Nikola Tesla Through the Lens of Developmental Theories

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By looking at developmental theories and applying them to the childhoods of saints and sinners throughout history, we are able to contextualize the way they have turned out, and gain a better understanding of human development. By using these theories and looking at how they have shaped saints specifically, it becomes possible to determine if a particular upbringing will give a child a better chance at becoming successful, or a better, kinder person overall. In this paper we will focus on two saints- Nikola Tesla and Mahatma Gandhi. We will apply Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory to both men to attempt to understand what happened in their lives that encouraged or caused them to be such influential and successful people. Both men had very different upbringings, however both turned out to be considered saints in modern day for their own accomplishments.

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Nikola Tesla was born in July of 1856 in modern day Croatia. His father, Milutin Tesla was an Orthodox priest, as well as a gifted writer and poet. His mother, Djuka Mandic was an inventor herself, and regularly invented household appliances while Tesla was growing up. Throughout his childhood he proved to have an impressive imagination and a knack for creativity. He had a brilliant memory which allowed him to quickly and effortlessly learn and speak 6 languages, as well as perform integral calculus in his mind.

Mahatma Gandhi was born on October 2nd 1869. His father was a chief minister and his mother was a deeply religious woman who fasted regularly for religious purposes. He grew up following Jainism, a morally rigorous Indian religion that includes fasting, meditation, vegetarianism. Jainism also promotes non-violence, which later became a large part of Gandhi’s life. Gandhi originally intended to become a teacher, but soon after decided to pursue a career in law. He moved to England to study law when he was 18 years old, and while there he discovered a strong interest in religion. He began to study as many religions as he could while getting his degree.

Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development focuses largely on the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. The ZPD was understood by Vygostsky as a way to describe the level of development a learner is currently at. The ZPD is also used to predict the next attainable level of development based off of environmental tools, as well as capable adults and peers. This promotes the idea that individuals learn and develop best when collaborating with others. Through working with other, more experienced peers or adults novice learners are able to internalize and perfect new skills, tools, and concepts. Education from the Vygotskian perspective is to keep learners in their own ZPDs often, by giving them tasks that are interesting and challenging, as well as meaningful in order to build skill level. By providing people in development with challenges that are slightly harder than the ones they are able to perform alone, collaboration with a more knowledgeable person is encouraged and sought out in order to complete the task. After working together with a more experienced learner, the novice should ideally become more confident and capable in performing the same type of task on their own. Some factors, such as age, individuality, nature of family and home, and the society and culture they are raised in all impact children’s ZPDs. The range of someone’s ZPD is broadened as they get older, and are exposed to more and more experiences.

Nikola Tesla’s ZPD was rich with knowledgeable people from the moment he was born. His mother was a hard working woman of many talents who regularly created new household appliances while Tesla was growing up. Tesla has stated that he attributes all of his creative instincts to his mother. He was creative from a very young age, and had an active imagination but it wasn’t until he noticed his mother’s inventions that he realized he could make the creations in his imagination come to fruition. His mother was able to encounter an issue, imagine a solution, and then create the solution herself and as Tesla grew and watched her he realized he could do the same as her. Tesla once wrote about his mother, “My mother was an inventor of the first order and would, I believe, have achieved great things had she not been so remote from modern life and its multi fold opportunities. She invented and constructed all kinds of tools and devices and wove the finest designs from thread which was spun by her”. His mother's role in his ZPD allowed him to go from what he was capable on his own- inventing in his mind, to what he is able to do with the help of others and beyond- creating the physical invention and putting it to use. When Tesla got older he joined forces with Thomas Edison to work on inventions together. However, Tesla and Edison differed greatly in their approach to inventions and creation. While Edison was passionate about the practicality of his inventions, he was also focused on the commercial production and use of his inventions. Tesla was strictly focused on the practicality of his inventions, and before Edison had never considered the commercial aspect of production. Edison quickly introduced Tesla to this side of inventing and he took to it without a problem. With Edison’s help Tesla was able to popularize and commercialize his inventions, whereas before their professional relationship he was unable.

