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Thomas Edison: Brilliant inventor, terrible at business. What we can learn from the legend

Source | LinkedIn | Charles DuhiggCharles Duhigg is an influencer | Writer at The New Yorker

In today’s world, entrepreneurs occupy a hallowed place in our public imagination. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are rightfully seen as visionaries – inventors and soothsayers who have revolutionized the world. Their ruthless drive has been examined in countless biographies – and has inspired legions of disciples.

But many of those profiles sidestep a basic question: Are visionary inventors actually good business people? Or does the monomaniacal pursuit of the new and transformative stand in the way of running a sound, sustainable company that can last for generations? 

To examine that, it’s helpful to go back and consider the remarkable life of the inventor-turned-businessman par excellence, Thomas Alva Edison. Most of us remember Edison as the man who gave the world electric light. He also patented over a thousand inventions and built more than a hundred companies.

However, as a recent biography reveals, Edison’s instincts for business were often enormously flawed—and while his patents eventually earned him a fortune, just as often, he made terrible investment decisions and struggled with money throughout his life. 

This new biography, titled Edison, is by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award–winning author Edmund Morris (who wrote one of my favorite biographies on earth, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt). Morris spent seven years studying Edison, and he passed away earlier this year, at the age of 78, shortly after finishing this manuscript. The book is an intimate and honest portrait of one of the most iconic figures in American history — a man who “left behind a legend so potent that it quickly drew to the dimensions of myth.”

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