Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor and businessman who has been described as America’s greatest inventor.
Edison used napping to counterbalance the intensity of his work. Most days, he took one or two brief naps — on his famous cots, outdoors in the grass, and even on a chair or stool if no better option was available. Per multiple first-hand accounts, he always awoke from his naps reinvigorated rather than groggy, ready to devour the rest of the day with full alertness and zest. Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Martin write of the West Orange laboratory in Edison: His Life And Inventions (public library):
As one is about to pass out of the library attention is arrested by an incongruity in the form of a cot, which stands in an alcove near the door. Here Edison, throwing himself down, sometimes seeks a short rest during specially long working hours. Sleep is practically instantaneous and profound, and he awakes in immediate and full possession of his faculties, arising from the cot and going directly “back to the job” without a moment’s hesitation…
One thing that becomes apparent from Edison’s habits and cognitive dissonance about sleep is his extreme compulsion for productivity. In fact, Dyer and Martin cite an anecdote in which Edison tells his friend Milton Adams:
I have got so much to do and life is so short, I am going to hustle.
And hustle he did. Writing in 1885, Sarah Knowles Bolton marvels at Edison’s remarkable work ethic:
Five feet ten inches high, with boyish but earnest face, light gray eyes, his dark hair slightly gray falling over his forehead, his hat tipped to the back of his head, as he goes ardently to his work, which has averaged eighteen hours a day for ten years, he is indeed a pleasant man to see.
You perceive he is not the man to be daunted by obstacles. When one of his inventions failed — a printing machine — he took five men into the loft of his factory, declaring he would never come down till it worked satisfactorily. For two days, and nights and twelve hours — sixty hours in all — he worked continuously without sleep, until he had conquered the difficulty; and then he slept for thirty hours.
He often works all night, thinking best, he says, when the rest of the world sleeps.
In the same fantastic 1901 tome that gave us Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success, Orison Swett Marden sets out to discover the secret to Edison’s success, camping out in the vicinity of the inventor’s New Jersey laboratory for three weeks awaiting a chance to interview him. When he finally does, he is particularly interested in the inventor’s “untiring energy and phenomenal endurance” and asks 53-year-old Edison a number of questions about his daily routine, including his relationship with sleep:
‘Do you have regular hours, Mr. Edison?’ I asked.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I do not work hard now. I come to the laboratory about eight o’clock every day and go home to tea at six, and then I study or work on some problem until eleven, which is my hour for bed.’
‘Fourteen or fifteen hours a day can scarcely be called loafing,’ I suggested.
‘Well,’ he replied, ‘for fifteen years I have worked on an average of twenty hours a day.’
When he was forty-seven years old, he estimated his true age at eighty-two, since working only eight hours a day would have taken till that time.
Mr. Edison has sometimes worked sixty consecutive hours upon one problem. Then after a long sleep, he was perfectly refreshed and ready for another.
Still, Edison used much of the time others invested in sleep not merely for mindless sleeplessness but for building his networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity:
‘I’ve known Edison since he was a boy of fourteen,’ said another friend; ‘and of my own knowledge I can say he never spent an idle day in his life. Often, when he should have been asleep, I have known him to sit up half the night reading. He did not take to novels or wild Western adventures, but read works on mechanics, chemistry, and electricity; and he mastered them too. But in addition to his reading, which he could only indulge in at odd hours, he carefully cultivated his wonderful powers of observation, till at length, when he was not actually asleep, it may be said he was learning all the time.’
Marden proceeds to inquire about Edison’s legendary work ethic, producing an anecdote you might recall from the timelessly fantastic How To Avoid Work and affirming the recurring theme of focused persistence as the key to success:
‘You lay down rather severe rules for one who wishes to succeed in life,’ I ventured, ‘working eighteen hours a day.’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘You do something all day long, don’t you? Every one does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most men, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.’
Edison’s description of his work habits
“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” — Edison