Forget Geniuses. Hard Workers Make the Best Role Models.

Portrait of Thomas Edison cropped. Wikimedia Commons [public domain]
Thomas Edison
The prevailing narrative for Thomas Edison was that he was a hard worker. Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

Sure, Albert Einstein laid the foundation for modern physics, but he may not be the man your kids should aspire to be.

No, the person we should be looking up to hails from another school of genius. In his own words, it's the school of "hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense."

That man would be the dizzyingly productive and occasionally hustling Thomas Alva Edison — he of the "inspiration is perspiration" school of thought.

At least, that's what scientists — people more than a little familiar with the work of both of these titans — think. Researchers at Penn State and William Paterson universities came to that conclusion after conducting a series of studies with college students. They found students were more motivated by the harding-working Edison type than Einstein's "genius is my birthright" model.

"There's a misleading message out there that says you have to be a genius in order to be a scientist," study co-author Danfei Hu, a doctoral student at Penn State explains in a press release. "This just isn't true and may be a big factor in deterring people from pursuing science and missing out on a great career. Struggling is a normal part of doing science and exceptional talent is not the sole prerequisite for succeeding in science. It's important we help spread this message in science education."

Publishing their results this week in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, the researchers hope that more Edison appreciation will draw more people to the sciences — especially at a time when increasing numbers of students are dropping out from those career paths. The dropout rate has become so pronounced, scientists have even coined an expression for it: the leaking STEM pipeline.

Hard work is within everyone's reach

To help turn that tide, Hu and Janet N. Ahn of William Paterson University focused on aspects of role models that people could see in themselves. Not many people fancy they have Einstein's brain. But Edison's work ethic, his willingness to make mistakes and his outright determination may be qualities we can cultivate in ourselves.

"The attributions people make of others' success are important because those views could significantly impact whether they believe they, too, can succeed," Ahn notes. "We were curious about whether aspiring scientists' beliefs about what contributed to the success of established scientists would influence their own motivation."

Portrait of Einstein taken in 1935 at Princeton
Portrait of Einstein taken in 1935 at Princeton University where he was a resident scholar. Wikipedia

Hu and Ahn conducted three studies, each involving 176, 162 and 288 students. For the first study, participants read the same story — about the typical adversity faced by a scientist over the course of a career. Half the students were told the story's protagonist was Einstein; the other half were told it was Edison.

It may have been the same story, but knowing it involved Einstein prompted students to assume he overpowered his struggles using his giant brain. But when Edison was the hero of the story, students subscribed much more to the notion that he outworked his problems. Indeed, the latter students were more motivated to complete a series of math problems.

"This confirmed that people generally seem to view Einstein as a genius, with his success commonly linked to extraordinary talent," Hu notes. "Edison, on the other hand, is known for failing more than 1,000 times when trying to create the light bulb, and his success is usually linked to his persistence and diligence."

That's not to say Einstein loafed his way to revolutionizing science. He worked as hard as anyone. But the popular perception lingers that his brain — something that can't be emulated — was like no other. So why bother trying to follow in his footsteps?

Knowing how hard Edison toiled, his nickname — "the Wizard of Menlo Park," as he was dubbed by adoring acolytes — may not seem like such an apt moniker. More like a wizard of Oz, a man who worked feverishly behind a curtain. A man with a prodigious number of successes, but also plenty of failures. But ultimately, someone who made the world a better place.

In other words, the kind of man we can all aspire to be.

"This information can help shape the language we use in textbooks and lesson plans and the public discourse regarding what it takes to succeed in science," Hu explains. "Young people are always trying to find inspiration from and mimic the people around them. If we can send the message that struggling for success is normal, that could be incredibly beneficial."