Early in my career, I was a journalist in the U.S. Navy. I wrote stories about my ship’s people and events for the San Diego press, performed photojournalist duties, managed our website, and edited the daily newsletter.
(Later, I did much more interesting things, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
In any case, two of my supervisors soon became my first mentors. Up until that point, I had never had what I would consider a mentor. I had people I looked up to, but until then, I had never met anyone who I genuinely wanted to emulate with the ambition of becoming a better person.
One of these guys, Chief Dave McBride, was a crass, wisecracking veteran of broadcast with a love of dark beer and a skull shaved so close you could see yourself in it.
The other, Petty Officer Palmer Pinckney, was a giant tower of a man with a quick smile, a booming laugh, a love of Star Trek, and integrity deeper than the ocean.
Both very different men, on the outside. What they both shared, however, was a mountain of experience and the compassion and drive to share it. They were both quick to take me under their wing and help guide me, at least partially, into the person I am today. To this day, nearly 15 years on, I still keep in touch with them, though not nearly enough. I still look inwardly during tough times and ask, “What would Chief and Pinck do right now?”
I have different mentors today, but I’ve progressed to calling them “heroes.” Part of this is because, in the grand scheme of things, the people I look up to today have changed not just people, but entire industries and cultures.
It’s a great read, if you’re into that sort of thing (hint: I am). But his ideas are not why he’s one of my heroes. Rather, it’s because he actively challenged the status quo of marketing and business development, and he didn’t stop there. He wrote a book about it. Then he wrote another book about it. Then he partnered with Eric Ries and wrote another book about it. And he continues to blog about it. He didn’t develop a concept, realize its popularity, then squirrel it away like a prize. He actively shares it with anyone and everyone. He has a passion for sharing and educating.
(Another personal hero, Steve Jobs, I credit with showing me that parking in unauthorized spaces can be done brazenly. And also some good business lessons, of course.)
But would Blank and Jobs be heroes if I just knew they changed things and had great ideas? No. What’s important is that they have examples you can learn from.
The simple fact is, heroes give you someone to look towards when you’re unsure about something. No one lives in a vacuum. No person does. No business does. No community does. Whatever struggle you’re facing, whatever goal you want to achieve, someone somewhere has done it before. Heroes give you someone to look to when you need someone to look to.
One of the first things I ask friends and clients when they are facing an unsure business situation is, “Has anyone else tackled this?” followed by “How did they approach it?”
Sometimes, this is called a “case study” or a “best practice.” Whatever you call it, there’s never any shame in looking elsewhere, gathering inspiration, and arming your quiver with the most knowledge possible. If you find a person’s best practices have served you particularly well, and you keep coming back to them, you may have yourself a hero. That’s great — who better to guide you than those that have done it before? Let’s face it: no problem is original. It sure might feel like it sometimes, but it’s not. I guarantee you. It’s not.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. In Blank’s case, he saw a process that could be improved, and instead of thinking it was someone else’s job, he improved it. In Jobs’ case, he had a vision and followed his passion to make it real.
Who among us hasn’t seen something that could be improved and wished it would change? Or had a dream, but didn’t know how to achieve it?
It’s important to be able to see what others in similar situations have done. If it worked, then you now have a great model to apply. If it didn’t work, then at least you have a good roadmap of what not to do. And let’s not forget possibly the biggest benefit of heroes: inspiration. Sometimes, it’s important just to know that someone in the same situation has done something, and that you can do it, too.
Now excuse me. I have to go find my favorite black turtleneck. And move my car.