Gould first conceived the invention of the laser in a late night flash of inspiration.
According to the obituary of the prolific physicist, when he first got the idea, he knew it would be the most important work of his career. And so, he spent a caffeine and nicotine fueled weekend laboriously compiling pages of calculations in his laboratory notebook, and then had the foresight to have his work notarized at a neighborhood candy store.
Unfortunately, he spent the next three decades persuading federal courts to uphold his patents on his device. His sat on the sidelines while his colleagues won prestigious awards. The government forbade him to work on his project and view his original notes. Even the press derided him as nothing but an attic inventor with a candy store patent.
But the inventor ultimately got his due. Gould had the last laugh when he received patents on the device that brought him more than thirty million in royalties. It’s one of my favorite creativity case studies of all time.
The story of laser teaches us many lessons.
First, writing is the basis of all wealth. If you don’t write it down, it never happened. Second, protect your assets. Begin building your own safe house at the moment you begin building your dream. Third, timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Creativity isn’t just knowing a good idea when you see it, it’s executing that idea before anyone else sees it.
Fourth, patient incrementalism wins in the end. But you have to be willing to be paid today for the free you did yesterday. Fifth, trust your spontaneous instinctual abilities. Gould famously said that he knew he had to go after this thing. He couldn’t just let it sit in a notebook. And so, he made it real.
And lastly, ideas are free, execution is priceless. Gould’s immortal words remind us that some people think they’ve invented something, when they’ve merely thought of something to invent.
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