Creative Thinking

6 Creative Thinking Habits of Thomas Edison

By Michael Michalko | Posted 4/1/08 | Updated 6/30/22

Many Americans have bought the conventional wisdom that creativity is an innate gift, dividing us into two groups: "artistic" types — painters, musicians, directors, actors, writers, mimes, comedians — and those deemed not especially creative, who usually wind up in business, accounting, law, or health care.

But the legendary career of inventor Thomas Alva Edison illustrates how creativity can be cultivated by anyone, in any industry. His work methods reveal that the true keys to unlocking creativity are learned traits — namely perseverance and an open-minded approach to learning. A shrewd businessman, Edison used his creativity not only in developing new inventions but also in bringing them to market and winning out financially over competitors.

Edison was granted 1,093 patents for inventions that ranged from the lightbulb, typewriter, electric pen, phonograph, motion picture camera and alkaline storage battery — to the talking doll and a concrete house that could be built in one day from a cast-iron mold. When he died in 1931, he left 3500 notebooks which are preserved today in the temperature-controlled vaults of the West Orange Laboratory Archives at the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey.

The notebooks read like a turbulent brainstorm and present a verbal and visual biography of Edison's mind at work. Spanning most of his six-decade career, the notebooks are yielding fresh clues as to how Edison, who had virtually no formal education, could achieve such an astounding inventive record that is still unrivaled. The notebooks illustrate how Edison conceived his ideas from their earliest inceptions and show in great detail how he developed and implemented them. Following are some of Edison's creative-thinking strategies, which you might bend to your will.

1. Quantity

For starters, Edison believed to discover a good idea you had to generate many ideas. Out of quantity comes quality. He set idea quotas for all his workers. His own quota was one minor invention every 10 days and a major invention every six months. It took over 50,000 experiments to invent the alkaline storage cell battery and 9000 to perfect the lightbulb. Edison looked at creativity as simply good, honest, hard work. Genius, he once said, is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. For every brilliant idea he had there was a dud like the horse-drawn contraption that would collect snow and ice in the winter and compress it into blocks that families could use in the summer as a refrigerant, or the perpetual cigar which consisted of a hollow tube with a spring clip that moved tobacco forward as it burned. Although the cigar was a marketing failure, its companion product, the cigar lighter, was a marketing success.

Increasing your idea production requires conscious effort. Suppose I asked you to spend three minutes thinking of alternative uses of for the common brick. No doubt, you would come up with some, but my hunch is not very many. The average adult comes up with three to six ideas. However, if I asked you to list 40 uses for the brick as fast as you can you would have quite a few in a short period of time.

A specific quota focuses your energy in a competitive way that guarantees fluency and flexibility of thought. To meet the quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses for a brick (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque, and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectiles in riots, ballast, device to hold down newspaper, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop and so on) as we stretch our imagination to meet the quota. By causing us to exert effort, it allows us to generate more imaginative alternatives than we otherwise would.

Initial ideas are usually poorer in quality than later ideas. Just as water must run from a faucet for a while to be crystal-clear, cool and free of particles, so thought must flow before it becomes creative. Early ideas are usually not true ideas. Exactly why this is so is not known, but one hypothesis is that familiar and safe responses lie closest to the surface of our consciousness and therefore are naturally thought of first. Creative thinking depends on continuing the flow of ideas long enough to purge the common, habitual ones and produce the unusual and imaginative.

To prove this to yourself, try the following exercise. Following is a list of five words. Write the first association that occurs to you for each word. Now do this five more times and for each time write an association that is different from the association you gave the same word on the previous occasions.

1 2 3 4 5 6

You will note that the latter associations are much more original and unique than the earlier ones. The first responses are the common, dominant associations you have for that word. By arranging to give responses that are not common or dominant, there is an increase in originality and imaginativeness of the responses.

A way to guarantee productivity of your creative thought is to give yourself an idea quota. For example, an idea quota of 40 ideas if you're looking for ideas alone or a quota 120 ideas if a group is brainstorming for ideas. By forcing yourself to come up with 40 ideas, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity.

2. Challenge all assumptions

Edison felt his lack of formal education was, in fact, "his blessing." This enabled him to approach his work of invention with far fewer assumptions than his more educated competitors, which included many theoretical scientists, renowned Ph.D.s, and engineers. He approached any idea or experience with wild enthusiasm and would try anything out of the ordinary, including even making phonograph needles out of compressed rainforest nuts and clamping his teeth onto a phonograph horn to use as a hearing aid, feeling the sound vibrate through his jaw. This wild enthusiasm inspired him to consistently challenge assumptions.

He felt that in some ways too much education corrupted people by prompting them to make so many assumptions that they were unable to see many of nature's great possibilities. When Edison created a "system" of practical lighting, he conceived of wiring his circuits in parallel and of using high-resistance filaments in his bulbs, two things that were not considered possible by scientific experts, in fact, were not considered at all because they were assumed to be totally incompatible until Edison put them together.

Before Edison hired a research assistant, he would invite the candidate over for a bowl of soup. If the person seasoned the soup before tasting it, Edison would not hire the candidate. He did not want people who had so many built-in assumptions into their everyday life, that they would even assume the soup is not properly seasoned. He wanted people who consistently challenged assumptions and tried different things.

An easy way to challenge assumptions is to simply reverse them and try to make the reversal work. The guidelines are:

  • List your assumptions about a subject.
  • Challenge your fundamental assumptions by reversing them. Write down the opposite of each assumption.
  • Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. List as many useful viewpoints as you can.

Suppose, for example, you want to start a novel restaurant.

