Edison's Approach to Goals

Edison's Approach to Goals

Accomplishing Your Goals: Insights from Thomas Edison

The State of the Union address often serves as my first mile marker for reviewing the goals I set for the coming year. It’s right about now that the shiny New Year’s resolutions we made on January 1st don’t look so compelling. At best, many of us have lost a big dose of the motivation we felt for our goals in the first place. At worst, our resolutions have evaporated into thin air.

One reason we lag in our ability to successfully realize our goals is that we often express them in ruggedly numeric terms, like: “Eat only 1200 calories per day,” or “Run three times a week.” By doing this we lop off a big part of the internal mechanism the brain uses to keep us on track: our emotions.

Thomas Edison understood this. Best known as a brilliant inventor and innovator who developed technologies that changed the world, he was also a guy who stuck to his goals – despite long odds. Growing up in a lower middle class family didn’t deter Edison from setting goals to become a successful inventor. He wanted to build and run his own laboratory – a place where corporate politics wouldn’t intervene with his futuristic visions. Taunts from the Royal Academy of Science didn’t dissuade Edison from pursuing one of the most technically challenging scientific pursuits of his era: achieving incandescence. After failing in his quest to develop technology for mining and grinding iron ore, Edison instead succeeded in devising the first storage battery made from metals.

What Edison realized was that staying positive – and linking your goals to positive emotions – held the key to successful goal achievement.

Edison’s Goals Harnessed the Natural Wiring of the Brain

In my research on Edison, I identified a unique solution-oriented quality which Edison possessed in spades: aligning goals and passions. By integrating his work with his life purpose, Edison focused on solving juicy problems which held his interest for long periods of time. He was able to tackle problems that others would have abandoned (and did) long before Edison would even consider throwing in the towel.

Some of the factors which led to Edison’s successful goal-creation approach can be explained by neuroscience.

Contemporary psychological research validates Edison’s approach, and supports the notion that we can all learn how to develop this essential element of success. Dr. John Dacey, professor emeritus of developmental psychology at Boston College, and Dr. Kathleen Lennon of Framingham State College studied and then condensed decades of research into what makes scientists, writers, business leaders, musicians, and other powerfully creative individuals successful. Among the most important traits they uncovered are: 1) passionate goal directedness, and 2) perseverance through self-control.

Dacey and Lennon emphasize that both of those qualities can be developed by adults even if they do not possess those traits in younger years, as Edison clearly did. Citing numerous studies by psychologists including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Paul Torrance, David Perkins, Robert Weber, and others, Dacey and Lennon conclude that passionate goal directedness helps successful individuals generate “great amounts of energy to invest intensely in their work.” These goals are typically long term in nature and associated with a big vision; so the second skill, perseverance through self-control, is critical in allowing fulfillment of the first. Dacey and Lennon define self-control as an individual’s willingness to “persevere in the face of frustration.’

In other words, success is a function of perseverance, and perseverance is driven by aligning passions with big, long-term goals. Edison’s success was the result of his passionate goal directedness.” His “pulsating desire” allowed him to “transcend everything” so that frustrations, obstacles, and difficulties seemed to provide him even more energy. As a colleague remarked, “Edison seemed pleased when he used to run up against serious difficulty. It would seem to stiffen his backbone and make him more prolific of new ideas. For a time, I thought it was foolish to imagine such a thing, but I could never get away from the impression that he really appeared happy when he ran up against a serious snag.”

Dr. Richard Restak, a clinical professor of neuroscience at the George Washington University Hospital School of Medical and Health Sciences, offers further validation of Edison’s approach. Restak argues that many goals go unfulfilled or are prematurely abandoned because they are not designed robustly enough to mobilize the brain. He points out that for the brain to remember to organize behavior in alignment with a goal, it must connect the emotional component with its rational component. This alignment links the prefrontal cortex with the limbic system, thereby dramatically enhancing the likelihood that the goal will be remembered and translated into behavior.

