Education can seem like a conveyor belt. The journey is mapped out for you. School to college to university, so long as you achieve the grades, you progress to the next level. Sometimes the outside world behaves differently. You can tick all of the boxes but still fall short. It can seem unfair. You can work hard and still be met with a straight bat. School can train young people to believe that if you do the correct actions you deserve to progress. It can teach a young person that they deserve instant success just for demonstrating intelligence. Sometimes the world doesn’t align and you meet disappointment.
Edwin Barnes was a poor man. He struggled to make ends meet. His clothing was of poor quality and he had little by the way of work. He decided that the one true way to work himself out of poverty was to become a business partner of the great inventor Thomas Edison. He had nothing concrete to offer, he was not an inventor and he didn’t even know Edison. Despite these obstacles, Barnes was determined to go into partnership with the great inventor.
Barnes lived on the opposite side of the country to Edison. His first job was to get in front of him. Barnes couldn’t afford a train ticket. Instead he had to hitchhike a lift in the freight section of the train. He was willing to travel in oppressive conditions to make his dream become reality.
When Barnes reached Edison, he presented himself to the great inventor and told him “I’m Edwin Barnes, and I’m going to be your business partner”. When later asked about this meeting, Edison recalled a look of fire in Barnes’s eyes, a look that gave an insight into his future success. Despite this, Edison rightly thought that he had been confronted by a madman, but Barnes’s face softened his stance and Edison offered him a job. Barnes was to become a floor sweeper in Edison’s Menlo Park factory.
Barnes accepted his opportunity gratefully and began with vigour. He committed himself to the task. For 2 years, Barnes, like the great Andrew Carnegie quote, “became acquainted with the broom.” He applied himself to the task in front of him and kept his eyes and ears open. He searched for opportunities to allow his stock to rise, openings that would make him more valuable to Edison and elevate Barnes’s position in the company.
One day, Barnes overheard Edison talking with one of his sales directors. He had invented “The Ediphone”, a precursor to the dictating machine. For the iPhone generation, a dictophone is a machine executives used to use to dictate their letters into a machine; typists would listen back to their musings and type up the executive’s words into a letter.
Edison’s salespeople struggled to sell the contraption. They couldn’t find a use for them. The sales director was bemoaning his lot in life and complaining that he would never be able to sell the Ediphone.
Barnes overheard this conversation and sensed his opportunity. He offered to have a go at selling the machine for Edison. The great inventor relented and allowed Barnes to try his hand at sales, and Barnes didn’t disappoint. He determined the market for the Ediphone, marketed the product effectively and sold thousands and thousands of units. This small opportunity had given Barnes the foothold he required for recognition. Seeing Barnes’s wild success, Edison offered him partnership in the business and the sales contract for the Ediphone and the expression “Made by Edison and installed by Barnes” was born.
There are two morals to this story. Firstly, when you want to taste success, you have to be willing to do anything it takes. Barnes travelled in dire conditions and worked a terrible job to get his shot. He was diligent about the work he did. He never complained, in fact, he was grateful and happy to be of use. This attitude of contribution is key. “How can I be of service?” – “How can I help?” – “How can I offer value?” should be questions at the forefront of anyone’s mind when they are in a job. Students starting at the bottom rung of a ladder should be constantly looking to help, contribute and add value. Barnes was humble. He didn’t see himself as above sweeping the floor. He didn’t think himself too intelligent or over qualified to get stuck in and graft. He got on with it.
Secondly, by adopting the mentality of wanting to contribute, Barnes spotted an opportunity. By getting his head down and getting on with his work, he was able to recognise the opportunity to sell the Ediphone when it presented itself. If you ask yourself how you can help, contribute and add value, you will quickly identify such opportunities and seize upon them.
The take home: Remain humble and do your work with pride and diligence. Keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to help, they will add value to your own experience and you will succeed.