If you’re a human being (which, if you’re reading this, I assume you are), I’m sure you’re well aware that we as human beings are social and impressionable creatures. No matter who you are — introverted and extroverted alike — we all need human connection to learn, grow, and excel in life, as well as in our chosen fields.
Granted, there will always be lone wolves who prefer to opt for solitude, believing that people only distract them from achieving their goals and their other pursuits in life.
All the same, our ability to communicate through language, gestures, and facial expressions, our simple ability to navigate the world — going to the loo, doing push-ups, using money to buy things — is reliant on the impressionable nature of the human brain, and our social interactions to date. Even someone who is self-taught likely became so not only through tinkering on their lonesome, but perhaps also through observing someone else, reading books, watching instructional videos, or — my personal favorite — asking Google.
These are all learning platforms — resources for the inquiring mind to plumb — and they are all products of humankind. I want to talk about the often untapped resource of influencers or, more romantically, heroes, in the entrepreneurial realm.
Ability to Be Influenced Is Just as Important as Being Influential
Indeed, the word “impressionable” brings to mind the prime learning age of infants, recklessness in teens, feebleminded stormtroopers met with Jedi mind tricks, and worst of all, naivety and weakness of character in adults. I want to take a moment to dispel the negative connotations linked to the latter idea.
The mind is a sponge. The brain is malleable, and its neuroplasticity is what makes learning possible. If you have heard anything about the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, you’ll likely have heard that experts in any given field typically reach that pitch only after practicing their chosen activity for around 10,000 hours. This is the amount of time we need in order to leave an impression on the brain deep enough to earn us the cut-above-the-rest spot, and set us apart from our competitors.
As an aside, the same book actually claims that doctors fresh out of university will be better informed and more dynamic practitioners than doctors who have been practicing for many years without continuing to learn, adapting their thinking, or reinventing and innovating their approach — all of which would keep their brains from slackening like they do.
So acquired and maintained knowledge is not enough. We must exercise our brains. This, alongside the proof that keeping the mind jumping through hoops into old age can help to keep dementia at bay, pokes holes in the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” idiom. While not actually the purpose of the phrase, this BS has disheartened adults for too long — making them think that they have inevitably left their prime learning years behind.
But this is simply not true. We should not peddle this fallacy, because worse than giving people an excuse to rest on their laurels and say “this is just the way I am” or “my chances have expired,” the unspent energy in our brains — that capacity for learning — is instead directed toward an ingraining of character traits.
Without seeking growth, we naturally gravitate toward a tendency to simply surround ourselves with people that parrot our own views, leading to myopia and rigidity. This, I believe, constitutes the origin of the idiom. So, the verdict is that it is in fact a lack of impressionability that indicates naivety and weakness of character in adults, much more than impressionability ever did.
Teachability Is Paramount
This brings me to my next point: be teachable.
Sure, people love capable people. Capable people make our lives easier. A friend and mentor of mine has worked as an IT project manager of multiple teams of developers over the years — and the dev employment market is hot. And I mean you-will-be-snatched-up-within-a-day-of-releasing-your-résumé hot. Especially if you really know your stuff.
However, this friend once hired one such individual, and the problem was: he wasn’t a team player, and he wasn’t teachable. He knew people thought he was hot s**t — a seriously good acquisition for the project — but my friend fired him anyway, because teachability is paramount. The way that the world is evolving is making it more and more important to be flexible.
As someone who is looking for entrepreneurial influencers, you still have goals to achieve. You want to learn from the best to help you walk the road that leads you to reaching them, and fitten you up to eventually even surpass them. Even if your influencers aren’t instructing you personally, one of the reasons we keep our ear to the ground about our heroes is because they are teaching us new things, albeit indirectly. A student is humble. Workable and supple. Be a student.
Happy endings come out of lessons learned (see: any Disney film ever made, guys — or literally any entrepreneurial success story ever lived out). You want to be teachable, and you want to be impressionable. Let’s not forget Isaac Newton’s famous aphorism: “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Help yourself by being willing to be helped by people who know.
