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Perishable Thoughts — The Secret To Success

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 19, 2009

Business is tough for many… indeed many individuals have it tough right now. There is a tendency to think that what one needs is a brilliant idea to burst through the malaise and come out a winner on the other end. Then one thinks about Thomas Edison and his famous quote regarding the nature of genius:

“Genius is one percent inspiration ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

— By Thomas A. Edison
First alluded to in “Ladies Home Journal” 1898
First published in “Idaho Daily Statesman” 1901

We asked Pundit aide-de-camp James Elmer to investigate the derivation of this thought:

In the January-June 1898 “American Monthly Review of Reviews” magazine, they cite the April 1898 issue of “Ladies Home Journal” in which they published an article titled: “The Anecdotal Side of Edison,” a group of short stories and photographs of Edison and his family:

“Once, when asked to give his definition of genius, Mr. Edison replied: ‘Two per cent is genius and 98 per cent is hard work.’ At another time, when the argument that genius was inspiration was brought before him he said: ‘Bah! Genius is not inspired. Inspiration is perspiration.’”

On May 5th, 1898 the “North Adams Transcript”published this quote: (PDF Attached)

“When approached on the subject of genius being inspiration, he answered: “’Bah! Inspiration is perspiration.’”

The Delphos (Ohio) Daily Herald, May 18th, 1898, quotes Edison as earlier saying:

“Ninety eight per cent of genius is hard work. As for genius being inspired, inspiration is in most cases another word for perspiration.”

In the “Idaho Daily Statesman,” on May 6, 1901, they published an article on genius, not dealing particularly with Edison, but still attributing to him this quote:(PDF Attached)

“Genius,” says Edison “is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.”

In 1908, Francis Arthur Jones published his biography of Edison: “Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life,” in which Edison is quoted as saying:

“Genius is two per cent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration.”

The Washington Post published on, May 10, 1915, an article titled “Genius And Work.”(PDF Attached)

On May 5th, 1898 the “North Adams Transcript”published this quote: (PDF Attached)

“When approached on the subject of genius being inspiration, he answered: “’Bah! Inspiration is perspiration.’”

The Delphos (Ohio) Daily Herald, May 18th, 1898, quotes Edison as earlier saying:

“Ninety eight per cent of genius is hard work. As for genius being inspired, inspiration is in most cases another word for perspiration.”

In the “Idaho Daily Statesman,” on May 6, 1901, they published an article on genius, not dealing particularly with Edison, but still attributing to him this quote:(PDF Attached)

“Genius,” says Edison “is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.”

In 1908, Francis Arthur Jones published his biography of Edison: “Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life,” in which Edison is quoted as saying:

“Genius is two per cent inspiration and ninety-eight per cent perspiration.”

The Washington Post published on, May 10, 1915, an article titled “Genius And Work.”(PDF Attached)

“A recent meeting to do honor to Thomas A. Edison has recalled an observation attributed to him that ‘genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.”

Statement during a press conference in 1929, as quoted in “Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh” (1987) by James D. Newton, Pg. 24:

“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

While the percentages changed slightly over the course of its early history, this quote is a Thomas Alva Edison original, through and through. It represented a core principle that Edison believed which was that success was the product of hard work, and not innate genius. It could certainly be argued that Edison did actually possess an intelligence greater than that of a common man, and it was probably this intelligence, coupled with his tenacious work ethic, that resulted in his magnificent inventions.

It was a quote that took some time to mature into a palatable witticism, but it was mainly in circulation only about 3 years. He also never shied away from using many versions of this quotation over a period of almost 40 years.

I am a bit surprised at the information I was able to find that refutes and calls into question several of the common sources given as the genesis of this quotation. Several respected quote anthologies cite these following sources as its origination point, but several more scholars, including myself, have uncovered the older published references that you’ve seen above. (I discovered 1901’s “Idaho Daily Statesman” instance)

Bartlett’s has the quote attributed to “Life” [1932] chapter 24. The book was originally published under the title: “Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life”, in 1907-8. In 1931, not 1932, the book was published in a revised edition titled: “The Life Story of Thomas Alva Edison” see here and here. This, I believe, is where Bartlett’s has attributed the source of this quote.

“The Life Story of Thomas Alva Edison”
By Francis Arthur Jones
Grosset & Dunlap (Incorrect as 1932, actually 1931)

Harper’s Magazine (Google Books snippet)
Remark to author M.A. Rosanoff, “Edison in his Laboratory”
Sept. 1932
Pg. 40

The quote can be viewed here:

Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor’s Life
(Google Books, download the entire volume here)
By Francis Arthur Jones
Published by T. Y. Crowell & co., 1908
362 pages, Pg. 347

Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh (Google Books)
by James D. Newton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1987
Pg. 24

Brewer’s Famous Quotations: 5000 Quotations and the Stories Behind Them
(Google Books)
By Nigel Rees
Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2006
568 pages

The quote can be purchased here:


By Francis Arthur Jones
Kessinger Publishing LLC, 2003
432 pages, Pg. 347

Uncommon Friends: Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh
by James D. Newton
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989
Pg. 24

We agree with James that the most interesting part of the quote is not that Edison was spouting some kind of false modesty; it was that he, in fact, was not an accidental genius and he shared that with the world.

We can leave the argument about genius to, well, geniuses, but certainly in the industry, success comes much more frequently from hard work than from brilliance.

When we were exporters, we had a relationship with a broker who bought millions of cases of a particular commodity for our family business. He had had the business for decades and did a very good job… most of the time. But most of the business was, as these things go, relatively easy, straight trailers of common varieties and sizes.

When we had something difficult — say a less common variety, a hard-to-get size or grade, a need for a special pack or a complicated and difficult delivery schedule — our supplier had become a little complacent. He was doing so much business with us he didn’t need to call around all day to find 20 cases of some hard-to-find item. It was easier to tell us it was unavailable.

But another, younger, hungrier, more aggressive broker had been soliciting our business, so we started giving him these “unavailable” items and, through a lot of hard work, he found them. It was a lot of work for very little money for some time but by doing the job for us he started to switch our loyalties and we started throwing him a few straight trailers. In time he had most of the business.

In our experience in the industry, that is the route most likely to success. Work really hard, be willing to do the jobs others don’t fancy and, in the end, you wind up getting the big volume business as well as the hard stuff.

There is a little inspiration there in the willingness to see beyond the moment. But, for the most part, it is a lot of perspiration. But it is the route to success and when you achieve it, here is a funny thing: People will never remember how long and hard you worked; they’ll just call you a genius.

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Perishable Thoughts is a regular section of the Perishable Pundit. If you have a favorite quote that you would like to share with the industry, please send it on. You can do so right here.

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