Sarah Miller Caldicott is the great grandniece of the legend himself, Thomas Alva Edison. She’s a motivational speaker, head of business consulting firm PowerPatterns and the co-author of Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America’s Greatest Inventor.In this installment of Five Questions With … Caldicott reveals what she’s learned and gained from being related to an icon of innovation.
ID: Talk about the responsibilities, burdens or benefits of having ties to Thomas Edison.
SMC: I learned that my family was linked to Edison when I was about 8. My parents gave me an Edison phonograph and a whole series of cylindrical records and paper sleeves. I had the opportunity to compare it with my contemporary record player. It prompted me to focus on change and how consumers connect with technology and in what ways and that eventually launched me on a career path with marketing.
It really goes back to comparing the old with the new. I never felt any pressure to live up to some direction. It was, in fact, the opposite. In 2003 I had an interest in researching Edison after a Wall Street Journal article showed how China was overtaking the U.S. in investment. I discovered innovation needs to be more of a conscious effort and drive more areas of our business organizations.
ID: He once prohibited his son from using the Edison name. What are some of your favorite stories about him?
SMC: At roughly 12 years old he was considered an inept student. He asked so many questions. He was probing for foundational things, but teachers didn’t understand the thrust of his questions. He had only three months of formal education. His mom was dismayed that teachers didn’t get him, so she home-schooled him. She was a retired teacher and had the wherewithal to do this. He made the realization that he was a kinesthetic learner – he learned by doing, taking things apart and putting them back together. That’s the lowest percentage learning style that occurs in a population. Now we are raising generations of kinesthetic learners, with text messaging, search-engine engagement, cell phones … you put your hands on something and learn. I really think Edison’s learning style will come around and be a way for students to learn today.
ID: What are some of the lessons you learned from your famous great uncle?
SMC: Primarily to be curious, drive to explore and not accept everything you hear as factual. Plumb a little deeper. This generation has grown up on the Internet. People take a lot of what they see on the Web as fact. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Authenticate everything. Ask questions. Don’t take everything at face value. That’s part of the first competency of innovation.
ID: You cite “five competencies of innovation” from Edison’s vast body of work: solution-center mindset, kaleidoscopic thinking, full-spectrum engagement, master-mind collaboration and super-value creation. How’d you derive these five?
SMC: I was noticing patterns. I didn’t know it was going to be five. I used the patterns as the guide. I read Paul Israel’s biography on Edison (Edison:A Life of Invention). Coming to this as a business person, I had a different filter. I was intrigued to see his process come alive in these pages. Like putting a puzzle together and the gestalt that emerges. What made it easier to navigate were the patterns. That’s really how Edison worked. He was able to establish five different companies in disparate industries.
I have tried to internalize all of them. When I was writing my book I vowed to live this approach. That was a commitment that I made. I think I gained the most learning from the third competency, which is full-spectrum engagement. Edison engaged in opposites – the playful and the serious. Edison as a purveyor of an innovative culture was able to teach people how to think and operate like an innovator.
ID: What’s your favorite invention?
SMC: How can you have a favorite invention? I probably would say the movies. I think they’re actually a complicated invention and lifestyle that had to come together to make that a success. The light bulb is one of the most extraordinary and disruptive inventions of all time – a huge shift in how technology was regarded and changed how people interacted with their environment.