Action by Action

In 1879, Thomas Edison wasn’t the only person experimenting with incandescent lights. But he was the only one who would go as far as to test six thousand different filaments—including one made from the beard hair of one of his men—inching closer each time to the one that would finally not just glow, but last long enough to make the invention commercially viable.

And, of course, this most recent Saturday marked 138 years ago that he eventually found it——proving that genius often really is just persistence in disguise. In applying the entirety of his physical and mental energy—in never growing weary or giving up—Edison had outlasted impatient competitors, investors, and the press to discover, in a piece of bamboo, of all things, the power to illuminate the world.

Nikola Tesla, who spent a frustrated year in Edison’s lab during the invention of the lightbulb, once sneered that if Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would “proceed at once” to simply “examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.” In a way this is the Stoic approach as well, making progress as Marcus Aurelius said, “action by action,” because no one can stop you from that.

In the middle of a difficult project, it can be helpful to picture Edison or Marcus in this way—unceasing, embodying cool persistence and the spirit of the line from the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, “to strive, to seek, to find.” Refusing to give up. Not getting too far ahead of oneself. Knowing that eventually—inevitably—you’ll get where you want to go.

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