Be On Your Guard
Alas, as ever, there are two sides to every coin. One of the first self-made marketing entrepreneurs I ever met told me that he never scrolls through his Facebook news feed because of something he called “emotional contagion,” which, incidentally, is a real psychological term.
Ever seen someone post a dramatic paragraph about a not-so-comedic comedy of errors that they happened to experience that day? It is actually possible to “catch” the emotional state of the person unloading their feelings on social media.
With such a constant stream of different stories and accompanying emotions activating corresponding reactions in the reader, this can lead to confusing signals, resulting in what he liked to call “head trash.” This often takes some time to sort through, even though it builds up subconsciously and we don’t really know where it came from.
Even more importantly, this mental entrainment can also lead us to lend ourselves to the opinions of others. Yes, convergence of views happens naturally through a subconscious neural activation in people. Studies tell us that in social situations — mobs, groups, parties, workplaces, et al — a gradual convergence of viewpoints will typically occur, forming a general but unified view of something. This is reminiscent of the widely peddled theory that we are a mish-mash of the five people we spend the most time with.
Rise Above the White Noise
Knowing that our brains are impressionable gives us the edge to work against negative or just meh influences permeating the subconscious. This is because we have the opportunity to leverage it.
One of the first investors in, and members of, the Dynamite Circle — a private community for location independent entrepreneurs — told me (eyes a-rollin’) that she has seen plenty of half-hearted short-cutters come and go, talking big about ideas, but never following through with the required hard work, then eventually returning to the space to tout themselves as life or business coaches.
Even though the old adage “those who can’t do, teach” is proper bull-twang usually (see: Albert Einstein — “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” highlighting the true importance of teachers), this scenario warrants the phrase.
There are so many voices out there, opinions on how best to live your life, and money-chasing opportunists, but we must rise above the noise, and be selective about the ones we listen to. Allowing ourselves to be buffeted around by absorbing the racket and vibrations of megaphone after megaphone is akin to mindlessly binge eating a big packet of salt and vinegar crisps, leaving you feeling lethargic, unsatisfied (THIRSTY), and unfocused.
Being intentional about our influencers and choosing them with care, on the other hand, is synonymous with putting roots down, standing sentinel in what grounds us and drives us — or, if we use the same food analogy (I think I’m hungry?), eating mindfully, resulting in enhanced mental and physical readiness and performance.
Let’s have a look at how best to choose our respective influencers, and as such, be the masters of our own respective entrepreneurial destinies.
Fields, Focus, and Feeling
The dogmatic clamor that floods the entrepreneurial space should never be allowed to drown out our inner voice. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, listen to your intuition, because your heart already knows what you want to become.
A good place to start when thinking about who might be an appropriate entrepreneurial influencer for you is to pay attention to personal values. I start with this because, no, it is not particularly profound to say that we should look for influencers working in the same field as us. While not strictly always the case, yes, this is obviously a good bet, as they have to navigate the same politics, social commentary, regulation, competition, etc. that you do.
Indeed, choosing influencers or heroes that you may one day be in direct competition with is a sure-fire way to keep yourself focused, educated, and on point. Focusing on people in businesses related to your field both vertically and horizontally can be useful as well, because it can develop your sense for opportunities to diversify into other areas or increase your efficiency internally.
But if your influencers’ value systems or motivations don’t also gel nicely with yours, the focus will be wrong, and it will be hard to synthesize the lessons they are best equipped to share. An example of this may be a thought leader in robotics, focusing on the opportunities that automation represents in terms of increasing profits and efficiency in manufacturing (i.e., a system improvement of existing processes aspect), when your dream is more exploratory and geared to opportunities for robotics in something such as physical therapy, or space exploration (i.e., a visionary/big picture/new frontiers aspect).
