Sir James Dyson — Founder of Dyson and Master Inventor on How to Turn the Mundane into Magic (#530)

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“There’s nothing wrong in always being dissatisfied; always look for improvement.”

— Sir James Dyson

Sir James Dyson is the founder and chairman of Dyson. Through investment in science and technology and working alongside Dyson’s 6,000 engineers and scientists, he develops products that solve problems ignored by others. Sir James was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2015 and appointed to the Order of Merit in the 2016 New Year Honours. He was awarded a CBE in 1996 and a Knight Bachelor in 2007.

James is the founder of James Dyson Foundation, inspiring the next generation of engineers through scholarships, engineering workshops, university partnerships, and the annual James Dyson Award, an international student design competition. In 2017 James established The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, where undergraduate engineers pay zero tuition and earn a full salary while completing their degree studies and working on real-life projects alongside world-experts in Dyson’s global engineering, research, and technology teams.

James is the author of the new book Invention: A Life, the story of how he came to be an inventor himself and built Dyson, leading it to become one of the most inventive technology companies in the world.

Please enjoy!

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The transcript of this episode can be found here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES…

Want to hear an episode with another inventive tinkerer? Lend an ear to my conversation with chef Chris Young, in which we discuss the symptoms of maxing out the learning curve, reverse engineering, OCD superpowers, getting hired by hard-to-reach people, why the most interesting jobs are the ones you make up, Victorian exercise regimens, killer vegetables, how geniuses show disappointment and prompt correction, apocalyptic-scale BBQs, and much more.

SELECTED LINKS FROM THE EPISODE

SHOW NOTES

Note from the editor: Timestamps will be added shortly.

  • Who was Jeremy Fry?
  • What did James study at university?
  • What does it mean to think like an engineer?
  • Were enthusiasm, fascination, and curiosity qualities that were fostered by anyone in James’ orbit as a youth, or did they come gradually through experiences along the way?
  • How might James suggest parents encourage these qualities in their children?
  • What’s the origin story of the original Dyson vacuum?
  • How many tries did it take to get a prototype that worked as intended, and what did the process of financing and development look like?
  • Why invention is not about being brilliant — it’s about being logical and persistent.
  • What compelled James to persist for as long as it took to create the first ideal prototype? How long would it have taken for him to throw his hands up and admit defeat if that prototype had never materialized?
  • Was developing the first prototype James’ full-time occupation at the time? Did he have a plan B if things didn’t work out?
  • Once the desired prototype appeared, why was the vacuum industry initially resistant to its innovations?
  • When did James finally get a foothold on the commercialization of his now-famous vacuum?
  • Encouraging feedback reinforcing James’ belief in this new product must have been overwhelming by this point, right?
  • How did James’ wife handle the uncertainty of prototype development and commercialization?
  • Even though surveys suggested that customers wouldn’t want to see the dirt and dust sucked up by the Dyson vacuum, James decided to make the cleaner’s bins see-through anyway. Why?
  • How expensive were the first Dyson vacuums compared to their contemporary competition? How hard was it to get retailers to carry them, and why did the customer demographic run counter to expectations for a “premium” brand?
  • Rather than designing to a price, what does James aim to achieve with his inventions?
  • Who is Akio Morita, and what does James appreciate about him?
  • Other inventors, designers, or engineers who stood out for James when he was developing his chops.
  • What led to the development of the Dyson Airblade?
  • On the Airblade being the first product Dyson targeted for an industrial rather than consumer audience, why this made James uncomfortable, and what its major selling points were.
  • Why, in spite of being fantastically efficient, James has to consider the Dyson washing machine a favorite failure.
  • Why the Dyson N526 electric car was canceled, and features James hopes to see carried over into future projects.
  • Dyson is a privately held company. What makes James uncomfortable about going public or accepting investment funding?
  • What prompted James to write Invention: A Life and start the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology?
  • On experience as baggage that can get in the way, applying cross-disciplinary curiosity to solve problems in unique ways, and the power of asking naive questions.
  • What would James’ billboard say?
  • Parting thoughts.

MORE GUEST QUOTES FROM THE INTERVIEW

“Experience is a baggage that can get in the way.”
— James Dyson

“Drop your fear of failure; don’t be afraid of failure.”
— James Dyson

“Invention is not about being brilliant; it’s about being logical and persistent.”
— James Dyson

“I did want to call my book A Life of Failure because failure’s exciting and you learn from failure. If you’re taught something and then what you do works, you haven’t really learned anything. You haven’t learned what doesn’t work, which is usually more interesting.”
— James Dyson

“The best questions are naive questions.”
— James Dyson

“Whenever I look at anything, I wonder how it works, and then I wonder how it could work better. Could I make it work better? Is there a technology I could use? Is there a way I can reconfigure it? Is there a radical breakthrough I could do for lateral thinking that would make a huge difference?”
— James Dyson

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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