Reinvention: The rewards of trying again By John Yemma

First-time wonders deserve our awe and
applause. But almost every good thing in life — from careers to ideas,
products to poetry — is more reinvention than invention.
Who doesn’t love an invention? Think of
the light bulb, which had never shined in all of history until 
Thomas Edison switched it on on Dec. 31, 1879. Think of
lasers, helicopters, microchips, elegant equations like E = mc², and even
modest wonders like batteries, Velcro, and air conditioning. We honor
inventors, enrich them, ask them about the meaning of life.
Reinvention isn’t in that league. The
tip-off is the “re,” meaning it’s been done before. If invention is the
dazzling hit, reinvention usually begins as a miss. But a miss that is taken
back into the workshop, rethought, reworked, and brought out for a second,
third, or fourth try can change the world. The light bulb, for instance, only
stayed lit after it hadn’t at least 6,000 times. Each time, Edison and his
co-workers took stock of what went wrong, made improvements, and tried again.
His invention was a serial reinvention.
For many workers in the wake of the
2007-09 recession, reinvention has not been by choice. Nor has it been easy.
But here’s what re-invention always is: necessary. 
For one thing, economic survival depends
on reinvention. Job security has all but vanished in most industries. Owning a
home or shoveling money into a 401(k) is not the path to financial security it
once was believed to be. That’s bad news. The good news is that so many people
have experienced financial setbacks, layoffs, or job shifts in recent years
that it is clear that failure is not about character flaws.
Failure can be an opportunity. Saying
that, of course, is easier than living through it, especially if you’re out of
work, in debt, or clinging to a job you don’t like because you need the money.
But reinvented careers can be the ones in which people learn more about who
they really are and make a go of something they really love. 
The key seems to be to stop mourning the
past, honestly assess your skills, envision where you want to be, gain new
skills, and then go for it. You may not end up where you think you should, but
you will be learning with every step. 
As Abraham Maslow, who developed the famed “hierarchy of needs” – a pyramid that
everyone climbs from basic requirements like food and water to an apex of
creativity and achievement – put it: “One’s only failure is failing to live up
to one’s own possibilities.”
Besides, people who have seemed touched by
greatness still have lives to live. Like athletes and musicians, most inventors
are highly productive in their youth. At 25, 
Albert Einstein experienced a “year of wonders.” Working
as a patent clerk, he achieved conceptual breakthroughs that revolutionized
modern physics. Einstein led a long and useful life, and some of his most
profound discoveries happened long after he was 25. But the sum of his
brilliance during that one year was never repeated.
I once asked an octogenarian physicist
about his year of wonders. Among other things Martin Deutsch, who taught at the 
Massachusetts Institute of
Technology
, had
discovered positronium, an elemental form of matter. “In 1951 and ’52, I had a
great creative outburst that I’ve never had again,” he told me. “It was a
virtuoso performance.” 
His colleagues thought he would win the Nobel Prize. He was not bitter that he did not. Instead he reinvented himself
as a teacher and was satisfied that “there are people who have become what they
have become because of what I have taught them.” 
At the end of our conversation, he pointed
out a spruce tree in the corner of his garden. He had rescued it when his
neighbor threw out a bunch of potted plants. Day after day it had sat there,
refusing to turn brown. “It wanted to live,” he said.
Martin Deutsch died in 2002. His students
are pushing physics forward in the 21st century. And that spruce, which didn’t make
it as a potted plant, flourished.

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