In his 2014 Bestseller, The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday wrote about one particularly fateful night in December of 1914:
“At the age of sixty-seven, Thomas Edison returned home early one evening from another day at the laboratory, when shortly after dinner, a man came rushing to his house with urgent news: A fire had broken out at Edison’s research and production campus a few miles away.
Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene but they could not contain the blaze. Fueled by the strange chemicals in various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire that Edison had spent his life building.”
It was later estimated that Edison incurred over $900,000 in property damage that night ($23 million today). Not to mention much of his life’s work, turned to ash. The flames consumed years of priceless research, records and prototypes. The concrete buildings, which were billed as ‘fire-proof’, were insured for only about a third of the total damage.
But what I find to be even more impressive than the story of blaze itself, was Edison’s response to the circumstances.
He could have cursed, wept or fallen to his knees in despair. Any one of those reactions would have been justified. Human.
But instead, it is reported that Edison, “calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through hundreds of onlookers, looking for his son. ‘Go get your mother and all her friends,’ he told his son with childlike excitement. ‘They’ll never see a fire like this again.’”
What a fascinating response to a devastating set of circumstances.
Then again, I suppose, as an inventor, as a tinkerer, as a student of repetitive setbacks, he’d conditioned himself to find the seed of optimism in every momentary failure. He’d trained himself to push past the immediate reaction, and into the depths of conscious recognition. Gratitude even.
It reminds me of an interview that I heard with Derek Sivers, author, entrepreneur and overall just one of my favorite people to listen to. He was asked, “when you think of the word successful, who is the first person that comes to mind?”
He said, “The first answer to any question isn’t much fun because it’s just automatic, right? There is the instant, unconscious, automatic thinking and then there is the slower, conscious, deliberate thinking. I’m really really into the slower thinking — breaking my automatic responses to the things in my life and slowly thinking through a more deliberate response instead. And for the things in my life where an automatic response is useful, I can create a new one consciously. So what if you asked, when you think of the word successful, who’s the third person that comes to mind? Well in that case …”
I love the idea of third level thinking.
I imagine, based on his unparalleled experience, Edison too had become a master at thinking three layers deep.
It’s something I’ve tried to become a lot more cognizant of. Interrupting my ingrained patterns of reaction. Taking a moment to deliberate. Choosing a more conscious. Asking the question: what is the opposite perspective of this. Because that’s usually where the appropriate response lies. Where gratitude is hidden.
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice recently.
Small blazes have been popping up left and right. Car battery dies two hours before I’m supposed to be hopping on a plane … Flat tire, a week later, on the way to a home inspection … transaction delays … last minute changes … others not holding up their end of the bargain.
It’s easy to react. Its unconscious and automatic. It’s human.
It’s far more challenging to accept the situation, reflect and respond. But it’s often that process that opens the avenues to move forward.
As Holiday put it, the Obstacle Becomes The Way.
“To do great things,” he writes, “we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens … The next step after we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things — particularly bad things — are outside our control is this: loving whatever happens to us and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness.”
No doubt, it requires us to dig deeper — often three levels — but when we face the fire, that’s where we find the uncommon responses to life’s most common challenges.
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