6 Lessons I learned from CEO Ray Zinn about business and life

Last month, I was honored to speak with Ray Zinn, who has made recent headlines after releasing his first book, Tough Things First.

Zinn is best known for becoming the longest-running CEO in Silicon Valley history, with a 37-year tenure at Micrel.

After 37 years as CEO, Zinn stepped down, but only after selling the company he founded to Microchip Technology Inc.

for $839 million!

What I learned from Ray transcends business and numbers.

When Ray and I spoke on the phone, I learned the mindset behind the man.

These are lessons I will carry with me forever.

I could have easily created a list of 25 to 30 items but boiled it down to six.

Here are six lessons I learned from Ray Zinn about life, business, and… even marriage.

Lessons I learned from CEO Ray Zinn about business and life

*The following lessons are excerpts from my conversation with Ray.*

1. It’s not what happens to us. It’s how we respond that shapes our life.

Life is not a crystal staircase for any of us.

Even when life looks amazing on the outside or on social media (our own personal highlight reel), we are all faced with real-life challenges, many of which are unavoidable.

While Ray Zinn has faced a ton of challenges in his life (like going blind the same week his company went public), during our conversation, he highlighted a friend’s story that brought this point to life.

As told by Ray Zinn: I have a friend named Robert Hunt.

Robert Hunt lost his eyesight at 15.

He was in an accident and lost his vision completely.

His optical nerves were severed, and he first went into a state of depression.

Soon after, he decided he would not let that continue.

He ultimately graduated high school.

He went to University and even graduated cum laude.

Then he went on to Stanford Law School and graduated top of his class in Law!

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He is currently serving as a lawyer in Los Angeles – and he is totally blind.

There is no education I could think of that requires more reading skills than being a lawyer.

He has no optical capability at all.

Yet still, he was cum laude in his undergraduate and finished at Stanford University top of his class.

Now to me, that just shows you that the only limitation is yourself.

If you feel you can’t do it, you won’t.

2. Use defining moments to access prior wisdom and courage to move forward strategically.

We will all face incredibly tough times in our lives.

For every challenge we face, there is a past story of triumph within us.

These stories remind us of who we really are during our toughest times.

When I asked Ray about his mindset when he realized he was going blind – which was the same week his company went public – he told me a story about a transformative period in his life.

He was 16, short, and trying to run the hurdles for his high school team.

Ray had no experience running hurdles and was actually humiliated by his high school coach after breaking some of the hurdle equipment.

The coach thought Ray was too short to run hurdles well.

Ray explains to his father what happened at school.

His father didn’t want to hear any complaints: Ray’s dad only wanted to hear what his son would do about it.

Ray then explained:

“We took three hurdles and placed them out in the backyard, in the long alleyway where the trucks go to pick up the garbage.

I practiced every evening after school.” 

Ray was too short to run the hurdles traditionally.

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So he had to “practice by running the hurdles with alternating legs.

I couldn’t just move in three steps like normal hurdlers, because I’m so short.

I had to alternate legs, so I had to learn how to hurdle with both the right leg and the left leg.”

Ray continued to practice.

That year, he took 4th in the state.

He has anchored himself in this story his entire life.

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3. “The more things you learn to overcome, the less things you hate.” – Ray Zinn

Everything can be learned.

“Adversity stinks like manure, but it helps us grow.

We have to deal with adversity and challenges because that’s how we grow.

That’s what my book is all about, ‘Tough Things First’.

I identified all the things that I didn’t want to do and I trained myself to love them; it’s called ‘loving the things you hate’.” – Ray Zinn

4. With life, love, and business – think long-term. Become legendary.

Serving as the head of Micrel in Silicon Valley for 37 years, Ray Zinn holds the title of the longest-running CEO the Valley has ever seen.

Ray has also been married to his wife, Delotta, for 55 years!

In his book, Tough Things First, Ray speaks about the transformative power of vision and discipline.

In one instance, he uses a pilot as a metaphor for someone who must check the gauges right in front of them but will only be truly successful if they fix their eyes on the horizon.

This is also true for business.

A long-term view allows you to create and run a company that develops products that move the industry forward.

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Ensuring that your long-term view focuses on the horizon will allow you to employ and empower hundreds, even thousands, of people.

Ray also believes the same is true for marriage.

As he sees it, marriage is the commitment to grow together for a lifetime.

This leads to the next lesson…

5. “Don’t focus on what your partner can do better, only focus on how YOU can be a better partner.” – Ray Zinn

Ray Zinn: Instead of focusing on what kind of wife my wife is going to be, I’m worried about what kind of husband I will be.

Most marriages end in divorce when the husband or wife thinks, ‘how can you be better at this,’ or ‘how can you be better at that.’

That’s how it starts.

You worry about YOU.

When she sees that you’re trying to be a better husband, she’ll be a better wife.

I assure you you’ll never have a significant marital problem if you focus on what you can do to become a better husband.”

6. “There is NO such thing as total honesty – there is only honesty.” – Ray Zinn

Too often, we hear the phrase, “let me be completely honest with you.”

This raises the question, “Well, what were you before?”

Ray Zinn: “There is NO such thing as total honesty.

There’s just honesty.

Do you want to be dishonest?

That’s ridiculous.

It’s like saying ‘wet mud’.

There’s only honesty.

Similarly, it’s like the phrase ‘business ethics’.

You can’t have just business ethics, you’ve got to have ethics all the time.”


Life, love, and business.

It’s the American dream! 

Ray’s book Tough Things First documents his journey toward leading a self-determined life.

He breaks it down step-by-step, teaching what it takes to get there.

Pick up a copy today!

ray zinn tough things first

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