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Inventor James Dyson on Why Failure Is a Good Thing

Plus more good advice about life and work.

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by Susan Crandell

Work
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James Dyson is the founder of Dyson, the maker of innovative vacuum cleaners, fans and more. He’s also the founder of the James Dyson Foundation, which supports science, design and engineering.

What was (or is) your best day at work?
The challenge with engineering is that you never know when you’ll have a breakthrough. Sometimes it’s the end result after building hundreds of prototypes and other times it’s a quick idea we’ve stumbled upon. These moments are incredibly exciting, but short-lived as there is always more testing and development to be done. But that’s part of the fun.

The worst?
Early on in my career I made the mistake of not patenting the Ballbarrow -- which was a wheelbarrow with giant pneumatic ball rather than a wheel -- in my own name. The company I worked for booted me out and I lost all rights to my invention. Ever since, I’ve fought tooth and nail to protect what’s mine.

Who is your hero in the work world?
My mentor Jeremy Fry took me on as an undergraduate when I was a student at the Royal College of Art and entrusted me with developing a high-speed landing craft called the Seatruck. Starting with a plank of wood as a hull, I was challenged to get my hands dirty and turn the concept into an actual working boat. Jeremy taught me that it’s better to take an iterative approach to a problem, where you adapt and improve on an idea one small step at a time rather than giving up at the first hurdle. Learning by doing is invaluable and he helped instill in me the idea that failure is a good thing.

What change in your work life would you most like to see?
I’d like more help! It’s the Dyson engineers that do inventing these days, but we need more of them. We’re recruiting but we’re still struggling to find the right people. There is a huge shortage of engineers in Britain. I believe the same problem persists in America where young people are drawn into more fashionable service careers. My foundation is working to show young people that engineering is an exciting, challenging job – one that requires you to use your hands and brains.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got?
Don't listen to experts!

What's the best piece of advice you ever gave?
My advice is to trust your own instincts. When people first saw my vacuum cleaner they argued that the clear plastic bin was a bad piece of design because the person vacuuming can always see the dirt. Well that’s exactly the point! It lets you know when you need to empty it! I ignored them and it paid off. People get satisfaction watching the fluff and grime go round the bin because they know the technology works.

Tell us about a time when having a lot of experience under your belt changed a situation.
Experience is useful. But it can be a burden too, especially when it come to invention – where you are trying to break new ground. Perhaps I’m less inventive than I used to be. But that’s fine. I can act more as mentor. I have the wisdom of all those mistakes. It gives you the confidence to challenge people to keep on improving.

When you graduated from college, what did you think your job would be now?
I started out studying furniture design. As an arts man, I wasn’t expected to be curious about how cars and televisions worked. Then I discovered industrial design – where I learned that how something works is more important than how it looks. Rather than a set career path, I worked on projects that inspired me. Over the years, this hasn’t really changed.

What do you think is the biggest misperception about workers as they age?
When I started Dyson we were a very young company. I think the average age was something like 25. That’s changed now. We’ve been going for 20 years and we’re a much larger company. I think you need a balance of experience and new talent and get them working together. It’s easy to think that to come up with fresh ideas that you only need young people, but that’s not the case. Our more experienced engineers – those who bring a wealth of knowledge to fields like thermal dynamics or motor development – help mentor young people and channel their ideas and unabashed exuberance into tangible products.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure that helps you unwind after a hard day?
I have a JCB digger and after a challenging day, I have been known to do some excavating in the garden.

What job would you do for free?
Money is not a motivator for me. I love what I do; engineering is fun and rewarding. I wish more people agreed.

Is there a road not taken in your career? A decision that you still wonder about?
Too many! But the great thing about invention is that the path is rarely planned. You experiment and stumble onto new ideas or improvements. You can always do something better, but at some point you have to stop or you’ll go on forever. I think that’s a common trait among inventors. Perfection takes forever.