Gandhi’s ZPD includes his parents predominantly. He was shy in school and did not have many friends or peers to work with and learn from. While he was young he rebelled occasionally. Sometimes he would eat meat, steal, or smoke. On one particular occasion he had stolen money from one of the servants who worked in his home, and used the money to buy cigarettes. This particular instance weighed on Gandhi particularly heavy and he began to feel overwhelming guilt. The guilt he felt continued to build as he thought of all the other times he had stolen, smoked, or rebelled in any way. He felt so bad that he even considered suicide. Eventually he decided to confess to his father. He was so frightened of the outcome that he wrote his confession down in a note and gave it to his father who was lying in bed. Gandhi’s father didn’t punish him the way he expected though, in fact his father didn’t blame him or guilt him and even understood that Gandhi was just a child who makes mistakes. He was so surprised by his father’s generosity and understanding that he vowed to never take advantage of it, and decided then and there to stop smoking and stealing. Gandhi took his father’s kindness to heart and made a point to practice this love in his own daily life. Gandhi was able to conceptualize that what he had done was wrong, and to feel the guilt so strongly on his own, but when he approached his father he was able to learn from his compassion. With his father’s influence Gandhi learned how to handle his guilt in a more effective way, to channel it into becoming a better person. He was able to learn from his father that violence and anger is not always the proper solution. Growing up Gandhi was able to understand how to follow and embrace religion. He followed Jain traditions, only straying occasionally in acts of rebellion but as a young man was not as devoted as he could have been. He would eat meat which was strictly against Jain traditions and did not yet understand the importance of the values outlined in Jainism the way his mother did. However his mother was pleased whenever he expressed interest in religion and tried to encourage him in any way she could. When she noticed his beliefs were shaken, and he was unsure about religion she did not scold him, but instead would gently guide him in the right direction, back to faith. Her approach worked and Gandhi began to understand the importance of Jain traditions and values. Before he left for England to study law he promised his mother to become a better follower of Jainism, and promised to stop eating meat. They kept in contact as much as they could while he was away, until she passed. He became a very strict vegetarian because he finally understood why not eating meat was important in Jainism and he embraced it wholeheartedly. On his own he was able to follow religion, but with his mother’s guidance he was able to understand the values of Jainism better and truly take them to heart which later became a huge part of his own moral code.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory states that environmental factors, personal factors, and behaviors all have the ability to inform and influence the other. Environmental factors include social and physical environments, include things like coworkers, friends, and family, as well as smaller things such as the temperature and size of a room. Personal factors include things like personality, self-efficacy, curiosity, and motivation to learn. Behavior is affected by each situation, and the constant influence of the three factors informing one another. When two or more factors or events have simultaneous effects on one another it is called reciprocal causation. Determinism plays an important role in Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory as well. Determinism is the theory that categorizes people’s behaviors or actions are just outcomes of previous events. This means that all of our behaviors are just in response to events that have already taken place. Bandura agreed with this theory, but also pushed the idea that environment plays a large role in behavior. He specifically felt that parents aggressive behavior could have the most negative impact on a child’s behaviors as they matured. Children learn from their parents and Bandura believed that children would imitate their parents aggression, or passive aggression while learning how to interact with their young friends. This second hand aggression then becomes a part of the other child’s environmental factors as well, and may begin a chain of negative events. His ideology was to diagnose and treat the issue during childhood. He believed that to lead children to success they had to have an appropriate upbringing, because it determines their temperment in the future.

When looking at Nikola Tesla through Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory shows he had many advantages from the beginning, stemming from his own personal factors. As a child he was incredibly creative and had a great mind even as a very young child. He was eager to learn right from the beginning and could be found doing research on his own without assistance from his parents. He was able to find a topic of interest and research textbooks that would provide him with the information he required, and would then study the texts with great ease. He was desperate to learn all he could about engineering and science and strived to make his desires a reality. His parents provided a healthy set of environmental factors as well. His father was a skilled writer, and his mother was an incredible inventor. His mother supported and believed in Tesla from when he was just a young boy. She would often create inventions to help her with chores around the house and was quick to show Tesla how to do the same for himself. His behavior followed accordingly- he was hardworking and ready to learn. He would push himself to study as much as he could and often ended up sleeping for only two hours a night due to the amount of research he was doing. However, there is another side to Tesla’s childhood that can also be examined with Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory. When he was very young, Tesla became very ill, and was bedridden for nine months. Doctors believed he would die soon after contracting the illness and told his parents as such, but he pulled through. 

