find a mentor or identify a muse

Starting a company is never easy. It is made even more difficult by preconceived notions and inherent doubt. Back in 1998, as a young academic scientist turned CEO, most people dismissed me and did not believe I could run a business. Few things are more humbling than being told to get coffee from a potential investor right in front of your entire team.


When I started my first company, most people judged my ability superficially, and that is typical of human nature. If not for the people who pushed, prodded and gave me an edge, I would likely not be an entrepreneur today. Professors Jim Anderson and Steve Reiss from Brown, Dan Ariely from MIT and the late George Miller from Princeton joined my team. Chris Shipley invited us to launch our company during her Demo 2000 conference, which was the place to launch a tech startup at the time. Sharon Cleary of The Wall Street Journal took a gamble and gave us our first feature story. The team at GTE (now Verizon) led by Demetrius Karis gave us guidance, and Dell gave us free computers and servers. Friends gave their time and family gave their money. The list was long, and to each of them, I owe a debt of gratitude. We often talk about the value of mentors, but it is rare that we appreciate the people who make small gestures that create transformational turning points.

When I first met Kobe Bryant in 2013, he was starting to think about transitioning from sports into business. He is well-known for his unapologetic work ethic, dedication, passion and pursuit of excellence. But his career had been in sports. So as he started to think about the business world, it was inevitable that people would discount his ability.

It is a familiar and discouraging story, one that many people are told. The irony is that Kobe’s was a similar story to mine. Starting anything new is daunting, but it is that much harder when people discount your abilities because of a lack of experience. Most people mistakenly assume that failure comes from a lack of experience versus a lack of expertise. But expertise transcends experience, and experience always comes with time.

A person’s experience – whether its basketball, science, business or brain surgery – is a culmination of skills achieved through practice. But true expertise is something more primal.  Expertise is what drives certain people to greatness. Expertise combines traits that, while improved through practice, are more inherent and transfer to multiple disciplines, things like decision-making, leadership, tenacity, drive and an unquenchable will to exceed expectations. Put someone with a particular expertise into an unrelated enterprise, and the results will be unmatched.

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A bridge is still needed between experience and expertise, however, and that is where mentorship comes in. Mentors are people you have deep lasting relationships with: They coach, advise, guide, direct. A mentor is often in your chosen field, someone you know, and someone who ultimately becomes a close confidant and friend. They are usually senior to you, but in many ways they are also your peer. Mentors fill in the experience gap.

Mentors are critically important to our success, but there is an equally important group of people in most people’s lives that are often overlooked. Kobe often uses the word “muse” to describe the people in his life who have inspired him. Superficially, most people assume he is talking about mentors, and this is certainly what I thought at first. But as I dug deeper, it became clear that there is a difference between a mentor and a muse.

Whereas a mentor acts as a coach, muses are often people you don’t know at all or at least not particularly well. Sometimes they are historical figures who aren’t even alive. I consider both Abraham Lincoln and Oprah muses, both of whom I have never spoken to. Muses inspire, push you to excel and offer gentle nudges that can alter your path in life. The philosopher Dan Dennett is a muse of mine. After a brief conversation, he set me on a course to pursue brain science. He likely didn’t think anything of the conversation, but it had a big enough impact on me that I named my daughter after him.

Having mentors and muses is as important as having employees and customers. As leaders, it is always hard to ask for help. But knowing who to follow is perhaps the hardest lesson in leadership.

Jeff Stibel is the former CEO of and vice chairman of Dun & Bradstreet, a partner of Bryant Stibel and an entrepreneur who also happens to be a brain scientist.  He is the USA TODAY bestselling author of “Breakpoint” and “Wired for Thought.” Follow him on Twitter at @stibel. 

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.


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