Nikola Tesla’s Sophomore Slump

Everyone knows Nikola Tesla was a futuristic, visionary inventor and an electrical engineering genius. He worked for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. His name is all over engineering and physics textbooks. He made his home in the Waldorf Astoria and kicked it with John Muir, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain, hanging around New York at the height of the gilded age. His name represents one of the most advanced, high-end brands of vehicles today.

He is considered “The Father of Radio,” “The Father of Wireless,” “The Father of Robotics,” and “The Father of Modern Technology.” There is a Nikola Tesla Day on July 10 in some U.S. states. People cannot get enough of this guy.

It’s no surprise: he was a superstar as a kid, too. He finished high school a year early and was so fast at performing advanced calculus computations in his head that his teachers thought he was cheating. Tesla matriculated to the best engineering college in Austria, and in his first year he got top honors, never missed class, and passed nine exams though only five were required. The dean called him “a star of first rank.” He never took a day off. 

If you’re thinking to yourself right now that he sounds like someone you’d probably delete from your Facebook news feed in the hopes of preserving your last shred of self-respect, then you and I are going to get along just fine. But hang tight.

All the Tesla-boosters out there skip over a key chapter in Nik’s life, one which may sound familiar to so many twentysomethings: his five-year sophomore slump.

Yes, there was a time when Nikola Tesla – The Best There Ever Was – was not having a good time. In fact, he was not having any fun at all. A combination of tough luck and indulging in his own self-destructive tendencies caused a down-and-out spiral spanning most of his twenties. He would have been a great addition to the cast of Girls.

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After that first stellar year at university, he lost his scholarship. Without money for tuition, he took up gambling. He liked it. He became addicted. He lost more money. He stopped going to classes entirely. He asked for an extension on his work but didn’t get it.

We all have our vices! Maybe Mercury was in retrograde. But this sounds like a phase, a totally fixable phase.

And that is probably what someone should have told Tesla at the time. But no one did, so he peaced out of town, cut off all communication with his family and led everyone to believe he drowned in the Mur river, like any drama queen in a tailspin would. He ran away to a Slovenian city and tried to start a new, anonymous life. He Hannah Horvath’d himself.

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But his big escape backfired (obviously). The police seized him and made him return home because he didn’t have the right residence permit. He took a teaching job in his old high school, which everyone knows goes hand in hand with “living in your parents basement.” And then his father died. He tried to enroll at Charles University in Prague, but missed the deadline, and he didn’t know Greek or Czech, which were both required by the school. He moved to Budapest to work for a telegraph company, and when he arrived, he realized the company was not yet functional and there was no job to be had.

It was five years of shambles. He just could not get a break. And he didn’t have a therapist, or a Tumblr, or relatable millennial archetypes to reassure him. He hadn’t even seen Garden State.

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He moved to New York in 1884, surely what must have felt like just the next stupid idea in a stretch of failed plans. But, this time, things didn’t fall apart immediately. He started working with Edison, who was one of those weird, competitive, condescending bosses – but he had time to work on his projects.  

He still couldn’t get any investors to buy into his inventions, and he was working odd jobs – even as a ditch digger – for two dollars a day. He called the winter of 1886 “a time of terrible headaches and bitter tears.” He was 30.

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But not every day was a bad day, and he was inventing, which made him happy, even if he didn’t have a plan all figured out yet. Like Jenny Lewis sings, “When you’re getting better, it’s a jagged line.”

Once he entered his 30s, Tesla had met enough people, done enough engineering work and attempted enough false starts that things eventually started to gel. He felt good. Things were okay. (And, history shows: they got unbelievably better).

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I think the lesson here is clear. If you feel like your 20s are just a slow-speed car crash into adulthood, don’t give up. Just pretend to drown in the nearest river, unfollow everyone on instagram and start again. And again, and again and again.

Because if Tesla can do it, so you can you.   

 

 

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