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The Myth of the Rugged Individual

Do you know who invented the light bulb?
If you said Thomas Edison, then you are only partially correct. The real story is more complicated.

Other inventors had been making various forms of incandescent light bulbs for more than 80 years before Edison started working on it.

Edison filed a patent for an “electric lamp” in 1879, but the very first patent for a light bulb was issued in 1841 to Frederick de Moleyns of England.

By the time Edison settled on a vacuum as the best way to keep the filament from burning too quickly, dozens of other men had already come to that conclusion.

And there were already other companies selling some version of the incandescent lamp when he brought his light bulb to the market.

So Edison didn’t really invent the light bulb. What he invented was a light bulb that was better than all the others and, hence, outperformed them in the marketplace.

My point is this: No single person invented the light bulb. It is the result of numerous people working over a long period of time.

These inventors made incremental improvements and learned not only from their own successes and failures but also from those of the other inventors.

Finally, someone came up with one that performed well enough – and cheaply enough – that it became viable for municipal, commercial and private use.

That Edison was the one who did that is clear, but even that is deceiving, for Edison didn’t work alone.

He assembled a team of researchers at his lab in Menlo Park that became known as the “muckers.”

These men all made significant contributions to the development of a light bulb even though most of us cannot name a single one of them.

Yet it is safe to say that without them there wouldn’t have been an Edison light bulb.

So why does Edison get all the credit? It was his laboratory, and he was the front man who received all the publicity and attention.

More than anything, however, crediting Edison alone plays into our American mythos of rugged individualism.

Our culture likes the story of this lone inventor genius toiling away in his lonely lab until – Eureka! – the “light bulb” goes off and in a moment of inspiration, he invents the light bulb.

Individualism is a good thing. Christianity helped to develop respect for the uniqueness of each person, and it is the foundation of our privacy rights and our freedom of religion.

It prevents the government or police from searching our homes at random without demonstrating probable cause.

It keeps us from a drab, colorless world in which everybody looks, acts, believes and talks the same.

But individualism must be tempered by the recognition that we are social beings who exist, and indeed thrive, in relationship with one another.

Our best ideas, our greatest advancements as a society, and our greatest gains in culture and government have primarily resulted from people collaborating.

Freely sharing concepts and learning from each other’s failures and successes, not from individuals huddling in their private spaces trying to go at it alone, is how we progress as a global society.

We’ve hurt each other with this myth of the rugged individual.

We’ve hurt our children, who grow up with stories of great individual accomplishments instead of stories of great collaborative accomplishments.

They, therefore, think that in order to be a person of significance, they must be great in some important area and weak in none, or else fall back into the faded pack of muddled mediocrity.

We need to tell better, more accurate stories of how humanity has progressed. When a team succeeds, each individual succeeds.

The Bible is interesting in this regard. While it tells the stories of individuals – Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon – it also exposes their sins.

Jacob cheats his twin brother twice, leading to his exile; Joseph enables Pharaoh to enslave the Egyptian people and, ultimately, the Hebrew people; King David breaks at least six of the Ten Commandments; and Solomon introduces idols into the Temple and, like Pharaoh, enslaves his own people.

There is really only one individual in the Bible who comes out completely clean, and that, of course, is Jesus. But even he didn’t try to do it alone.

He gathered 12 men around him who, with some fits and starts, took Christianity to the ends of the earth.

Apart from the cross and the resurrection, Jesus’ most lasting accomplishment has been the church.

He never intended this to be merely a collection of individuals, but rather a collaborative team working together, using each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, all for the kingdom of God.

Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.