Thomas Edison once said that his success in inventing and refining scientific development came down to “Ninety-nine percent perspiration, and one percent inspiration”. Since his death, many other people have argued that in fact Edison’s success mostly came down to copying the work of great scientists who went before him, but that’s a little unfair to Edison and ignores that the entire point of scientific discovery is to improve on what already exists.
Making a business successful is somewhat akin to the process of scientific discovery. You start with certain principles and you put them to the test, and you do more of the things that work, while ceasing to do the things that don’t work. So is business - as Edison would have it - a case of 99% plowing away waiting for that 1% moment when genius strikes? To put it another way, what’s more important in making your business work? Perspiration, or inspiration?
Hard work is an essential part of the process
It is true that in business you will get nowhere without being prepared to put in the hard graft. That’s not to say that a creative won’t get anywhere, but to move from being a newbie in the business world to having lasting success will require you to build structures. Whatever your business is, it’s not going to go from acorn to oak without some work in-between. As original a thinker as you may be, you’re going to need to do preliminary work like recruiting employees, deciding on premises, possibly securing funding, and more besides.
Once the business is up and running, the hard work doesn’t stop. Accounting, chasing up leads, and troubleshooting are all going to involve more persistence than outside-the-box thinking. While there are inevitably parts of customer experience optimization that involve looking for creative solutions, even this process involves putting in plenty of work that may even go unrewarded initially. Essentially, as Thomas Edison himself would have explained, getting to the point where inspiration matters will involve expending a lot of perspiration.
Is it possible to succeed without inspiration?
So if we can argue that there is no success without perspiration, does it hold true that you can make an impact without being particularly inspired? Edison didn’t say that perspiration was more important than inspiration, after all, just that more of it was applied in the process of becoming successful. Is it more accurate to say that 1% of inspiration is worth all of those liters of perspiration, because the former is a rarer thing?
In truth, what makes a business work can differ from business to business. It is naturally going to take different skill sets to achieve the same success in industries as disparate as hospitality and engineering, for example. For a lot of people, in Edison’s argument the “perspiration” is synonymous with uncreative grunt-work that anyone can do, while “inspiration” is the specialized artistic work that makes everything come alive, but that’s not always the case.
Inspiration can strike in a number of ways, and in business it may well come in the shape of the realization that there is something you’re doing better than any of your competition. In that case, you can do more of that thing. You can look at aspects of it which could be applied to other areas of your business. If it’s something concrete - such as a product that is performing especially well on a sales front - then you could bundle the popular thing together with something that hasn’t yet had the same attention, and sell both at a special offer price. This allows you to harness the reputation from something you’ve seen succeed, to further impress customers and help raise the profile of another part of your business.
So then, what is more important?
Very often, a question such as this will be answered in a breezily non-committal way, pointing out that it’s really not an either/or question. And, sure, you’ll need both perspiration and inspiration to make a business really hit the heights. But if we’re going to honestly answer the thesis of this article, then it has to be said: the hard work that you do every day while in a business is more important than the flashes of inspiration. This is because only by slogging away at the everyday stuff will you be in a position for inspiration to strike, and it will be your hard work that turns a moment of inspiration into a commercial success. In short, Edison certainly had a point, and if you want to have success, you need to keep working for it.
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