Interview: John Abele

John Abele is retired Founding Chairman of Boston Scientific Corporation, which develops, manufactures, and markets medical devices. These days, he’s Vice Chair of the FIRST Foundation, which inspires kids to be science and tech leaders; developer of Kingbridge Conference Centre & Institute; and believer in redefining problems.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?
I’m curious. I like to provoke, stimulate, question with the goal of producing good ideas and, from my point of view, learning things that the people I’m talking to either know a lot about or are learning themselves.

What I do with that I guess you could say is my work. It’s got a philanthropic component to it, it’s got an investment component to it, it’s got a stimulation component to it.

How do we balance confidence and humility?
It’s confidence that allows you to be humble. If you’re confident, you don’t have to worry about impressing others with all your success because you’re comfortable with yourself.

[There’s] that expression that talks about how people seem to be comfortable in their own bodies. You can see it in the way they stand, the way they talk. They’re not trying to dominate. They’re trying to communicate.

What’s the best antidote to fear?
Over the years, I’ve been terrified of things. I was terrified of talking in front of groups. I was terrified of heights. When I got out of college, the one thing I really couldn’t stand was selling. I didn’t like the concept and I’m shy. But there’s one thing that I can’t stand even more and that’s having something that I can’t stand control me. So, I sold lightbulbs to all sorts of companies…and overcame my shyness.

It’s about having an anthropological perspective. If I was going to give a talk, I would say [to myself], ‘What’s it going to be like the day after it’s over?’ The other aspect is remembering, ‘I can learn. I may fail and it’ll be embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. I will learn more at the end than I knew beforehand.’

What’s a good mindset for problem solving?
Find many different ways of looking at the problem. Keep redefining the problem. If you’re a facilitator and you’re bringing people together, one of the classic tools of the facilitator is to reframe whatever they’re talking about. [If] you run into a dead-end, look at it totally differently. How creative can you be?

The other way is to turn the problem upside down. For example: this problem you’re talking about, [what if it] was actually a good thing? How would you make it bad? That’s flipping it. And in the process, you’re going to learn about attributes of that issue that you wouldn’t think about because you looked at it upside down.

Then there is systems [or] ecosystem thinking: trying to understand all the things that are connected to the problem you’re trying to solve. Draw a map – a connection map – and that sometimes helps you understand the unintended side effects of what you’re going to do.

How do you combat cynicism?
Cynicism is negative. It’s a mindset that gives up. You know, the Aspen institute was founded in 1950 to address major social problems in society. They brought some of the leading minds of the day – a little bit different from today’s Aspen Institute, but certainly similar – [and] they would do theater. That’s a great technique to take yourself out of the world you’re in and into a new world and start redefining it. It’s a way to give you fresh approaches.

What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?
The discovery of possibilities. People sometimes listen to you more because you’ve had experiences that they haven’t had. What a wonderful opportunity to take those experiences and share them! And every time you share them, you learn more.

And, of course, you collect a large number of friends. But if you reach a point where you’re spending a lot of time going to funerals, then you didn’t do it right. You spent too much time within your age zone.

My recommendation is make sure you’ve got a diverse circle that includes the youth as well as the silver-haired. Spend time with people who have had experiences that you cannot conceive because they’re growing up in a different world. The world is changing faster now than it was and you want to get that insight.

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