Those of you who follow my Twitter feed know that I recently finished reading a book called My Inventions by Nikola Tesla. Before reading this book, I had a nominal knowledge of Tesla. I read a short biography on him back when I was in high school, and I was aware of his hero status on the internet, but reading his life story in his own words gave me a new appreciation for the man.
As a child who grew up idolizing the likes of Thomas Edison, and dreaming of what it might be like to have a career as an inventor, Tesla has always held a special place in my heart. But as a writer, I realized that his approach to life was something I could emulate as a writer as well. What follows is a short list of the things I learned from Tesla’s life that I think could benefit writers everywhere.
1. Embrace Your Inner Weird
Tesla was weird. I mean really weird. He suffered from all manner of mental maladies, from something that sounds very much like obsessive compulsive disorder, to an extremely active hallucinatory life. He was repulsed by random things like pearls, earrings, and June bugs, got a funny taste in his mouth when he dropped squares of paper into liquid. Occasionally he suffered from complete mental breakdowns during which he experienced amnesia while his brain rebooted itself.
And he was fine with it. He cultivated his hallucinations, working to understand them until finally he was able to control them. He used this ability to build models of his inventions in his head which he claimed he could test and modify just as well as if they had been present in the real world. The mental breakdowns, too he cast in a positive light. He said they were his brain’s natural defense mechanism against overwork and that they allowed him to consider his problems in a new light.
Now, I’m not suggesting that people with serious mental problems should just shrug them off, but what I am saying is that Tesla didn’t let what others would consider handicaps get in his way. Instead he made them a part of who he was and how he approached the problems of life.
Lots of writers worry about finding their “voice” but in reality there is nothing to find. The voice is you. All your flaws, all your quirks, all your weirdness, delivered through the medium of your words. Sure it takes time to develop the right way to express it, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to be something you’re not. You’re a flawed, screwed up, utterly unique human being.
Don’t run from it. Embrace it.
2. Be a Bobber, Not a Sinker
Tesla had a lot of people who opposed him in his lifetime. He had to fight Marconi in court over the patent on the radio (and still the history books teach that Marconi invented the radio. This is beyond frustrating to me.) He butted heads with Edison over the superiority of alternating current. He was overlooked and stabbed in the back through much of his life. And you know what he has to say about it? Not a thing.
Sure, he brings up the incident where Edison promised him a large sum of money if he could fix a malfunctioning piece of machinery and then backed out of the deal saying he was only joking, but he doesn’t dwell on it. You never get the sense that he’s bitter about the matter. In a matter of a few sentences he tells the story, and mentions that he left Edison’s employ shortly thereafter. There are no bitter tirades, no condemnations of Edison’s character, just the facts.
Of course it’s entirely possible that Tesla was bitter at Edison, but if he was, he knew he would only going to hurt himself by whining about it.
And this lesson is good for everyone, not just writers. There are going to be people who disappoint you, annoy you, or flat-out try to hurt you in your endeavors. But that’s no excuse to air your grievances out to the whole world. Anger and bitterness are ultimately destructive forces, and if you spend your energies venting the negative, you’re eventually going to turn people away.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be human. The negatives are part of who you are. But never let them define you.
3. Dream Big
Yes, I know that sounds like a sentiment you might hear expressed in a girl-power pop song, but I’m pretty sure most people don’t understand what “dreaming big” really means. Tesla did though. When he was in his late teens he conceived of a system of transportation that could be achieved by building a huge ring around the equator, and then knocking the supports out and spinning the ring. It’s easy to see the problems you would have in implementing such a system. How are you going to build it over the oceans? What about mountains? What materials are you going to use that are going to use to keep such a massive object all in one piece while it spins at a speed great enough to counteract gravity?
But for Tesla, the problems were minor roadblocks. The idea was sound, and he believed it could work. Later in life he set to work building a radio transmitter that could tap into terrestrial stationary waves, making it possible to transmit to anywhere on earth. Tesla conceived of thousands of such devices easily sending telegraph signals, voices, and even pictures all around the world. In a conceptual sense it would not be improper to say that Tesla envisioned the internet years before the first computer ever appeared.
Tesla wasn’t daunted by the obstacles, but rather he was enthralled by the possibilities.
And if ever there was a time when writers could be enthralled by the possibilities it’s today. The landscape of literature is changing beneath our feet, computers and e-readers completely rearranging our relationships to stories and information, and we are on the cutting edge of this change.
The writers who succeed in this world will be the ones who reach out to these innovations, embracing them, making them a part of a new understanding of story-telling. No one knows what the world will look like in twenty years, and for some, that’s a terrifying prospect.
But the truth is, the unknown is a fascinating and wonderful thing. The future has yet to be created and we are the ones who will shape its course. Do not cower from the unknown, but step boldly forward, knowing that the only path ahead is the one you blaze for yourself.
4. Failure is Totally an Option
I almost ended this list with the third point; I wanted to leave you all on a high note. But that wouldn’t be true to Tesla’s legacy. Because in spite of his genius, and his hard work, Tesla never fully achieved all he hoped for in his life. And the things he did achieve have been largely forgotten.
There is no guarantee of success. Hard work helps, but at some point fortune plays its hand as well. You could argue that Tesla didn’t have the right mindset about money, or that maybe he would have done better if he was more of a people person, but those things miss the larger point.
Tesla didn’t much care about money. To him it was simply a means to an end, a stepping stone toward building bigger and better transmitters and the like. He was an inventor because that’s what he loved. He had his sights set on that path from a very early age, and every step in his life brought him closer to his dream.
Tesla didn’t accomplish all he wanted to, and he certainly never became a wild monetary success. But in a way it didn’t matter. He was living his dream. He kept on pushing forward because there was nothing else he could imagine striving for.
This is the ultimate test of what it means to be a writer. If you knew you were going to fail, if you knew, no one would remember a word you wrote, would you stop?
Could you stop?
In the end, that is the question that makes all the difference.