17 Career Lessons from Ideo's David Kelley

David Kelley is well-known for his astute application of design thinking to many of life's intractable problems. Less known is that he's also a veritable Dr. Phil of good advice about life, careers, and the importance of not being a jerk.

"If you ask people, was there ever a teacher or mentor who changed your life, many hundreds of people would say that was David Kelley. I'm one of them," his brother, Tom Kelley, told me. "If they spread the word....you can figure the exponential effect."

David Kelley meeting

In this spirit, we asked former students, co-workers and friends to share their favorite Kelley life lessons. Here's what they said:

"Success tends to focus your efforts, failure assures me that you try something different and eventually better." — from Perry Kleban, CEO, Timbuk2

"You're the best version of yourself when you manage to have fun doing your work." — from Chris Flink, Ideo

"You can't think your way through every problem. Trying things and engaging people helps you get unstuck." — from George Kembel, executive director, Stanford d.school

"The greatest responsibility of any leader is to make new leaders. David knew that neither he, himself, nor any one person has all the answers. He empowers others to do stuff." — from Tom Kelley, Ideo

"When I was going to design school in Chicago, at IIT, in 1989, a friend of mine and I went all the way to Evanston, a suburb that seemed unbelievably far away from school, to hear this guy David Kelley present at Northwestern University. The thing that was amazing to me was that he was talking about HOW designers should work, not about WHAT they should be working on. I remember thinking how right it sounded, and that it was a pretty fresh message among all the others I was getting about what it meant to be a designer in this world. I still hold true a lot of what he was saying then. — from Ilya Prokopoff, Ideo

"The true brilliance of the human-centered design process is that it keeps us humble. I am in awe of his humbleness." — from Susie Wise, Stanford d.school

"'Do not allow hierarchy and status into your teams, and your workplace because it will destroy collaboration." — PK

"David can take the nature of any experience—from 'Let's go to the zoo to let's go to football game, to let's hear a speaker, to let's have cancer'—and bring the same intensity to all of them. He's in the moment like nobody I've ever known. He can take the naïve view of that moment and see what is unique about it, see its virtue and see what he can learn from it." — from Jim Hackett, CEO, Steelcase

"David is one of those magical people who beams not only generous permission, but pure optimism, into anyone who works with him. His ability to empower others is built-in to the way he is, and the way he engages with people, and yet it is often nearly invisible at the moment of contact" — from Tom Eich, Ideo

"There is no challenge, big or small, in the world that could not benefit from a healthy dose of cavalier creativity." — CF

"Make the human element as important as the technical and business elements." — GK

"Your failures interest me far more than your success." — PK

"Leaders don't have to be scary. Or egomaniacal. Or people you have to watch yourself around. I've always felt like myself around him. I chalk this up to his being genuinely curious about what others have to say. — IP

"David helped me realize that it's not what you work on, but whom you work with that makes all the difference. This, ironically, resonates even at a company that tackles some of the most exciting creative challenges in the world." — CF

"Think with your hands, build something or try something, then talk about it, NOT the reverse." — PK

"You don't have to choose between doing what you love and making a living." — GK

"Better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one' (you will see more possibility then, you will be an empathetic leader to the experts, and you will be a more interesting person.)" — PK

"These are the good old days." — CF

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