Brain Pickings

Alexander Graham Bell on Success, Innovation, and Creativity


“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”

Success is one of those grab-bag terms — like happiness — that defies universal definition. Thoreau saw it as a matter of greeting each day with gratitude and for designer Paula Scher, it’s about the capacity for growth; for Jad Abumrad, it comes after some necessary “gut churn”; for Jackson Pollock’s dad, it was about being fully awake to the world. But the best kind of success is the kind you define yourself.

And yet, those who share a certain culturally agreed-upon degree of success might have some timeless and widely relevant tips. Take, for instance, Alexander Graham Bell — father of the telephone, romantic, proponent of remix culture. In the 1901 volume How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told by Themselves (public library; public domain) — which also gave us novelist Amelia E. Barr’s 9 rules for success — writer Orion Swett Marden interviews Bell, at the time 54, about his life’s learnings regarding the secrets of what we call “success.”

Marden writes of Bell with deep admiration:

Extremely polite, always anxious to render courtesy, no one carries great success more gracefully than Alexander G. Bell the inventor of the telephone. His graciousness has won many a friend, the admiration of many more, and has smoothed many a rugged spot in life.

When asked about the key factors of success, Bell sides with Ray Bradbury and replies:

Perseverance is the chief; but perseverance must have some practical end, or it does not avail the man possessing it. A person without a practical end in view becomes a crank or an idiot. Such persons fill our insane asylums. The same perseverance that they show in some idiotic idea, if exercised in the accomplishment of something practicable, would no doubt bring success. Perseverance is first, but practicability is chief. The success of the Americans as a nation is due to their great practicability.

And yet he recognizes, to borrow Bertrand Russell’s words, that “every opinion now accepted was once eccentric” and leaves room for the usefulness of useless knowledge:

But often what the world calls nonsensical, becomes practical, does it not? You were called crazy, too, once, were you not?

Bell affirms the role of “unconscious processing” — what T. S. Eliot called the “long incubation” of ideas — in the creative process:

I am a believer in unconscious cerebration. The brain is working all the time, though we do not know it. At night, it follows up what we think in the daytime. When I have worked a long time on one thing, I make it a point to bring all the facts regarding it together before I retire; and I have often been surprised at the results. Have you not noticed that, often, what was dark and perplexing to you the night before, is found to be perfectly solved the next morning? We are thinking all the time; it is impossible not to think.

Paralleling Thomas Edison’s sleep habits, Bell offers a fine addition to other famous daily routines:

I begin my work at about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, and continue until four or five in the morning. Night is a more quiet time to work. It aids thought.

When Marden asks whether everyone can become an inventor, Bell is adamant:

Oh, no; not all minds are constituted alike. Some minds are only adapted to certain things. But as one’s mind grows, and one’s knowledge of the world’s industries widens, it adapts itself to such things as naturally fall to it.

Echoing Thoreau, Bell advocates for the creative stimulation of nature and makes a strong case for physical health:

I believe it to be a primary principle of success; ‘mens sana in corpora sano’ — a sound mind in a sound body. The mind in a weak body produces weak ideas; a strong body gives strength to the thought of the mind. Ill health is due to man’s artificiality of living. He lives indoors. He becomes, as it were, a hothouse plant. Such a plant is never as successful as a hardy garden plant is. An outdoor life is necessary to health and success, especially in a youth.

Bell, like John Dewey, believes that ideas can’t be willed and aren’t the product of the fabled Eureka! moment — rather, he advocates for slow creative gestation, echoing Thomas Edison’s insistence on singularly focused effort and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land’s conception of the 5,000 steps to success:

You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.

Next must come concentration of purpose and study. That is another thing I mean to emphasize. Concentrate all your thought upon the work in hand. The sun’s rays do not burn
until brought to a focus.


Man is the result of slow growth … The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider, and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation, persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Bell offers a poignant, if overly violent, metaphor for how the factory model of education stifles the creative spirit and the capacity for success:

In Paris, they fatten geese to create a diseased condition of the liver. A man stands with a box of very finely prepared and very rich food beside a revolving stand, and, as it revolves, one goose after another passes before him. Taking the first goose by the neck, he clamps down its throat a large lump of the food, whether the goose will or no, until its crop is well stuffed out, and then he proceeds with the rest in the same very mechanical manner. Now, I think, if those geese had to work hard for their own food, they would digest it better, and be far healthier geese. How many young American geese are stuffed in about the same manner at college and at home, by their rich and fond parents!

Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent drawing and oath, March 7, 1876

In considering the different mindsets towards innovation in Europe vs. the United States, Bell applauds the American gift for embracing the unfamiliar and remaining open to the new, pointing to risk-aversion as a killer of the culture of innovation:

It is harder to attain success in Europe. There is hardly the same appreciation of progress there is here. Appreciation is an element of success. Encouragement is needed. My thoughts run mostly toward inventions. In England, people are conservative. They are well contented with the old, and do not readily adopt new ideas. Americans more quickly appreciate new inventions. Take an invention to an Englishman or a Scot, and he will ask you all about it, and then say your invention may be all right, but let somebody else try it first.

Take the same invention to an American, and if it is intelligently explained, he is generally quick to see the feasibility of it. America is an inspiration to inventors. It is quicker to adopt advanced ideas than England or Europe. The most valuable inventions of this century have been made in America.

When asked about the roles of heredity and environment in creativity — the good old nature-vs.-nurture debate — Bell offers a biological spin on John Locke’s “blank slate” theory and ultimately extols the American spirit of innovation as an enormously fertile environment for nurturing great minds:

Environment, certainly; heredity, not so distinctly. In heredity, a man may stamp out the faults he has inherited. There is no chance for the proper working of heredity. If selection could be carried out, a man might owe much to heredity. But as it is, only opposites marry. Blonde and light-complexioned people marry brunettes, and the tall marry the short. In our scientific societies, men only are admitted. If women who were interested especially in any science were allowed to affiliate with the men in these societies, we might hope to see some wonderful workings of the laws of heredity. A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.

Environment counts for a great deal. A man’s particular idea may have no chance for growth or encouragement in his community. Real success is denied that man, until he finds a proper environment.

America is a good environment for young men. It breathes the very spirit of success. I noticed at once, when I first came to this country, how the people were all striving for success, and helping others to attain success. It is an inspiration you cannot help feeling. America is the land of success.

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