Looking back on a 30 year career in medical device innovation, what advice would I give now to my younger self back then?

In the popular song by Jimmy Buffet, “A Pirate Looks at 40” Jimmy is lamenting the aging process and hitting the 40 year milestone without achieving what he had hoped for in his youth. He apparently discovered later in life that there was no opportunity to be a pirate, at least not the way he imagined in his youth.

This week I hit the ripe old age of 55. This is a major milestone because I can now get a senior discount at buffets and coffee shops… one of the big perks of supposedly no longer being middle aged.

While 40 came and went without me thinking too much about mortality, at the age of 55 I now have a 30 year career to look back and reflect upon. I thought I’d take a moment here to wax philosophical and ask myself what I know now after those 30 years that I wish I knew back then.

This week I was sitting in our conference room across the table from an entrepreneur and answering many questions related to startups and innovation. The advice that typically arises in these conversations is usually related to important steps in our Kablooe D3® Development Process. Things like understanding your users, knowing who they are, evaluating realistic market sizes, return on investment, R&D Scope, and manufacturing were covered.

These things are the standard “Kablooe Business” gems that I give as advice to startups and innovators on a daily basis. But what about the deeper, more ethereal learnings from thirty years of innovation and business experience? There are a few things that I think were pivotal learnings for me that I only learned through experience, and I would like to share them with you here.

First, there are two ways to learn anything: the easy way and the hard way. The hard way is by direct experience. This is hard because often that experience has to be laden with adversity for there to be any learning in it. The easy way is hearing wisdom from someone, taking it to heart, and acting on it. This is a lot faster than the hard way, and if you are paying attention you can gain deep insights and learn helpful lessons. You just have to make sure you are paying attention. The hard way has your attention from the get-go.

Second, survival makes things happen. You make things work when you HAVE to make them work and there is no other choice. Thinking you are entitled to succeed at anything without working for it sets you up for failure, because when the rubber hits the road you won’t have the grit to tough it out, which is developed from “succeed or die trying” experiences.

When I started Kablooe at the age of 25, I was tossed into a survival situation immediately. We lost our only customer on our very first day of business when they declared bankruptcy. You heard that correctly, I am not exaggerating for effect here. The very first Monday after I quit a regular paying job, I started working full time at our startup and heard an announcement on the radio that afternoon that our only customer declared bankruptcy. I remember doing a double take to make sure I heard it correctly, then looked at my partner and stated that we needed to find more customers, quickly. I had no choice other than to make it work. I had a brand new (first time) mortgage and a one year old daughter. The bridge was burned at my previous job (in a good way). I had to make it work… no choice. That kind of survival mentality is what has kept Kablooe alive for thirty years through a couple of recessions and other types of adversity.

Third, understand the “trust your gut” advice a bit more deeply. I have seen people push hard and long down a path for a bad idea that was doomed from the beginning. I suspect they believed they were trusting their gut, but in reality they were more likely pushing forward with something they were enamored with. Your gut should be telling you what is right even if your surface level desires want something else. That is what you need to listen to.

How can we tell the difference between our gut and a surface level desire? Good question. I think the answer has something to do with humility. Not being sheepish, but the kind of humility that is willing to put the ego of ‘my great idea’ aside, and take a look at the real world scenarios around the idea. This requires the ability to admit your idea needs to change or be eliminated, which takes real world humility.

It seems to me that real world humility comes from adverse experiences, which is learning things the hard way. Perhaps the more humble we become, the more we are likely to start learning things the easy way. This would mean that the more humble we are, the more likely we are to listen to wisdom from others.

Lastly, lest I go on too long here, I want to leave you with a final bit of wisdom that I have seen play out over the years: Help other people. Pay things forward. Good karma will be your best friend in the long run. Even if it costs you something and you get nothing out of it, help others when you have the chance. You will gain from it down the road in ways that you can’t foresee now.

I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with one good quote that applies to this principle. King Solomon of Israel stated, “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it.” Trust me. You will be glad you did.