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How to Become a Genius

August 20, 2018

Thomas Edison is one of the most productive inventors to have ever walked this earth. He had 2332 creations patented, including the phonograph, the electric lamp, and the kinetoscope.

He’s well-known as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb and the motion picture camera, but few recognise his constant devotion to journaling. Edison filled over 3500 journals throughout his life, amassing 5 million pages of notes—and it’s this dedicated record keeping that’s seen as a key factor to his success.

How Writing Affects the Brain

Do geniuses journal, or do journals create geniuses?

- Kerry Kilpatrick


According to neurologist Dr Judy Willis, writing encourages:

  • higher process and conceptual thinking
  • critical analysis
  • induction, deduction, and prediction
  • prior-knowledge evaluation

Willis, who has practised as both a classroom teacher and a neurologist, notes that writing supports “the ability to activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain's cerebral cortex. These evaluate and respond to new information and produce new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.”

Edison didn’t have a single light bulb moment. He used deliberate methods to inspire creativity without relying on luck.

Here’s how he did it.

1. Things Doing and To Be Done

When he was aged 41, Edison wrote the to-do list that puts all others to shame. He set the goal to achieve a “minor invention every 10 days and a big thing every six months or so.”

No big deal, right?

Giving yourself a to-do list is a vital activity, and not just something for scientific geniuses. Below is a list written by John Lennon which offers a glimpse into the life of a celebrity musician, yet it’s riddled with the mundane — reminders to buy marmalade, let the HBO guy in, and fix a door hook.

Edison was honest with himself about how high his aspirations were. He didn’t limit himself with self-doubt or by setting easy (or even reasonable) tasks. While most people use to-do lists to keep track of everyday tasks (like Lennon did), Edison used to-dos to list the mammoth achievements he burned with desire to achieve.

Writing out goals on paper makes them tangible and concrete, and it’s the first step towards making them reality.

2. Failure = Success

Edison isn’t famous for always succeeding. He’s famous for always trying.

The scariest part about recording your biggest, wildest dreams is the knowledge that you might not actually achieve them. We become so scared of failing that we do what we know is achievable. We don’t push ourselves.

Edison allowed himself to fail. 

In business we tend to avoid situations where a project might flop, but Thomas Edison recognised the importance of letting himself flunk, seeing it as an essential part of success. He viewed failure as victory: when you fail, you learn something—and learning is what makes you successful.

3. Mind 1, Mind 2

The above entry in one of Edison’s journals details his internal struggle when entering a New York bookstore in 1885:

“Went into Scribner & Sons on way up, saw about a thousand books I wanted right off.  Mind No 1 said why not buy a box full and send to Boston now.  Mind No 2 (acquired and worldly mind) gave a most withering mental glance at mind No 1 and said  You fool, buy only two books, these you can carry without trouble and will last until you get to Boston.  Buying books in NYork to send to Boston is like “carrying coals to Newcastle.”  Of course I took the advice of this earthly adviser.”

Edison famously struggled with self-discipline, as do we all. But he identified the two minds within us: one impulsive and emotional, the other slow, logical and rational. By recognising this internal war he was able to listen to each voice and make better decisions.

Consider where your decisions and desires come from. Are you listening too much to one voice?

We’ve all struggled with the waging war between what we want and what we need, so it’s important to listen to both voices without letting one rule over the other. Recognise the balance between work and play, indulgence and necessity.

In Good Company

But don’t take Edison’s word for it.

Albert Einstein

‍Marie Curie

‍Marilyn Monroe

‍Charles Darwin

‍Leonardo da Vinci

‍Kurt Cobain

You can use journals for anything: making a list of books to read, things to do, conversations you’ve had, conversations you want to have—the act of writing it down makes it feel concrete and encourages you to follow through.

When you consider the ways that writing impacts the brain, it’s no wonder that the filler of 3,500 notebooks became one of the greatest inventors of modern times.

Do geniuses journal, or do journals create geniuses?