Understanding how to set goals so that they will be remembered and translated into behavior is a simple, critical step toward successful innovation and, of course, toward personal happiness and fulfillment. Yet despite the wealth of information available on the topic, most organizational innovation efforts fail because they don’t define their goals clearly, and they neglect to align goals with emotions. Innovation literacy begins with a practical understanding of how to define and align your personal goals.

The EDISON Goal Creation Formula

Here is a simple formula you can apply to your own successful goal creation. Mapped to the acronym EDISON, it will guide you to those places where your brain holds positive emotions. The EDISON goal creation formula will aid you in harnessing passions to override the strictly objective and quantitative. As well, it will amp up your goals to new levels, ensuring they become bigger and more purpose-oriented than mere tick marks on a spreadsheet. Rework your goal statements to align with these key elements:

E – Emotional: Express your goal in words that energize and excite you. Feel the passion associated with the fulfillment of your goal. Don’t hold back.

D – Decisive: Make a committed decision to give the full force of your own intention to realizing your goal, even if you don’t yet see the path to its realization.

I – Integrated: Link your goal to a higher purpose, such as lifelong health, vibrant creativity, peace in your relationships. This connects the achievement of your goal to the benefit of others besides yourself.

S – Sensory: Use all your senses to vividly imagine the manifestation of your goal. Draw it, speak it, dance it, taste it!

O – Optimistic: Engage the most positive image you can conjure around your goal. Map this positive image into your thoughts so that, like the force of gravity, it just ‘shows up’ all the time easily and without effort.

N – Now: Envision and express your goal in present-time terms. Begin your actions now!

Go back and have a look at your 2012 goals. Reframe them into the EDISON format. Don’t lash yourself if you haven’t made any progress so far this year – give the EDISON method a try! Allow it to jump-start you to action. What worked for Edison can work for you!
Build a common language of innovation on your team

Sarah Miller Caldicott is a great grandniece of Thomas Edison, and author of Innovate Like Edison as well as Inventing the Future. Sarah can be reached at info@powerpatterns.com.

Sarah Miller Caldicott




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No Comments

  1. Dr. Tony Bolden on January 27, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Hi Sara – thanks for such an insightful article.

    Not many people know of Thomas Edison’s keen leadership ability, particularly regarding innovation, setting and achieving goals, and team management and dynamics.

    In their 2005 book “Virtuoso Teams: Lessons from teams that changed their worlds” (FT Press), Andy Boynton and Phil Fischer methodically detailed Edison’s ability to achieve goals by (1) surrounding himself with team members who knew exactly what they were doing, what others had done, how to do it, and why; (2) understanding the importance of establishing a model that increased the propensity for success (a sort of assembly line methodology); (3) establishing a model based on measurable benchmarks, repetition, and consistent execution.

    Contemporary leaders and leadership enthusiasts would do well to take a closer look at Edison’s managerial accomplishments.

    • Sarah Miller Caldicott on January 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Tony – Thanks so much for your comment. I agree that Edison’s goal-setting and leadership skills are not discussed as often as they should be. I was also unaware of the book by Boynton and Fischer, and will definitely take a look!
      Keep innovating,

  2. Peter Cook on January 30, 2012 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for this Sarah.

    For many years I have worked as a MBA tutor on the flagship ‘Creativity, Innovation and Change’ programme for the Open University Business School here in UK as well as leading scientific innovation. As part of the MBA programme, we offered people four P’s to think about in terms of adopting an innovative mindset:


    These seem to align pretty well with your findings. Perseverence / Persistence needs to be of the flexible kind – try something different if you don’t succeed, rather than the ‘headbanging’ method practised by some.

    I think organisational playfulness is in decline under conditions of recession and it needs more attention than it is being given.

    Peter Cook – The “Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor” at Innovation Excellence

    • Sarah Miller Caldicott on January 30, 2012 at 9:41 am

      Peter…Many thanks for your comments. Sounds like quite a dynamic MBA program you’ve been associated with. Urging students to adopt an innovative mindset early in their work lives is crucial, and can certainly have favorable impact on their career. I would agree that ‘play’ has taken a back seat. Too bad, as it helps us all access both hemispheres of our brain, and really gets the creative juices flowing!
      Keep innovating,

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