Understanding Human Nature

Unsung Heroes

Last known photo of Nikola Tesla, 1943

“Everybody steals in commerce and industry. I’ve stolen a lot myself. But I know how to steal.”

Thomas Edison


The ballad of Nikola Tesla started in Serbia. Here was a young, talented scientist with a promising future, who worked for the European division of the Continental Edison Company. The plant manager, who was a personal friend of Thomas Edison, persuaded Tesla to find his future in America.

When Edison met Tesla in New York, he was impressed by his ingenuity and his indelible work ethics, and hired him on the spot. Tesla worked 18 hour days, preoccupied himself with the task of improving Edison’s outdated dynamos. Tesla offered to redesign them, and Edison would reward him with $50,000 if he could really get it done.

Within a year, Tesla presented his invention to Edison. Edison was amazed, yet refused to give him the $50,000. Instead, he proposed to give him a small raise. “Tesla,” he said, “You don’t understand our American humor!”

Tesla’s cold war with Edison persisted over the years. Tesla was obsessed with the application of alternating current (AC) system of electricity, but Edison was a firm believer of the direct current (DC) system. Edison not only refused to fund Tesla’s research, but did whatever he could to sabotage his work.

Tesla then turned to magnate George Westinghouse, who at the time had recently started his own electricity company. Westinghouse completely funded his research, and also offered a generous royalty agreement.

The AC system remains as our standard today. But after patents were filed under Tesla’s name, other scientists raced to take credit for the invention, saying that they laid the groundwork and so on. Eventually Tesla’s name was lost in the process, with the public associating the invention with Westinghouse.

A year later, financier J.P. Morgan came along for a takeover bid. He made Westinghouse repeal his royalty agreement with Tesla. The excuse was that the company couldn’t afford to pay him fully. Tesla was paid an amount that was much less than what was agreed upon.

So here he was, deprived of the money, the patents, the credit for his greatest invention.

Tesla was also the real “father of radio”, not Guglielmo Marconi. Marconi used a patent that Tesla filed in 1897 and depended heavily on his research. But again, Tesla received no credit and no money.

Tesla was an amazing inventor, but pretty much none of his great discoveries bear his name. He lived his final years in poverty.

In those years, Tesla was called to receive the Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. But coldly, he turned the medal down.

He said, “You propose to honor me with a medal which I could pin upon my coat and strut for a vain hour before the members of your Institute. You would decorate my body and continue to let starve, for failure to supply recognition, my mind and its creative products, which have supplied the foundation upon which the major portion of your Institute exists.”

From the outside, it seems that the world of science isn’t like that of music or movie acting, where we would normally hear about the hunger to live rich and famous. Tesla was one of the people who believed that science had nothing to do with politics, who claimed not to care about fame and money.

But as we’ve seen, his work was ruined because of that. He had dreamed up invaluable inventions, only to be stolen by other scientists. Not associated with any particular discovery, Tesla couldn’t attract any investors for his work. He thought he could do everything on his own, but only ate himself up in the process.

Edison, on the other hand, was the Steve Jobs of his time — He didn’t actually know much about science and technology as the engineers and people who worked for him, but all the credit went to him. A businessman is what he was : He was more of a visionary. He knew how to spot trends and opportunities. He once said that he didn’t need to be a mathematician — He could just hire one to work for him.

Social intelligence, or knowing how to read people, often has a negative connotation tied to it. What immediately comes to mind are Machiavellian, manipulative, ruthless people — Those kind of people such as tyrannical leaders, con artists, etc.

But we shouldn’t, or perhaps, must not make it an excuse for us to be ignorant of this knowledge. While we’d like to believe that everyone in the world are nice and helpful to us, reality just isn’t as simple as that. We could have all the talents and skills in the world, but if we’re not good at dealing with people, we still have a long way to go.

Understanding human nature is essential for all of us. We have amazing capabilities for doing good, but we can’t deny that we have traits in ourselves that aren’t so nice. Everyone has these things such as jealousy, ego, flightiness, impatience, and hatred. Like Tesla, if we refuse to put down our rose-colored lenses and see the world as it is, we’ll continue to be manipulated by other people, sometimes without us even realizing it.




Sung Heroes


“It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us; I have never hoped this. I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavored to understand with all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy. In this way have I been enabled to converse with every man, and thus alone is produced the knowledge of various characters and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Benjamin Franklin — one of the most admirable figures in the textbooks of history. A man of profound success in many different fields, he also had an astute knowledge of human nature. He understood that appearances matter — Hence the famous story of him carrying barrels of pen and paper to work to show other people how “hard” he worked.