A number of years later however, he contracted cholera at 17 years old. Again, doctors and his family were terrified he would die but after months he managed to recover, though remained very afraid of becoming so ill again. The personal factors regarding the illness also went hand in hand with his environmental factors at the time. His father and brother both suffered from mental illness. His brother was known to experience violent and frequent hallucinations, while his father suffered even more. Tesla’s father would have massive and dangerous fights with himself. He would incarnate different personalities and would fight himself for hours at a time. This created a very stressful environment for Tesla and he became very worried about falling subject to the same illness. The anxieties he felt about getting deathly ill, mixed with his concern for his father's well being began to manifest itself as its own illness. Tesla had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and was terrified of germs and disease of any kind. He obsessively washed his hands, and would often refuse to shake hands with people he met because of his fear of germs. He wore gloves most of the time to avoid contact with objects and other people who may have infected him. As his life progressed and his OCD did not improve he began to boil all of his food before he would touch or eat it. His OCD also affected his personal life, and while he was able to maintain a few friendly or work related relationships, he was never able to handle a romantic relationship due to his anxieties.

Gandhi had a number of environmental factors that really helped shape him into the great man he was. Growing up his mother provided him with immense love and support, and pushed him to pursue religion. She wanted him to live his best life and believed that through the moral laid out by Jainism he would be able to succeed and live his happiest life. She taught him that compassion and selflessness were key to a happy life. When he struggled in life, instead of punishing him she would gently push him to do the right thing. 

Her understanding and willingness to let Gandhi learn compassion at his own pace allowed him to really understand that there were ways of showing people the right way, without force or violence. His father was a bit more strict, however he was still able to help Gandhi determine the most appropriate way to approach change. His father’s knowledge from working as a government official gave him special insight into the way massive change is made. He passed this knowledge along to Gandhi while he was growing up, and even pushed him to become a part of the government as well. While he didn’t pursue a career as a government official, he studied to become a lawyer. Being at law school he learned even more about how to make a change. He was able to become fluent in persuasion and worked hard to become someone who could speak confidently and clearly about what he believed to be the truth. All of these factors worked in harmony with Gandhi’s core personality, as well as other personal factors. While he wasn’t the smartest kid in his classes growing up, he was always eager to learn. He had great curiosity which eventually led him to researching as many religions as he could find, which formed his moral code. He didn’t mind not being the smartest in class because he found great pride in the fact that he never lied to his teachers and always showed them great respect as he felt they deserved. He also always felt he had to do what was right, even as a very young child. While he did have a rebellious streak he was overwhelmed with guilt after each rebellious act, which always led him to confess. 

After each confession he would swear to himself, “never again” and each time he kept his promise to himself. At a young age he found himself stealing, smoking, and eating meat on occasion. He never lied but would create excuses when questioned about his wrongdoings, until eventually he would confess. By the time he was 18 he had sworn to never smoke, steal, or eat meat again, and he never betrayed himself. His determination allowed him to do great things as he grew older. Later in life when Gandhi began to fight injustice he had his own way of getting things done. While in South Africa working as a lawyer, he was thrown off a train because a white man was uncomfortable with his presence. Instead of physically or verbally fighting, or even fleeing South Africa to return to India as he was considering, he decided to sit at the train station all night until the train returned the next morning. Once it arrived in the morning he was allowed to re-enter the train and ride in the first class car, as the ticket he had paid from the day before stated. This was his first time practicing non-violent retaliation and it worked successfully. The knowledge he had been given from his parents and their ability to promote change, combined with his own determination and moral values he had instilled in him from a very young age allowed him to begin a movement of non-violent protests. He believed non-violent protests were about more than just not promoting violence, but instead about giving the opponent a new point of view. Gandhi promoted win-win solutions wherever he could, he did not want to make anyone suffer, but instead only wanted to enlighten and educate for the greater good.

Using developmental theories and applying them to well known people throughout history, allows us to contextualize the way they have turned out and gain a better understanding of human development. This can be helpful for a number of reasons, but specifically looking at particularly successful or unsuccessful people gives us a chance to understand what circumstances might have aided in the way their lives turned out. Looking at two great men like Nikola Tesla and Mahatma Gandhi allow psychologists to begin to understand what in their lives could have helped them succeed the way they had. Developmental theories provide a look into why a person has turned out the way they have, and when applied appropriately can help give us insight as to how to raise children next to promote wellbeing, as well as help us predict how someone may turn out based on their upbringing. Tesla and Gandhi grew up living two very different lives, but both turned out to be considered a saint in today’s world. Using Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory creates a lense in which both mean are examined and understood on a deeper level.  

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