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Thomas Edison’s Journal Habits

January 18, 2013

by Kerry Kilpatrick

“Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated every step of his voyage to discovery in his 3500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. Keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius.”from the book Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius by Michael Michalko

There is no better example of the journaling habit of geniuses than the great inventor Thomas Edison. He was a prolific keeper of journals for all phases of the great inventions he created in his laboratory. For a time he also kept a personal journal that gives us glimpses into his private life.

His lab journals (pictured above) tended to be a joint effort and often included the signatures of his co-inventors. Those journals show the traces of chemical spills, ink blots, and the rips and tears from the flurry of activity that engulfed them as they captured the intellectual content of Edison’s work.

His private diary on the other hand was a work of art (see picture below). His neat handwriting and even lines make reading his private thoughts very agreeable. In his diary he shares thoughts of his every day existence that is anything but genius. Here is a note of a trip to New York from his home in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Being an avid reader he talks of his indecision between being extravagant and buying lots of books or being practical and only buying a few:

“Menlo Park NJ  July 13 1885…Went into Scribner & Sons on way up, saw about a thousand books I wanted right off.  Mind No 1 said why not buy a box full and send to Boston now.  Mind No 2 (acquired and worldly mind) gave a most withering mental glance at mind No 1 and said  You fool, buy only two books, these you can carry without trouble and will last until you get to Boston.  Buying books in NYork to send to Boston is like “carrying coals to Newcastle.”  Of course I took the advice of this earthly adviser.”

In another blog I asked the question “do geniuses journal or do journals create geniuses? Was Edison an inventive genius first and then he wrote in a journal or did a journal help him become an inventive genius.

A hint at an answer to that question appears in an article entitled Writing and the Brain: Neuroscience Shows the Pathways to Learning written by Dr. Judy Willis*, a prominent neurologist. In the article Dr. Willis had this to say about writing:

“Writing is, by nature, an opportunity for creativity and personal expression…Consider all of the important ways that writing supports the development of higher-process thinking: conceptual thinking; transfer of knowledge; judgment; critical analysis; induction; deduction; prior-knowledge evaluation (not just activation) for prediction; delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals; recognition of relationships for symbolic conceptualization; evaluation of emotions, including recognizing and analyzing response choices; and the ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain’s cerebral cortex that are relevant to evaluating and responding to new information or for producing new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.”

That’s a mouthful that simply means this – writing helps develop your brain. The discipline of writing in a journal is not just a nostalgic pastime. It is a highly productive activity that has historically yielded profound results for people who make the habit part of their lifestyle. Do geniuses journal or do journals create geniuses. At this point I can’t say for sure but I do know that writing is massive exercise for the brain. As the cliché goes “if you don’t use it you lose it.”

I hope you exercise your brain today by writing in your journal.

* Dr. Willis’ complete article is available at: http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3555

Edison diary

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