I guess almost everyone knows the name Thomas Edison—one of the most famous inventors of all time. He was very inquisitive by nature, and he invented the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, plus many more. But there was something about him I didn’t know until recently.
He had a laboratory that was destroyed by fire in December 1914. The damages were more than $2 million (a lot of money in those days), but the insurance for the buildings was only $238,000 as they were made of concrete. No-one thought they would go up in smoke like that. Sadly, most of Edison’s life’s work went up in spectacular flames that December night.
Edison’s son Charles rushed to the fire desperately searching for his father in the smoldering ruins of the fire. Finally he found him, standing not far away, simply watching the unfolding drama. Edison was then 67, and his son was distressed. Everything was going up in flames—what will happen now?
He asked his son to find his mother. “Bring her here. She will never see anything like this again as long as she lives,” he said. The next morning, the great inventor looked at the ruins and said something quite remarkable: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew”. Three weeks after the fire, he managed to deliver his first working phonograph.
I think this is remarkable. There is no evidence that Thomas Edison was a particularly religious man, but in that moment of tragedy and disappointment, he had a profound moment of insight: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up”. Many would not agree with him—and I’m talking about mistakes—those things we have done in the past we regret.
Thomas Edison did make many inventing mistakes, but he is remembered, of course, for the things he did right. Wouldn’t it be good if our mistakes could all be taken away, or burned up, never to be remembered. But let’s be real. Mistakes are always going to happen—that’s life. The American poet Louisa Fletcher wrote the poem “The Land of Beginning Again”, which includes the lines:
So I wish that there were some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches,
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
And never be put on again.
What do you do when you’re faced with a mistake, an error, or some mess that you created with your own two hands? Do you get angry? Do you get frustrated? Do you beat yourself up or get on with a solution?
How we approach our own mistakes is a key determinant not only of success in our lives, but of our happiness as well. We all make mistakes. Rationally we know that, and when others make mistakes, we easily share the truth that it’s OK to make mistakes. We usually accept their apologies easily—if they seem honest at least—and forgive them. After all, to err is human. But when we are confronted with our own mistakes, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to accept our fallibility.
(Read Mistakes Burned Up – Part 2)