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Edwin Land’s Deep Research

May 12th, 2016 · 8 comments

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The Deep Life of Edwin Land

Edwin Land is famous for co-founding the Polaroid Corporation, but he’s also known as one of the twentieth century’s most innovative inventors. In addition to his famed work on instant film development, his research on polarizing filters led to many breakthroughs.

“What was Land like?…He was a true visionary,” is how his friend Elkan Bout described him.

What interests me most about Land, however, was his work habits. Here he is in a 1975 interview with Forbes magazine talking about his approach to innovation:

“If anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess … My whole life has been spent trying to teach people that intense concentration for hour after hour can bring out in people resources they didn’t know they had.”

Land’s wikipedia entry notes that he was known for his “marathon research sessions,” elaborating: “When Land conceived of an idea, he would experiment and brainstorm until the problem was solved with no breaks of any kind.”

Famously, while researching polarized films, Land once went eighteen days without changing his clothes.

I like these stories because they underscores an important point that has been increasingly overlooked in an age that lauds open offices and social media-enabled serendipity: creativity is 99% hard, deep work

(Hat tip to Steve for bringing this quote to my attention.)

8 thoughts on “Edwin Land’s Deep Research

  1. Euripides says:

    One fascinating guy, though he certainly did not use a fixed time schedule 🙂
    He worked for days without stopping or changing clothes, so he certainly had deep focus.

  2. John Komdat says:

    Oscar Wilde said: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

  3. The detail of working “eighteen straight days without changing his clothes” reminded me of the author Victor Hugo.

    “Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:

    Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.

    He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.” – Maria Popova

  4. ZenBen says:

    Very inspiring in a crazy kinda way. Add the Land story to Bill Gates’ marathon programming sessions, Tom Edison’s marathon working streaks, and so on. When you stay with an idea for a prolonged period, you can keep everything straight (the problems and solutions) in your head in a way you cannot do with breaks and distractions. On the other hand, the breaks occasionally trigger insights also. Balancing the two optimally seems important to knowledge work.

  5. Carl says:

    Now I know why they commonly called it a Polaroid Land. I still have one. But,
    “eighteen days without changing his clothes” –he really should’ve gone longer.

  6. Geoff says:

    Fascinating. He sounds almost super human to me. I’m reminded of Sir Isaac Newton’s work habits. He was known for similar behaviour towards his experiments. I remember learning somewhere that he was known to work sometimes for 2-3 days without sleep. Like Edwin he would not stop until had done what he’d set out to do.

    Cal what are thoughts on the underlying psychology of these people. Do you think it is truly within the capabilities of anyone who sets their mind to it to achieve such amazing feats?

    People like Edwin strike me as somewhat the exception, even by your standards.

  7. P. Roef says:

    These guys had unlimited motivation. Key to a lot of success. As famous rapper Fifty Cents once said: “Get rich or die trying”.

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