If you’re wondering whether persistence pays off, this story should prove just how much you can achieve if you don’t give up. After all, as Babe Ruth said:
It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.
Nikola Tesla’s story covers more struggles, hurdles and frustration than many of us would put up with, let alone work through. His determination and pure belief in his ideas are nothing short of inspiring.
The journey begins
After being ridiculed by his professor for thinking alternating electrical currents were possible, Tesla dropped out of college and went in search of someone who would believe in his vision (sound familiar?). After working in a company owned by Thomas Edison, he decided that the famous engineer himself was the person to talk to, and set off on a journey to meet him.
A troubled start
Tesla’s journey didn’t begin well. On his way to the ship bound for New York, he almost missed his train and lost all of his money, his ticket, luggage and passport. Somehow, he managed to get on the ship anyway—only to be caught up in fights onboard and get arrested.
After all of this, Tesla managed to track down Edison and show him his plans for alternating currents. At the time, Edison was controlling all of the electricity available to citizens using direct currents, and turned away Tesla’s idea which would compete with his own business.
He did see that Tesla had potential as an engineer, though, and hired him on the spot.
When Tesla proclaimed that he could improve Edison’s direct current generators, Edison offered him a $50,000 reward, thinking it was impossible. When Tesla achieved his goal and asked to be paid, Edison called the $50,000 reward a joke and instead offered a weekly pay rise of $10 (on top of his existing wage of $18 per week).
Disgusted, Tesla resigned on the spot, thus beginning the lifelong feud between the two inventors.
Desperate for work, Tesla found himself digging ditches for $2 a day until he was approached by investors who wanted to finance a new company for him to develop improved arc lighting. Not until the company started making a profit did he realize the investors had swindled him and were taking the majority of the profits themselves.
When he asked them to invest in his idea for an alternating current motor, they not only turned him down but threw him out of the company as well.
Not one to give up easily, Tesla continued working and asking investors to put up money for his alternating current theories. With enough investment to set up a small laboratory, Tesla finally built an example of his alternating current motor and filed several related patents. Eventually, he interested magnate George Westinghouse, who invested enough for Tesla to bring to life his dream of building and installing alternating current systems across America.
As alternating currents started to take off and Tesla finally received some of the recognition he deserved, Edison began to feel the threat to his direct current technology. He and his major investor, J.P. Morgan, began a campaign of slanderous propaganda against Tesla and his technology.
Slander and rumors
When Westinghouse refused to work with Morgan (who wanted a stake in Tesla’s prosperous work) due to his shady business practices, Morgan took revenge by spreading rumors on Wall St that made investors hesitant to give Westinghouse more money.
Westinghouse almost went bankrupt before Tesla tore up his own contract, giving up his claim to all royalties, which would have eventually made him a billionaire. Westinghouse was saved from financial ruin, but Tesla could no longer rely on him for major investment.
It gets worse
Desperate for investment to continue his work, Tesla took a terrible deal with Edison’s investor, Morgan. He gave up 51% ownership in all his existing and future patents and inventions relating to electric lighting and wireless telegraphy or telephony. In return, he only received $150,000 of the $1 million he needed.
After taking a second small loan from Morgan, Tesla was forced to use his personal funds to keep his work going.
To make matters worse, his radio patents had been stripped and given to an Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, whose money and connections enabled him to override Tesla’s rightful claim to the patents. Marconi was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his achievements in radio, leaving Tesla out in the cold without the funds to sue for what was rightfully his.
It’s not all bad
Tesla didn’t give up. He didn’t give in when his patents were taken away, or he gave up his royalties, or his name and his inventions were slandered all over town.
He kept working, and he kept believing in himself and his ideas. And good things came of his persistence and determination in the face of adversity.
Tesla received over 800 patents in his lifetime. He also (eventually) had his radio patents returned to him and was named the ‘father of radio.’ He demonstrated his alternating currents technology at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the first all-electric fair in history. Tesla’s alternating currents were also used to create a Niagara Falls power plant.
We owe Tesla a lot from his inventions, but this story shows how much more we can learn from his life and his approach to work.
Here are just three key lessons I took away from his story:
1. Find people who believe
Not everyone will believe in your ideas, or your ability to execute them. Although Tesla maintained he could create an alternating current motor exactly as he had imagined it (and eventually he did), most people thought he had no chance.
Rather than faltering or listening to his detractors, Tesla just continued his quest to find someone who would believe in him.
2. Keep working
When he walked away from Edison’s company and found himself digging ditches for almost half the pay he’d been receiving before, Tesla continued thinking, sketching and planning out his ideas. When he worked for Edison, and when he received investment to work on other projects, he continued working on his idea for alternating currents in his spare time.
When he finally did find that person who believed in him (Westinghouse), he had plans to show what he’d been working on and how his invention would work. Westinghouse invested, the alternating currents idea paid off, and it all came from consistent effort.
3. Don’t give up
Every time his investors turned him out or ran out of money, Tesla continued working on his inventions, raised more money and set up new laboratories to work in.
He kept at it, no matter what. And I didn’t even go into the fine details of the troubles he faced—imagine what it was like to live through one of the world’s greatest inventors slandering your name, or having your patents taken away unfairly.
And yet, he kept on. And now he’s one of the greatest figures in history.
So, whatever you’re doing, however hard it is—keep at it. Don’t give up. If you really believe in yourself and what you’re working on, do a Tesla and stick it out. You might just find that it’s totally worth it in the end.