Dean Kamen is one of the most brilliant inventors and innovators of our age. He’s probably best known for the Segway transportation system. His company, DEKA, is responsible for lots of innovative products and ideas, most recently the “Luke Arm“, a prosthetic arm created to replace limbs lost by soldiers in war. (He also has an awesomely eccentric house on a private island. If his focus wasn’t helping humanity, you’d almost think he was a James Bond villain.) I found a few interesting quotes in articles posted on the web.
From MakeZine and other sources that have since disappeared from the web.
You have been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. What inspires you to create?
Life is really, really short. There was an infinite past before I was here–some would argue it was 20 billion years or so, but I am not so sure. Suffice it to say that there was a very long time before I was here, and there will be a very long time after I am gone. My life looks like a tiny dot on that continuum. This perspective gives me a sense of urgency. With that sense of urgency, I get up every day and think that I do not want to waste any time. And if you don’t want to waste time, you look at all the problems you can work on and say, “I only want to work on the big problems. I am only going to work on the ones that matter.” If you are not working on important things, you are wasting time.
Does public education and higher education actually stifle creativity and innovation?
I think that most of the people who succeed in some extraordinary way, and most of the people who fail in some extraordinary way, tend to be people who did really well or really poorly in school. I think that school systems are really good at telling people how to do “okay” in the world. That is what their curriculum is about. That is what their institutional capability is about. That is what the people who run them are about. This is not to say that there isn’t a world full of hugely talented teachers working hard every day to make a difference and change kids’ lives. It is simply to say that the bureaucracy of the educational system limits the ability of educators to address the fringes. So if somebody was a good “B” student in school, you can be pretty sure that he or she is a good, average person. If a person gets A pluses in everything, or F minuses in everything, you can be pretty sure that he or she is an unusual person. Unusual people wrap around the ends of the bell curve. The system does not deal well with them. And I am not sure that the A+ person and the F- person are particularly different. It does not surprise me that when you look at people later in life, the people who got A pluses and F minuses end up doing substantially differently than the average people who are doing well in a system designed to accommodate the center of the bell curve.
On how to manage innovation:
We not only don’t punish mistakes or failures, we celebrate them as long as we get through them quickly and efficiently. You learn from failures, and you move on. I think people would much rather take a risk and focus on what can be done as opposed to protecting themselves against failure.
Each member of the team needs to recognize that the definition of success is not equivalent to a lack of failure. We work hard at doing something, and if we succeed, we will have raised the bar to create a better solution than anyone else.
On how to manage a group where some people have better ideas
We attempt to treat everyone fairly, but treating people fairly is not the same as treating them equally. People are not equal. And I think people don’t want to be equal for many reasons. Most people want to be individuals; they want to excel at something. And the definition of excelling means, “I’m going to prove just how unequal I am.” I don’t think there’s a problem with recognizing that different people have different strengths – not better, not worse, just different.
Why change the world? To me that’s what life is about. If you don’t do that, you might as well hibernate and sleep. If everyone thinks what you do is “normal” . . . it probably is. Why do that? Do something else!