At age 17, Franklin’s father wanted him to step into the family business of candle-making, but he didn’t want to. He instead wanted to apprentice at his brother, James’s printing shop as he had quiet ambitions of being a writer. An apprenticeship at James’s shop would mean that he would have the opportunity to learn how to proofread, edit manuscripts and pamphlets, and he would have all the books and newspapers he could study and absorb.

During his apprenticeship, Franklin studied the texts in detail, committing his favorite writings to memory, imitating the authors’ writing styles, and as an added benefit, he learned about the printing business as well.

Just as his writing skills had improved immensely, James was about to launch a large scale newspaper called the New-England Courant. Franklin was excited as he wanted to contribute his writings to the newspaper. James however, thought he was too young and immature, and didn’t want to give him a chance.

James was a stubborn man, Franklin knew. There was no point in arguing with him. So he thought, “What if I could contribute to the newspaper, but not in my own voice? What if I could write so well that James wouldn’t realize that it’s me?”

Franklin then created a fictional character named Silence Dogood — An old lady with absurd ideas and opinions about life in Boston. He spent long hours imagining a detailed past for her. He thought so deeply about her that she began to come alive within him. He could write in her voice and in her thoughts. And what emerged from that were very realistic letters from Silence Dogood, published in the New-England Courant.

James and the readers of the newspaper loved the Dogood letters. James even left notes in the newspaper, asking her to write more. James probably would’ve known that Silence Dogood was just a pseudonym, but for sure, he didn’t expect that Franklin was the one behind those letters.

Proud of writing those letters, Franklin eventually confessed to James that he was the author. To his surprise, James wasn’t the least happy upon hearing his confession. James scolded him for meddling in with his newspaper and even started treating him abusively.

Escaping from his brother’s abuse, Franklin fled from Boston to Philadelphia, with hopes that he could settle there. He was determined that he make it on his own. After all, he already knew more about business than people who were twice his age.

Franklin started out by acquiring a position at another printing shop in Philadelphia, owned by a gentleman named Samuel Keimer. Some time later, he met governor William Keith who had ambitions of turning Philadelphia into a cultural center — He wasn’t happy with the printing business there.

Impressed with Franklin’s writing skill and wit, Keith offered to lend him money and other resources to start his own printing business. The machines and materials would have to obtained from London, he told him.

Franklin could hardly believe his fortune as Keith urged him to personally supervise the acquisition in London. Just months earlier he was living with an abusive brother. Now, he was heading for London. Franklin left the printing shop without informing Keimer beforehand.

But there was something fishy. The money Keith promised didn’t come. After writing him many letters, Franklin got a response from Keith that not-to-worry letters will be waiting for him in London. But when he did arrive in London, there were no letters waiting.

Franklin frantically looked for help from whoever he could find — Perhaps a representative of the governor or some sort. He finally bumped into a wealthy merchant from Philadelphia, who revealed to him that Keith was a notorious talker. His “plans” wouldn’t last for more than a week. He only liked to impress people with his power.

With virtually no money to go home, Franklin decided that he had to settle in London for some time. London was teeming with large scale printing shops at the time. And so he looked for a job, immersing himself in the work to forget about the Keith fiasco. He quickly roused his employer with his editing skills and got along well enough with his colleagues.

He was however, not fond with a strange British custom — Five times a day, his colleagues would go on a break and drink a pint of beer. It fortified them for their work, or so they said.

Franklin was expected to contribute to the beer fund but refused to — The idea of spending his hard-earned wages on harming his health angered him. He spoke openly of his principles to his colleagues. They respected his decision, but soon enough strange things began to happen. Errors would be found in texts that he had already proofread, and there’d just be problems here and there that he would get blamed for.

On the verge of getting fired, he knew that someone was sabotaging him. He told his colleagues about it, and they told him that a ghost was bugging him. Franklin understood. Only after he started contributing to the beer fund did the mistakes disappear, along with the “ghost”.

In self-reflection, Franklin realized that he had been very naive. In his work, he would be extremely meticulous and objective — He could find his own mistakes very easily. But when it came to people, he was the opposite. He would always get absorbed in his own emotions that he failed to sense other people’s motives.

Because we’re absorbed in our own emotions, sometimes we see qualities in people that in reality, they don’t actually have. Or we ignore their bad qualities.

With James, Franklin wanted to make him proud by revealing his authorship. But he wasn’t aware of the envy and malevolence it would incur in his brother.

With Keith, he was too wrapped up in his own ambitions that he couldn’t see obvious signs that he was all talk and false promises.

