Dean Kamen – Don't Tell Me It's Impossible


Roger Bannister broke the mythical 4-minute mile barrier in 1954. (Source: Guardian UK)

Dean Kamen is no stranger to innovation.

He’s also no stranger to doubters and skeptics. People said the Segway was impossible, but Kamen disagreed, and he was right.

“Don’t tell me it’s impossible,” he says, “tell me you can’t do it.” “Tell me it’s never been done. Because the only real laws in this world–the only things we really know–are the two postulates of relativity, the three laws of Newton, the four laws of thermodynamics, and Maxwell’s equation–no, scratch that, the only things we really know are Maxwell’s equations, the three laws of Newton, the two postulates of relativity, and the periodic table. That’s all we know that’s true. All the rest are man’s laws…”

-From Esquire profile titled “How Dean Kamen’s Magical Water Machine Could Save the World“, December 2008.

Dean was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997 for his biomedical devices and for making engineering more popular among high school students. He was later awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2000 by then President Clinton for inventions that have advanced medical care worldwide. In April 2002, Kamen was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventors, for his invention of the Segway and of an infusion pump for diabetics. In 2003 his “Project Slingshot,” a cheap portable water purification system, was named a runner-up for “coolest invention of 2003″ by Time magazine. In 2005, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention of the AutoSyringe. (source: Wikipedia)

Be careful about trusting intuition, but be more careful not to bend to the majority for whom “impossible” is a comforting excuse for inaction.

Related and Suggested Posts:
From Shanghai to Silicon Valley: 3 Tips for Turning Lack of Resources into Strength
The Margin Manifesto: 11 Tenets for Reaching (or Doubling) Profitability in 3 Months

Posted on: August 6, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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131 comments on “Dean Kamen – Don't Tell Me It's Impossible

  1. A friend was recently down in Florida. One day while she was sitting on the beach, she saw a person with 2 prosthetic legs, running past her. She turned to her sister and said “I guess we have no excuse now.”


  2. Great posting. The mind can be our biggest ally and at the same time our biggest obstacle. I have been reading your blog for months now and finally have decided to send you a comment. Thanks for all of the insight and wisdom.


  3. Tim,

    I realize you want to make frequent posts to boost your AdSense revenue, but I urge you to remain cognizant of quality.

    Your heart is in the right place. Next time, do more than regurgitate a WikiPedia entry with a couple platitudes slapped on.


    • Hi John,

      I appreciate the comment, but I do not have any AdSense revenue — or any advertising revenue — on this blog. There is no pressure for me to post often. I just like this and wanted to put it up. There will be more meat, but I enjoy short ones every once in a while :)



  4. I’m always motived when I do the P90X plyometrics workout and one of the guys in the video has one prosthetic leg. The human body can do a lot when pushed.


  5. Dean Kamen is truly an inspirational person. His work w/ FIRST ( is what lead me to become an engineer. The FIRST robotics competition is a very big deal in high schools across the country and gets students involved w/ technology in a very unique competition. Dean Kamen’s effort to promote technology and improve lives is outstanding! It was great to see this post. Most people don’t even know who he is yet he has done so much. Just look up some of his inventions and his company (DEKA).


  6. I’ve been a long time admirer of your work, Mr. Ferriss, but never compelled to write, until I read about the tragic news out of Pittsburgh about George Sondini – the gym killer. You have an uncanny resemblance to him. I’m sorry for posting this on your Blog – I didnt know how else to get this message to you.

    Regards & Keep up the great work.

    Craig K.


  7. Nice post here, Tim.

    It reminds me my credo who’s guiding me everyday:

    “Je l’ai fais car je ne savais pas que c’était impossible de le faire”

    Translation: ” I did it because I didn’t know it was impossible to do ”

    I know it’s a quote from a famous person but I don’t remember who it was…

    If someone knows, say it loud! :P



  8. Heh – two replies about people getting around on prosthetic legs and then one where someone with both legs wants a Segway. :)

    Good stuff, Tim. I always like these snippets that remind that reaching too short often is more a disservice to us than reaching too far ever will be. “Won’t change your brand of cereal” or something I believe is what you said about it.


  9. I think Kamen’s attitude is sorely needed in light of the energy, environmental, and economic challenges facing our civilization. However, I worry that it can also be used–disingenuously–to justify inaction:

    – We don’t need to conserve energy now because human innovation will find a way to provide abundant cheap energy in the future
    – We don’t need to reduce carbon emissions now because human innovation will provide cheap and effective means of carbon sequestration
    – We don’t need to _________ (the opposite of any position that espouses near-term sacrifice) because we’ll find find an easy solution in the future that won’t require such sacrifice

    These kinds of arguments seem inherently appealing to the human brain, and especially in modern liberal democracies. This is NOT to say that we shouldn’t place a premium on innovation. On the contrary–I agree with the sentiment that we must avoid categorizing anything as impossible. However, we should be careful that, to the extent we have faith in our ability to innovate, this faith can be used to rationalize poor near-term decision making.


  10. I had just finished my second NYC marathon, and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Probably a bit too pleased with myself. Then I overheard this conversation behind me between two other runners:

    “How many have you done?”

    “This is my 98th”

    “Wow, 98 Marathons!”

    “Yeah, I have Parkinsons, so I want to get as many in as I can”

    Very inspiring and incredible. And there’s also Scott Johnson. I was watching an Ironman on TV, I think in Hawaii, and during the bicycle leg the TV truck pulled up next to a cyclist who had a date written on his arm. The TV crew asked him what that date was.

    “That’s the date I had my double-lung transplant.”


  11. I used to believe that wealth (or being one of the New Rich) was reserved only for certain people (i.e. not me). Now I see that wealth-building, making a name, or being successful (at anything) are for the ones who, among other things, make wise choices and don’t take NO for an answer. And that’s something anyone can do–just a choice.



  12. Something that amazes me about the online world: If you can think of the idea, there’s always someone out there with the skills to pull it off. So think big, come up with big ideas and get the right people on board to execute them. I think it’s really exciting to imagine what the future holds online.

    And the same is probably true in the ‘real world’.