Practical Knowledge

Many of us are enamored with the “Eureka!” moment Lightbulb #2– that moment of discovery that feels out-of-the-blue, transcendent and electric. We endeavor, in a multitude of ways, to realize it. We meditate. We brainstorm. We go on retreats. We roll the dice. We are so completely hungry to experience what we believe is the moment that changes everything that we spend great sums of money and time to stumble upon it.

Thomas Alva Edison was a denizen of Eureka. Over his working life, he amassed an astonishing 2,332 patents. An American celebrity, he was known far and wide as “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” It’s easy to look at him and think grand ideas and inventions were a daily occurrence.

Yet it was his greatest invention – the electric light – that proved to be his deepest challenge. He boasted in the fall of 1878 that he would solve the dilemma of a working electric light ahead of his competitors, and do so in time to light lower Manhattan within the year. Practicality ensured his boast would be chastened.

Creating a sustainable light bulb was the first challenge. Conducting electric current between two posts had already been invented and these large, high voltage contraptions were in select use for outside lighting. But the ability to control the current, to ensure a lasting, safe and re-usable indoor light was the problem. It took Edison a few years and a team of researchers and machinists to succeed.

But perfecting the bulb was only part of the answer. What good was it if there is no practical way to power it, monitor its energy need and utilize it safely indoors? Edison soon discovered the complexity resting behind each bulb: the need to create an electrical system to make the invention a reality for human life. As Paul Israel, historian and director at The Edison Papers explains, “Besides lamps this research included improving his generators, designing sockets and fixtures, developing meters for measuring the amount of electricity used by consumers and safety fuses to prevent fires, finding an insulating compound for the underground conductors, and designing the electrical network itself. “

Edison’s Eureka moment gave birth to a prolonged period of trial and error, a period of deeper discovery, hard work and, ultimately, the creation of something he likely could only catch a glimpse of years earlier.

This example from Edison’s life is, to me, a story about the reality of achievement. An example of how a life’s work is slowly built, brick by brick. Between the moments of sexy creative discovery are the more numerous moments of effort and work. It is a lesson I keep reminding myself for I, like others I suppose, love the Eureka feeling.

Feelings can be fleeting, just as sparks of inspiration. It is the practice of taking the spark and thickening it in the practical, the grounded, which makes of it something lasting. For what value is there in a spark, beyond the brief pulse it quickens, if it remains but a spark, passing quickly as sparks tend to do?

No, knowledge is at its highest value when it can be applied in a practical fashion. When you follow spark with work, and more work, and eventually more spark, and more work again. The transformation of discovery to practical knowledge and application is the stuff of a life’s work. I am often reminded of this when I find myself becoming excited about a new service offering, a new skill or a new direction for my career. Sure, it sounds great and I am right excited by it. But how do I make it practical? And, of equal importance, does it line up with my larger goals and aspirations?

Making the goal of practicality practical requires some thought. I’ve created my own approach to discovery and application. As most things which are practical, it is simple in design, challenging in execution.

Here is what I call my Practical Path.

  • Germinate: Practice 10 minutes of pure disconnection, every day. Find a way to capture every spark, association or observation. Keep them in a place where they can be easily retrieved.
  • Contemplate: Weekly, or more often if desired, review the collected sparks/associations/observations. Line them up, see what creates curiosity and which ones can be further developed. Then contemplate them in terms of one’s goals and aspirations. Do they support or expand your goals? Take you in another direction? If they do, are you OK with that? At this point, a working list of Eurekas should appear to research and develop.
  • Activate: Build the plan to develop each Eureka and then, step by step, follow the path. Be open to further development and change, as the distance between spark and realization can lead through the unexpected. Enjoy the work as much as the spark.

While undertaking this path, I often find myself moving through a prolonged period of trial and error, a period of deeper discovery and hard work. And then, if done right, the creation of something I could only catch a glimpse of when the Eureka moment first sparked.







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