And with the beer fund, he was blinded by anger that he failed to realize that his colleagues resented his principles.

Franklin decided that in his future interactions with other people, he would always take an initial step backward and carefully examine what the other person might be up to. In doing this, he felt the same sensation as in writing the Dogood letters, where he stepped into the character’s shoes, thinking inside her, entering her world and making her come alive in his mind.

His way of viewing the world changed. Instead of judging people, he would accept them as who they are, as part of human nature. Some people are vindictive like his brother, some are talkers like Keith, some are rigid like his colleagues in the printing shop. To feel resentment towards their behaviors would be foolish, as human nature has always been and will always be the same.

It’s kind of like what John Steinbeck said about understanding people. If only we understand one another, there would be less hatred and more love. It’s about being tolerant with the dark sides of another person.

After nearly two years of living in England, Franklin had finally saved enough money to go home. He sailed back to Philadelphia and to his surprise, he was greeted by old Samuel Keimer. Keimer offered him a position at his printing shop. His job was to manage and train the other staff.

Franklin accepted his offer, but knew something wasn’t quite right — Keimer appeared unusually friendly — Very out of character for the prickly, insecure Keimer.

Franklin did as he promised himself. Imagining the situation from Keimer’s perspective, he must have greatly resented Franklin’s sudden departure to London, leaving him alone at his printing shop. He must have seen Franklin as a young whippersnapper.

Thinking this way, Keimer must have planned to give Franklin the job, have his staff trained, then fire him. This would be his revenge.

Franklin countered this by carefully grooming one of the staff to be his first-rate assistant. He used his managerial position to build strong, personal relationships and connections with his customers and successful merchants in Philadelphia. When Keimer wasn’t around, he would teach himself new skills such as engraving and ink-making.

When he suspected Keimer was about to fire him, he quit his job and set up his own printing shop — With financial banking, wider knowledge of the business, a loyal base of customers, and an assistant he had hand-picked.

Plus, he noticed how he didn’t have any bitter feelings towards Keimer. It was all just moves on a chessboard.

In the pursuing years, Franklin went on to be the near-legend we know today, flourishing in fields such as writing, scientific inventions and politics. With his way of looking at people, his life was free from unnecessary battles.

This doesn’t mean that Franklin was a boring, unemotional person. His life was anything but dull. He was, by nature very emotional and sensitive. But he used this trait outwardly. Instead of focusing on what people did to him or why, he entered their world, and strove to understand their motives.




Taking The Step Backward


“Swallow your pride
You will not die
It’s not poison”

Bob Dylan,
Tombstone Blues


Robert Zimmerman came to New York City as a 20 year old, with a guitar and a harmonica, and an unrelenting passion to play folk music. He was an incredibly intelligent man. He’d see himself as a performer and therefore to appear onstage and sing, he would have to play a character — One that was named Bob Dylan.

In his words, fame is a different occupation. In dealing with the pressures of becoming a public figure, Dylan had been telling white lies since the very beginning of his career. In interviews, he would make up many stories about his upbringing and his beliefs. This was Bob Dylan, after all. Not Zimmerman. Often times he would speak in riddles, either to make a reporter understand for himself about something, or simply because he wasn’t interested in actually answering the question.

But there was this one particular time when Rolling Stone magazine made a list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. All these musicians made their votes, and Bob Dylan’s song, “Like a Rolling Stone” made it at the top of the list. The song is considered monumental in music culture; a defining moment where an artist would give the big finger to his own audience, so that he could take his music to where his art led him. It marked his transition from an iconic folk singer to a rock musician.

A reporter asked him about how he felt about this achievement. “This is the greatest honor a musician could ever have. You wrote the song. You sang the song. It’s the number one song in history. So what are you feeling?”

But Dylan simply responded, “I don’t feel the slightest bit of satisfaction. Next year, they’ll probably vote for another song. So why should I be attached to this award?

We talked about social intelligence, about understanding other people. But never, never must we forget about understanding ourselves. Because the thing is, the biggest threat to our work isn’t always another person, though I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. But very often our biggest enemy is closer than we think — Our ego.

We have our thirst for recognition, for fame and glory, for praise — We come to think that we’re always right, and other people are wrong. It stings when we hear feedback.

The antidote to that is to always put the mission above yourself — Become obsessed with adding value to people’s lives, while being aware that the result might just turn out to be infinitesimal.

Unstitch yourself by the hem, unravel yourself by the thread.

Because that’s what really matters — Getting out of your own head. Thinking not about yourself but about others, about making this world a better place. Care not about being better than other people in your field. Care only about being better than what you think you’re capable of.


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