Totally lazy. Undisciplined. Considered a hopeless case. All words you'd think of when you consider  successful entrepreneurs, right? (Ha, not even close.) Yet, those are the words PhD John Serri, an atomic physicist from Silicon Valley, uses to describe himself as a kid. In fact, he nearly flunked out of MIT.

But like Steve Jobs and dozens of other innovative greats, Serri was both obsessively curious and intelligent. Eventually he was able to buckle down, concentrate and demonstrate his full capacity, a feat he attributes to traits of persistence and optimism. After years working for Bell Labs and various government agencies in areas like nuclear weapons effects and survivable networks design, he eventually found work in Silicon Valley as a lead developer with communication systems company Globalstar. Once in the Bay area, he was impressed by the people who seemed so focused on doing good work. Nearly two decades into that scene, he's now the co-founder and CTO for vision technology company EyeQue. The business creates at-home vision monitoring devices and expands access to eye care solutions.

What really separates the "haves" from the "have nots"?

Serri's convinced from his years in the valley that successful entrepreneurs have to start with two things to "make it"--passion and great ideas that have the potential to be commercially successful. Excitement about a concept alone won't fix its flaws, and fantastic innovations still can fall flat if you're not willing to work. Traits like intelligence, patience, confidence, respectfulness, humility and intuition help you interact with the world as you toil, too, but Serri says they're secondary.

Secondly, you have to recognize that everyone has something to learn from someone else. Each generation can mentor each other and do more together than they would be able to independently. For example, Serri claims that older entrepreneurs bring management experience newbies don't have, while newbies often bring technology savvy. He thus recommends that younger entrepreneurs spend a few years in a big company learning management skills before striking out on their own.

5 lifetime lessons Serri wants you to know the most

Looking back on his career, Serri acknowledges he has some regrets, such as not studying more computer science and not getting away from big bureaucratic government sooner. But he's learned from experience what it takes to get to the top even in one of the most competitive regions of the world, and he sees no need for you to take years to grasp what he now understands. If he were sitting next to you, he'd tell you

Learn from history. "The early dot.com boom was an exciting time in Silicon Valley, and everyone wanted their piece of Internet territory. Too many people placed wild, expensive bets on companies that were unlikely to succeed. Despite the headlines, today we see a lot more conservatism. Investors and entrepreneurs alike are more thoughtful than they're given credit for. My advice? Take calculated risks and always plan for the worst."

The experts don't know everything. "Innovation is rarely achieved by merely accepting the advice of the 'experts', especially in the early stages of technology development. All input is valuable, but entrepreneurs need to be willing and eager to step outside of the proverbial box when it comes to, well, everything ­- from design and manufacturing to inspiring the company culture. Surround yourself with people who will challenge you, not just tell you what you want to hear."

Every idea is worth exploring. "As a startup, you can't pigeonhole your staff or your ideas if you want to be successful. Creating a culture where people are not only allowed but encouraged to swim outside of their lane is when the real excitement begins. This works particularly well in a small startup where resources are thin and every idea has the potential to take what you're creating to the next level."

Use your success to empower others. "Throughout my career, few things have brought me greater pride than being able to give back to the communities that helped me get to where I am today. And this doesn't have to mean starting a foundation or annual donations in the millions. For me, the most valuable opportunity is in sharing knowledge - educating young entrepreneurs. Through teaching, guest lecturing at your alma mater or participating in panel discussions, helping the next generation realize their own potential and encouraging that intellectual curiosity is one of the greatest forms of support established entrepreneurs can provide."

It's never too late. "You can become an entrepreneur at any age as long as you have the will, the vision and the energy. In fact, there are benefits to starting a company later in your career vs. the beginning - wisdom and knowledge can trump raw energy. After all, Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders started his empire at the ripe age of 66." (Side note: Serri himself serves as an example here, too. He co-founded EyeQue with Tibor Laczay of Zenni Optical when he himself was on the cusp of retiring.)

As for what Serri wants for himself and EyeQue, that holds a lesson, too.

"My hope is that EyeQue will grow into a sustainable business that helps millions of people around the world. [... And my goal is for employees and affiliates of the company] to leave EyeQue better than they came in. [...] My co-founder and I do not think much about exit strategy or IPO at this point. Rather, we focus on making a great company to help people and have some fun along the way."

Help people. Have fun. That--not money, not power, not fame--is what business is all about. If you can go to bed each night saying you did both those things, you've nailed it.

Published on: May 22, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.