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Sometimes when I am inventing the light bulb, I find myself wishing I were painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

photo credit: Aaron Logan

Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures.  Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand.  Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy.  Now imagine doing that for four years.  Amazing.  If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions – even if I had some artistic talent – it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.

Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece.  If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky.  I like the wrath there – very Old Testament.  Keep it up.”

In contrast, think of Thomas Edison and his work on the light bulb.  To do justice to his technological and entrepreneurial acumen, we need to note that part of the reason his light bulb became so famous and so successful was that, unlike his contemporaries working the same problem, he did not focus solely on the bulb itself.  His vision was much broader, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home.  But still, success did depend on finding a reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.

But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was.  Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that actually worked, so his progress was not entirely random.  Still, it was unpredictable.  Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start.  Imagine Edison’s boss dropping by the laboratory after a month like that.  “You say it’s been a month and you still don’t have anything better than the llama hair you showed me in September?  What do you do all day – listen to records and watch movies?  Get to work!”  Of course, Edison didn’t have a boss – he was the boss.  Perhaps that’s why he succeeded.

It’s inevitable that some of our work will be Edison work.  We put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results.  With little or no progress to show for our work, we run the risk of displeasing an unsympathetic superior, and the perhaps more important risk of growing discouraged ourselves.  In my work, I saw this discouragement most often in job seekers.  Even when they have done 75 percent of the work they need to do to land a job . . . they don’t have 75 percent of a job; they’re still at 0.  Maybe this is what Edison meant by the “99 percent perspiration” that makes up genius – it’s not sweat from effort, it’s sweat from anxiety.

But when lack of results in the wake of earnest, smart effort threatens to cause dismay (in ourselves or others), the key is to focus not on the results but on the effort itself.  Recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  So count the number of failed trials, unproductive cold calls, or awkward drafts as progress in itself, and be content.  In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but once you have completed your project you will look back and realize it was all part of the tapestry of the job.