John Aitchison | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

John Aitchison


Formerly known as Seattle BioMed, the Center for Infectious Disease Research advances the science to develop vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for infectious diseases that kill 14 million people annually. John Aitchison, a longtime researcher at the Seattle-based nonprofit, was voted to serve as the third president and director in its 40-year history.

The Mistake:

Letting my ego get in the way.

Back in the day, when I arrived as a postdoc at a prestigious lab at a prestigious university, I came in thinking I was a golden child. But I quickly realized I was really just a small fish in a big pond filled with many golden children and rock stars.

It was a difficult environment, and most of us in the lab were competitive with one another. We tried to stay to ourselves and win whatever race we were in. Science can be that way; you want to get the right results, support or refute a hypothesis, and move the field forward quickly. People in the lab would work at all hours of the night trying to push the envelope forward as quickly as possible.

As a result, many of us failed and never really had success. After a couple of years of this, it became evident that there was potential for us to collaborate and learn from one another’s experiences and technical backgrounds.

I ended up forming an unlikely partnership with one guy whose personality, life experiences and interests – except for science – were different than mine. But once we realized the value of our partnership, we became good friends and successful collaborators. Twenty-five years later, we’re still working together. It’s been a remarkable adventure.

When you put ego aside and trust the team, everyone learns from each other.

The Lesson:

There are always going to be people who are smarter than you, and there’s always this sense that this makes them better than you. But after a while, you’ll recognize that they aren’t really better; they just have different experiences than you. You need to acknowledge that you don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room. When you put a number of smart people together to work on something, you teach each other and learn more.

We’ve since built multidisciplinary teams incorporating physicists, mathematicians, experimental biologists, chemists and engineers, all of which are focused on a single thing. When you put ego aside and trust the team, everyone learns from each other and can address the questions they’ve never been able to address before.

The guy I mentioned earlier? We are still the best of friends, have successfully won grants together, and set up a collaborative center for molecular research. Our collaboration has helped us professionally and advanced our understanding of microbiology at the atomic level, with implications for curing infectious diseases.

Follow the Center for Infectious Disease Research on Twitter at: @CIDResearch

Photo courtesy of the Center for Infectious Disease Research

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