of mindsets, and that it is never an either-or issue with any of us.
Nikola Tesla was convinced that alternating current was the way to go in powering the world. He could think up different ways to make machines work with his system. However, there was a current standard, direct current, which has been championed by Edison. We all know that Edison invented the lightbulb, but with no way to light it, the bulb would not have any value. Hence, Edison went one step further and designed the first power stations to ensure that the world could enjoy his invention. In so far as the growth mindset is concerned, he was right on the money!
He convinced investors to put in capital to build his network of power stations, but the problem was that direct current didn't have enough power to be generated for more than a half-mile radius. As such, he needed to build many power stations to ensure that New York city could be lit up. With much convincing, including putting his personal reputation and money on the line, he got the funds to build this network of power stations.
However, it soon became obvious that demand for power outstripped he capacity of his power stations and there was a need to improve efficiency.
Nikola Tesla worked for Edison. And while he was helping Edison to improve the efficiency of his power stations, he was also working on his own hypothesis, that alternating current is the better format. It had less moving parts, and hence was more efficient. There was only one problem, the high voltage that it generated was considered dangerous. When Tesla pitched to Edison that the solution for Edison Electric lay in alternating current, he was ridiculed, and told to get back to work on direct current. That was when Tesla walked out and went in search of a new backer. He met George Westinghouse, then one of the richest men in America, who agreed to sponsor Tesla. They went into an agreement which would go on to make Tesla millions in royalties for the use of his patent.
Westinghouse went on to win several contracts, the two most notable ones were powering the Chicago World's Fair, and later the Niagara Falls Power Company's contract to power up the whole of Buffalo and beyond.
This should have sealed the deal for Tesla and Westinghouse if not for Edison's fixed mindset. Edison went on a massive smear campaign that questioned the safety of alternating current. He even picked up stray dogs off the streets to electrocute them to show how this current was dangerous. He sued Westinghouse for patent violations and locked them up in countless legal battles that ultimately, brought the company in the brink of bankruptcy. Edison used all his connections, his money to discredit a.c., rather than to acknowledge that a.c. was the better standard. In the end, Tesla, in a bid to help Westinghouse Electric, gave up all his rights to the royalties, losing millions of dollars along the way, resulting in him dying penniless.
There is a twist to this tale. Shortly after losing the Niagara Falls contract, the board of Edison Electric met and informed Edison that they have decided, without him, to rename the company General Electric, and they will align with alternating current. He lost the company that he founded, although he still remained the founder of the new company.
We see a rare glimpse of the fixed mindset that Thomas Edison displayed during the War of the Currents. How did that happen? We dive deeper into the reasons, and remind ourselves that if it could happen to The Wizard, it can surely happen to us...
(1) Edison staked his past successes on this
Edison was already successful at this time, and he staked his reputation on the future of direct current. We have seen how the past can suddenly cause us to move from growth mindset to fixed mindset, resulting in a blindness that borders on insanity.
(2) Edison refused to see the information around him
Rather than opening his mind to the information about a.c. that was around him, he stuck to his guns, maintaining that d.c. was more superior (although he could see that it was not)
(3) Edison didn't honour his word
While working for Edison, Tesla proposed a change in the design on the d.c. generators, allowing them to be three times more productive, supposedly to win a $50,000 challenge which Edison promised. Edison not only refused to have his designs altered, he kicked Tesla out of the room, saying that the $50,000 was a joke and that Tesla, as an immigrant, didn't understand. This was actually the last straw that saw Tesla walk out of Edison Electric.
(4) Edison resorted to underhand tactics to discredit the competition
Rather than to seek new ways to improve his design, he went along the fixed mindset route of using legal shenanigans and cruelty to animals to discredit the competition. This is a very desperate move, which, while having achieved its goal of crushing the competition, also ultimately led him to losing his own company.
It has been said that Edison was not just a prolific inventor, he was also a very shrewd businessman, and he used every trick in the rulebook to kill his competition. That is what happens in business. But this episode would forever be a glitch in an otherwise sterling growth mindset person, and also reminds us that when certain conditions come together to conspire against a growth mindset person, he too can resort to becoming fixed.
We should be aware of this, lest we too lapse into the fixed mindset unwittingly.
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Edison pic from History.com