Nikola Tesla: why genius failed

Nikola Tesla was tragically robbed of all his material possessions just before he was going on the boat to go to America from Europe! But armed with a reference letter from Thomas Edison’s assistant in Paris, he got a job at Edison Machine Works! (Legend has it that the letter said: “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”)

He may have met Edison just a handful of times, but Tesla impressed Edison with his hard work and long 20 hour working days! Tesla himself was in awe of the great inventor too who had ushered in the era of lights.

But lights were still danger business

Most cities were being lighted by high voltage arc lamps. But when the power plants delivered over 3000 volts at a time to light the lamps, it often resulted in sparks and explosions!

Edison came up with a solution to reduce the accidents: a direct current (DC) to supply just 110 volts to the power grid. While this reduced the accidents, the solution had a downside: it only allowed energy transmission over 1-2km. As a result, generators had to be installed at every city corner. Copper wires hung everywhere.

Nikola Tesla had a theoretical solution: using alternating current – which could be transmitted at high voltage ranges over long distances safely. But Edison was in no mood to focus on an untested idea – as he had already invested thousands of dollars in laying the wires and using direct current! He shut down the idea hard.

Because of which, Tesla quit. Tesla had worked for Edison for only 6 months.

Tesla’s AC vs Edison’s DC

Tesla spent the next 3 years working on an induction motor that ran on alternating current and patented it. George Westinghouse licensed his patents for $60,000 and a $2.50 royalty for each AC horsepower generated.

When Westinghouse got the contract to power Pittsburg’s streetcars, he also hired Tesla for a whopping $2000 a month (equivalent to about $60,000 in 2022).

But Tesla constantly butted heads with Westinghouse’s engineers as to how to implement his ideas. Tesla pushed them to settle on a 60-cycle AC system. But after a lot of work, they found out that it just did not work for the streetcars – because AC induction motors could only run at a fixed constant speed. It was hard to feed the motors with constant energy. They eventually had to use DC traction motors that allowed variable frequency!

In 1894, Westinghouse purchased the whole of Tesla’s patents for a whopping $216,000 (equivalent to more than $7 million.) And yet, Tesla died penniless. Why?

To understand why Tesla failed, we need a lesson from the animal kingdom.

Do you know why horses are domesticated but zebras are not?

Horses helped the Mongols conquer civilizations. They are a game changer. Allowing us to travel further and faster than it was possible before. But then why didn’t anyone domesticate zebras in Africa?

Wild undomesticated horses and zebras look pretty similar. Because both had a common ancestor a few million years ago, and are from the same family: equids. Both are herbivores and herd animals. And both run fast. But there is one key difference between them. For lack of a better term, horses have one thing that the zebras lack: family values. 

If you catch a zebra, its herd won’t follow. Zebras will be violent to one another in the same herd. They just don’t have a strong family connection. They only care about themselves. 

Once you’ve broken and tamed a wild horse, it’ll let you ride forever. Some folks have tried taming zebras. But they’ve always been temperamental. Some days, you feel like you’ve ridden them since 30 years, and other days it’s like they don’t remember you at all. They’ll show you no loyalty even if you feed them everyday.

It’s the reason why today we have over 60 million horses. But only 800,000 zebras. Zebras inability to play well with others has stunted their numbers. 

It’s the same reason why hens are domesticated so successfully. Hens have a family structure. The top ranking rooster is the first one to cock-a-doodle-doo in the morning. Followed by other subordinates. An individual rooster won’t fight this habit and wake up one day and crow on its own before the head rooster does.

Can you follow the lead of the family head?

You have to follow well to become a good leader. You have to learn to collaborate. And compromise. 

Beatles became the greatest band to play because the band members knew how to collaborate and work well together. Between 1962 and 1970, 180 songs have been jointly credited to Lennon-McCartney! 

John Lennon and Paul McCartney played off of each other. Lennon’s rousing lyrics and tunes blended perfectly with McCartney’s gentler melodies. McCartney was organized. Lennon was spontaneous. McCartney’s light optimistic tunes balanced Lennon’s sad blue notes. Both together changed rock and roll!

But early on in their relationship, there was a tense situation.

The teenage pact

When both were just 15 and 16 year old boys, Lennon and McCartney decided that they would credit both of them for any song they wrote. The order of the credit was usually random. Some songs were McCartney-Lennon, while others were Lennon-McCartney.

But during the printing of their first album, John Lennon unilaterally got all the song credits to be renamed to Lennon-McCartney. He claimed that it has a better ring to it than McCartney-Lennon. Paul McCartney could have made a big deal out of it, but he just let it go. He gave seniority to John Lennon because he had started the band!

Because of this compromising attitude, the first few years of the Beatles were magical! Even during their later years, when the duo started having disagreements and stopped writing songs together – they credited all the songs written by any one of them to Lennon-McCartney.

How did the Beatles manage their group’s disagreements in the later years? They followed what Jeff Bezos would later call: disagree and commit.

Whoever wrote the song had the final say on how the music was structured. Even if they thought the tune could be bettered, they played how the leader intended. They disagreed and played. Which gave us a few more years of the Beatles!

The group completely broke down only after Paul McCartney stopped compromising. And refused to push back the release of his solo album so that Beatles’ “Let it be” could be released first.

But isn’t compromising bad?

Compromising is a word with such negative connotations. No one wants to give in. But to be a team player, you have to learn to compromise. You have to learn to disagree and yet commit.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb

Compromise and go together and you can go farther. 

Tesla died penniless because he did not know how to compromise. Even when he hired lab assistants, they were given no autonomy, no power to do anything on their own. And as a result, no one would work with him and help him find faults and improve his ideas.

A lot of his ideas showed a lot of promise. But eventually failed to be implemented as Tesla himself was not enough to troubleshoot every problem and edge case that came up. It led to delays and going over budget. And eventually shelving of ideas that could have changed the world just the same way Edison’s many inventions did.

Action Summary:

  • Compromise is necessary to collaborate. People will want to work with you, and help you, only if you compromise.
  • Don’t be a zebra.