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Tips From The Top: One On One With Dean Kamen

I spoke to Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, about his best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Dean: Technology and innovation are key to moving our society forward, but they can also be used to make a point. I recently took on a passion project, designing a clock to represent how, for every step we take backward – and I think as a society we’re taking many steps backward as of late – we must take two steps forward just to keep pace with the world around us. The clock actually does spend one-third of its time moving backward and two-thirds of its time moving forward. These motions occur at three-times the pace of a conventional clock, so it’s perfectly resynchronized at the end of every minute.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Dean: Every failure has been instrumental to my growth. That’s the theme of the clock I designed: “For every step back, two steps ahead.” If you take one step back and two steps forward, you’re staying in sync with everyone, but you’re also gaining three times the life experience, three times the ability to work at a difficult problem, and three times the perseverance to fail and pick yourself back up. That’s what it’s going to take to keep the world advancing.

Adam: Can you describe the process of inventing something? How much of it is a natural gift and how much is it process?

Dean: I don’t believe invention is a gift – it’s a muscle that everyone has but doesn’t necessarily know how to use, and it’s fed by creativity and problem solving. We see this every day through my nonprofit, FIRST, which fosters kids’ interest in STEM fields through robotics challenges. We see so many students dip their toes into STEM without any previous experience and by the end, they’re using engineering, physics, machining and much, much more to compete with a robot they can proudly say they designed and built themselves.

Adam: What are your three best tips for companies to promote creativity within the workplace?

Dean:

1. Provide opportunities for your employees to work with or be around peers they don’t usually work with. Diversity is important: Mixing personalities, skillsets, and backgrounds is the best way to learn how to interact with others, be creative, and get fresh thinking.

2. Understand that no idea is a bad idea. Promote experimentation: Even if a project or assignment fails, view it as a learning opportunity and grasp whatever takeaways you can, and leverage those in the next iteration.

3. Invest in young people. Many Fortune 500s – from Google to Apple, FedEx and Boeing – support FIRST and mentor kids, helping them embrace challenges and discover their passions. It’s the next generation that will drive creativity in the workplace, so investing not just money but more importantly, time, is critical. You’re creating your future workforce.

Adam: What is something anyone can do tomorrow to enhance their creativity and productivity?

Dean: If you’re working on a project, seek out input from someone you wouldn’t normally interact with. Diversity is an enormous driver of creativity, and the introduction of viewpoints and ideas different from your own will spur very different thinking and enable you to attack a problem from a direction you didn’t think possible before.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Dean: Leaders know how to inspire others to find greatness in themselves. Just as one executive can inspire thousands of employees, one teacher can impact the lives of hundreds of children. Taking your leadership skills to the next level means you never stop learning – not necessarily from books, but by learning from others. Find leaders you admire, spend time with them, and ask as many questions of them as possible.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Dean: My father, who was a commercial artist, was self-employed. As a kid, I noticed he seemed to work all the time, when other kids’ fathers would come home from work and spend their evenings playing ball. One day, I told him I felt sorry for him, but he shut that down. To him, it wasn’t a job. He said that all those other guys only get to play in the evenings or weekends, but he gets to love his work. When he wasn’t making art for clients, he painted. He told me – and this was the only advice he ever gave me – to figure out what I love to do when I’m young, then figure out how to make money doing it. That was when I decided I would work for myself. I hated the idea of having a boss, so seeing him work at night, for himself, was inspiring. I started making stuff when I was 12, and never stopped.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Dean: Get involved in inspiring the next generation to be global citizens, leaders and innovators, and that’s something everyone can do by getting involved with FIRST. The empowerment that kids have when they find out that they can build, invent and create – it changes their perspective about the world and what they can achieve. Then, those kids are going to pay it forward in the ultimate way by solving the world’s most challenging problems.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Dean: I see my hobbies the same as my work because I love creating things. When I’m at home in New Hampshire, I’m often building in my workshop. That’s where I design and built my clocks; it’s a reminder that with the time we have, we should always be moving forward.

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