  1. You would begin by listing the assumptions you make about restaurants. One assumption might be: All restaurants have menus, either written, verbal or implied.
  2. Next, you would reverse this to: I will start a restaurant that does not have a menu of any kind.
  3. Now, look for ways to make the "reversal" work and list every idea you can. "How can I operate a viable restaurant that does not have a menu?"
  4. One idea would be to have the chef come to the table and display what the chef bought that day at the meat market, fish market and vegetable market. The customer checks off the ingredients he or she likes and the chef prepares a special dish based on the "selected" ingredients. The chef also names the dish after the customer and prints out the recipe for the customer to take home. You might call the restaurant "The Creative Chef."

3. Nothing is wasted

When an experiment failed, Edison would always ask what the failure revealed and would enthusiastically record what he had learned. His notebooks contain pages of material on what he learned from his abortive ideas, including his many experiments on will power (he conducted countless experiments with rubber tubes extended from his forehead trying to will the physical movement of a pendulum). Once when an assistant asked why he continued to persist trying to discover a long-lasting filament for the light bulb after failing thousands of times, Edison explained that he didn't understand the question. In his mind he hadn't failed once. Instead, he said he discovered thousands of things that didn't work. Finally, he completed Patent 251,539 for the light bulb that ensured his fame and fortune.

He had an enormous talent for appropriating ideas that may have failed in one instance and using them for something else. For example, when it became clear in 1900 that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison was financially committed was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend studying the company's resources and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company's efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same equipment, materials and distribution systems of the iron-ore company.

4. Record your ideas

Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every problem worked on in his notebooks. Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he's abandoned in the past in the light of what he'd recently learned. If he was mentally blocked working on a new idea, he would review his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison's unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable ultimately led to a breakthrough on a telephone transmitter. He took the principle for the unsuccessful undersea telegraph cable — variable resistence — and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller's voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.

Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest and record them in his notebooks. He advised his assistants to make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.

Edison's lesson is to record your ideas and other novel ideas in a notebook — call it "The Bright Ideas Notebook." When confronted with a problem, review your notebook and look for ways to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next.

5. Constantly improve your ideas and products and the ideas and products of others

Contrary to popular belief, Edison did not invent the light bulb: his genius, rather, was to perfect the bulb as a consumer item. Edison also studied all his inventions and ideas as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. To Edison, the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), which suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn't it? Genius usually is.

Einstein believed that every new idea is some addition or modification to something that already exists. You take a subject and manipulate or change it into something else. There are nine principle ways you can manipulate a subject. These ways were first formally suggested by Alex Osborn, the father of brainstorming, and later arranged by Bob Eberle into the mnemonic SCAMPER.

S = Substitute
C = Combine
A = Adapt
M = Magnify = Modify
P = Put to other uses
E = Eliminate
R = Rearrange = Reverse

You isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the checklist of SCAMPER questions to see what new ideas and thoughts emerge. Think about any subject from improving the ordinary paperclip to reorganizing your corporation and apply the "Scamper" checklist of questions. You'll find that ideas start popping up almost involuntarily, as you ask:

  • Can you substitute something?
  • Can you combine your subject with something else?
  • Can you adapt something to your subject?
  • Can you magnify or add to it?
  • Can you modify or change it in some fashion?
  • Can you put it to some other use?
  • Can you eliminate something from it?
  • Can you rearrange it?
  • What happens when you reverse it?

Edison was tireless in his persistence to change a subject into something else through "trial and error" until he found the idea that worked. In Edison's laboratory there is a staggering display of hundreds of phonograph horns of every shape, size and material. Some are round, square, angular, thin, short, squat while others are curved and as long as six feet tall. This collection of rejected ideas is a visual testament to Edison's approach to creativity — which was, in essence, to try out every possible design he could possibly conceive of. Once asked to describe the key to creativity, he reportedly said to never quit working on your subject until you get what you're after.

6. Be exploratory

Whenever Edison was working on something and found something else "interesting," he would drop everything else and explore it. In developing the electric light Edison and his assistants decided to use platinum for the filament, but it stayed lit only briefly and was scarce and expensive. One day Edison absentmindedly rolled some lampblack in his fingers while working with a platinum filament. He looked at the twisted piece of lampblack and got his "Eureka" moment — why not try to use carbon for the filament. His first carbon bulb burned for thirteen hours with the power of thirty candles; a few days later he got it up to one hundred hours by twisting and shaping the filament like a horseshoe.

The interesting aspect of carbon to Edison was the fact that he could twist it like rope. Edison was not the first person in his lab to notice that you could twist carbon, but he was the first to pursue it. Whenever Edison found something interesting, he would explore it intellectually before he applied his emotions and prejudices. The others working on the light bulb had emotionally decided that the filament should be platinum and were blind to the "interesting" aspects of carbon. They lacked the will to explore carbon, once they had made a decision that platinum was the answer.

Finally, if you want to become more creative, start acting like you are creative. Suppose that you wanted to be an artist: You would begin behaving like an artist by painting every day. You may not become another Vincent Van Gogh, but you'll become more of an artist than someone who has never tried. Similarly, to increase your creativity start acting like Thomas Edison. Cultivate the following creative-thinking habits:

  • When looking for ideas, create lots of ideas
  • Consistently challenge assumptions
  • Record your ideas and the ideas of others in a notebook
  • Learn from your failures and the failures of others
  • Constantly look for ways to improve your ideas and products and the ideas and products of others
  • Be exploratory

You may not become the next Thomas Edison but you'll become much more creative than someone who has never tried. End

©2008 Michael Michalko. All rights reserved.