The Wisdom of John Abele

by Melanie Roberts

During the early stages of designing ELISS, I came across a TED talk by John Abele, which talked about the critical need for collaboration, and also the challenges of doing it well. I thought, “Yes! He gets it! I need to meet this man, learn everything I can from him, and see if we can work together toward our common mission.” John is the founder of Boston Scientific, a biomedical device company that revolutionized the practice of medicine. He is also a philanthropist, and much of his work is directed toward this cause. For example, he has been involved as a board chair and other roles at FIRST Robotics, a nation-wide program that engages teams of middle and high school students in a robot building challenge, which builds both capacity for creative collaboration, gracious professionalism, and passion for science and technology.

I flew out to meet John at his home in Vermont, and the rest is history. John has been a tremendous inspiration to me personally and ELISS benefactor. His family foundation, The Argosy Foundation, was the largest donor for each of the three ELISS classes.

John recently passed along some his wisdom to the ELISS class of 2016, who he joined by video from Kingsbridge Conference Center in Toronto, which he founded to help teams develop their collaboration capacity. During the hour-long discussion, he shared thoughts on innovation, the changing world, and how the students could positively contribute to it.

His overarching message was that collaboration across silos of disciplines and other “tribes” is the key to addressing the complex challenges we face, and is more important now than ever before. Some highlights from his conversation with the fellows include:

On Innovation
John reminded the fellows that “innovation doesn’t occur within disciplines, but when disciplines crash together.” He reminded fellows that entrepreneurial pursuits that require many different people to adopt a new idea requires disciplines well beyond STEM fields, including finance, philosophy, art, and more. He thinks that interdisciplinary education can advance innovation by helping people think broadly and not get trapped in disciplinary silos.

On science and technology in a changing world
Technology can “feed the world or destroy the world,” he said, citing positive and negative uses of social media and DNA editing. Indeed, as he excitedly discussed the possibility of microexpression analysis technology to give biofeedback on emotional states in order to promote more rational decisions, I couldn’t help but think of some potentially harmful uses of such technology. John mentioned the rapidly increasing pace of technological change, which is now even limiting the ability of “The Establishment” to resist change. This presents many opportunities for change makers, whose intentions could be good or bad. “The question now isn’t what can we do, it is what should we do.”

On creating change
John encouraged the fellows to be change agents and to partner with other change agents to tackle hard problems. He encouraged them to be ambassadors for what they believe, and remember that the wording of their message is at least as important as the idea behind it. He shared his serenity prayer philosophy: don’t worry too much about all the problems they can’t change, but to focus on the ones they can. For example, how can they help their research community work more effectively? His parting words of wisdom were, “Stay curious, and don’t get cynical.”

As the fellows eagerly asked questions, I also had a mini epiphany. As he talked about catalyzing change in healthcare by empowering patients to participate in their own care, rather than “receiving” it from the experts, I realized that graduate education could benefit from the exact same approach. Once again, a good reminder that innovation happens at the boundaries!

Thank you very much for your support and inspiration, John Abele!