What made Tesla a genius? Lessons learned from Nikola Tesla

By:Catalin Matei

I have about 400 books on my waiting list. If you’re in a similar situation, you understand how hard it is to actually decide what to read next when the opportunity cost is so high, because there are other very good options. Nevertheless, a couple of days ago I decided to read the autobiography of Nikola Tesla and here’s a couple of thoughts/takeaways I’ve gathered after finishing it.

Extreme vision, heightened senses and visualization

Ever since Nikola was a little boy, he experienced and noticed these incredible powers of visualization and heightened sense which at first he thought of as negative to his wellbeing but as soon as he turned to invention, the same “curse” became his superpower.

“My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop”

And if his numerous marvelous inventions don’t showcase the power of this — most of which I can’t even comprehend due to my lack of technical understanding in mathematics, physics, and engineering — then his words perfectly describe it:

“For a while I gave myself up entirely to the intense enjoyment of picturing machines and devising new forms. It was a mental state of happiness as complete as I have ever known in life. Ideas came in an uninterrupted stream and the only difficulty I had was to hold them fast”

As I was reading this, the following thought crossed my mind: let’s assume that his unique ability was a major reason for his “competitive advantage” and for his genius to be unleashed the way it was — changing civilization as we know it in the most concrete way — then would there be a way for us to do the same?

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality should do the trick, right? Or at least, in theory, give us the ability to bring experimentation costs to 0 in terms of time, money, effort and allow us the have the gift without the curse. We have that at our disposal right now. And that’s my first takeaway of something to really consider.

Intense introspection

“Most persons are so absorbed in the contemplation of the outside world that they are wholly oblivious to what is passing on within themselves”

Just imagine a meeting between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Nikola Tesla. That would be such a great debate even if they talked about cooking the whole time.

In either case, I observed from the first couple of pages this huge emphasis of Tesla on introspection at all levels. He even writes in this manner, describing what’s happening on the outside and inside world and how the two of them correlate.

“Deficient observation is merely a form of ignorance and responsible for the many morbid notions and foolish ideas prevailing”

The courage in these pages is that although he was going through intense pain and discomfort on repeated times, he still observed carefully how he reacted and tried to understand the cause and effect relationships between everything that was going on.

What is the lesson here? The prerequisite of great ideas, as well as personal development and evolution, seem to be, as far as I can comprehend at the moment: boredom, anxiety, discomfort, pain, etc.

What do we normally do when those emotions arise? We shy away from them, we avoid them at all costs and we don’t look at them in the eyes. Even worse, we now have social media and other addictive things for which the behavioral triggers are the same emotions, therefore losing the opportunities to face our demons with such as eating, Netflix, sex, drugs amongst other obvious hedonistic pursuits.

Facing your dragons

As a side note, this is somewhat that Carl Jung was talking about when referring to the idea of your shadow and encouraging us to face it.

What are the ideas you would’ve had or what sort of person would you have been only if you had faced yourself more? I guess we’ll never know.

Living a meaningful life at all costs

Throughout his childhood, he went to great lengths to make his father and family happy by following a diverse number of studies outside his true interests that were engineering, physics, mathematics, etc.

Even though he had a lot of health issues before he got to do his “real work,” he always knew what he had to do and never wavered from that. After almost dying from cholera in 1873, he and his father decided to finally go towards engineering, physics, and math.

One time, when he was playing with a bow he developed, as he describes:

“I was practicing while walking with my uncle along the river. The sun was setting, the trout were playful and from time to time one would shoot up into the air, its glistening body sharply defined against a projecting rock beyond. Of course, any boy might have hit a fish under these propitious conditions but I undertook a much more difficult task and I foretold my uncle, to the minutest detail what I intended doing. I was to hurl a stone to meet the fish, press its body against the rock, and cut it in two. It was no sooner said than done. My uncle looked at me almost scared out of his wits and exclaimed: “Vade retro Satanas!” and it was a few days before he spoke to me again”

I don’t know the exact reason why but it seems that he didn’t care about other people’s opinions too much nor that he thought about the consequences of his actions on others. He focused on doing what his mind imagined and wanted to do and had the best of intentions, letting go of what happened afterward. Such a beautiful lesson.

I’m not sure if this is because of his anti-social personality or actual conscious decision and control, but that doesn’t really matter. Convention will always seek the status-quo. That’s actually the definition of convention. If you wish not to bother it or don’t go too far from it, you’ll never be able to see the full potential of your gifts. It’s an inherently high-risk, high reward strategy, but for those ones that are capable of that, there’s no other real option outside of doing this.

Motivation beyond mere material means

Tesla’s main concern was never how much money he was making through his inventions nor the immediate utility of his creations. He was focused on what would create the most impact for future generations.

“My belief is firm in a law of compensation. The true rewards are ever in proportion to the labor and sacrifices made. This is one of the reasons why I feel certain that of all my inventions, the Magnifying Transmitter will prove most important and valuable to future civilizations. I am prompted to this prediction not so much by thoughts of the commercial and industrial revolution which it will surely bring about, but of the humanitarian consequences of the many achievements it makes possible.”

He then goes on and says:

“The greatest good will comes from technical improvements tending to unification and harmony, and my wireless transmitter is preeminently such.”

Here, he was talking about the invention that started the wireless technology that we all use today and take for granted, which is psychologically understandable why we do so, but it doesn’t mean we should not know the history.

My thoughts here are the following: as we advance as a civilization and become more technologically enabled, we need to do less and less “work” to actually live because technology will create the same productivity with less and less human effort. Therefore, if we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needsand more specifically at the holistic dynamic theory (illustrated below as well), we can see that most of the population and systems/institutions have been created for the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem).

Maslow’s Classic Hierarchy of Needs

While that’s happening, people are depressed because even though the entire system is reversed engineered for Money, Status, Power and all the other first 4 needs, what we need is Self-actualization which is done by having social impact, by expressing yourself, by being artistic, by creating music, by inventing the new revolutionary technology, by giving.

Dynamic Hierarchy of Needs

The above illustration shows how once you satisfy a need, the next one emerges as important to you. That’s where my hypothesis says that we are focused on needs we are meeting, and not considering that there’s something else that’s wrong.

It’s true that never in history was this considered in the equation. Throughout famine, disease, drought, war, and other disasters, the human race managed to survive although we went almost extinct numerous times. So, self-actualization should not have been in the discussion when that was the case and was not part of the historical conversation with just a few exceptions(Greece, clergy, intellectuals, emperors, etc.).

But now, as we evolve and become so connected to one another in all ways, we might be able to do that and to focus on the next level of our evolution/needs. This starts the conversation of Universal Basic Income and other measures.

I’ll end with a final quote from Tesla’s book, which I urge you to read.

Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment and merging of races, and we are still far from this blissful realization.”

Maybe not so far away. But I might be wrong.