I’m certain that I don’t need to tell the entrepreneurs out there that specificity is one of the single most important things when it comes to achieving your goals. You’re sure to have heard this long ago.
Prioritize Your Personal Principles
So, what are the values you live by? It is an important question to ask ourselves. Values are often core to our being, but they’re not necessarily something we’ve ever really put into words. So, before you start seeking out your influencers, take a minute and really think to yourself …
Is it important for you to have flexibility in your schedule to balance work and family? Then try narrowing down some potential influencers to those who are adaptable, and maybe have a family themselves (see: the founder of Fit Successful Dad, Gordon Light, and his podcast interviews with dozens of entrepreneurs endeavoring to harmonize these two aspects of their lives).
Are you driven by propelling humanity forward? Look out for people with ambition, vision, and bravery (looks like: Richard Branson, ‘nuff said).
Are you motivated by leaving the world better off than you found it? Social conscience is a thing for you—find influencers who use their expertise for good (see: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, a woman who was rejected as a brewmaster by the brewing patriarchy, so she went and became a pioneer in biotech—shifting the industry paradigm by replacing chemical tech with enzyme tech for a greener future, and proving a woman can run a business by doing it in a related area).
Politically, you might have always been passionate about keeping the man in check… You’re not going to respect someone just because they are leading in your field if they don’t incorporate transparency, integrity, and accountability in all that they do.
The list goes on — a taste for problem solving? (See: Rich Riley, CEO of Shazam, one of Fast Company’s most innovative businesses of 2016.)
Is respect for the self and others a strong guiding principle in the way you interact with the world? You aren’t going to feel comfortable following in the footsteps of someone who doesn’t value mindfulness or emotional intelligence, even if that person has achieved something in your field that you dream to one day match.
Asking questions like these should guide you in figuring out what exactly matters to you most, helping you to make meaningful selections, and ultimately, boosting your motivation and drive to get on with your goals. They say we retain lessons learned when we are happy much more than those learned in a situation in which we aren’t. And value alignment equals contentedness.
You Won’t Arrive at Your Goals If You’re Going Down by the Stern
On top of looking at your values for some ready-made influencer inspo, perhaps you also recognize some weaknesses in yourself, or gaps in your abilities, which you hope to improve.
It’s important to have your heroes that inspire you (vision-wise), but influencers don’t necessarily have to be responsible only for your inspiration. They can also be people you follow or learn from because they are the ones with the savvy you need to patch your proverbial hole in the boat. For instance, you may have aspirations in biomedical sciences or in software services, but to be perfectly fair, your time or money management abilities are pure crap. If you don’t address your weaknesses, the water can really creep in. And even if you don’t sink, water-logging can really slow you down.
So, you might have a persistent bout of imposter syndrome? Neil Gaiman, the critically acclaimed writer of Coraline, American Gods, and Neverwhere, has spoken openly about having struggled with feeling like a fraud in the past.
In one of his blog posts, he speaks of a conversation with another Neil — first man on the moon Neil. The Gaiman Neil discovered that even the Armstrong Neil was, at the moment of this conversation, experiencing symptoms of imposter syndrome himself, in this group of creatives, scientists, and other frontier-pushers that they happened to be with at the time… It happens to the best of us and is conquerable.
Knowing we’re not alone and watching other people handle their struggles with grace can do wonders. You may shy away from failure. Bryan Harris, who is now age 30, has been founding start-ups since he was seven years old, and every single one failed until he founded VideoFruit, which was the fish he finally landed — how’s that for a brave face?
Do you perhaps second-guess your worth or wherewithal when it comes to staring down the barrel of a gun, making your dreams seem like insurmountable folly? Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and think of the team at Uber, and their endurance and persistence in the face of years and years of political battles on all fronts and levels of government — local, state, federal and international — all while managing the demands of stakeholders, satisfaction of customers, and the needs of their suppliers.
Does your financial management leave a lot to be desired? Check out Trent Hamm’s blog, The Simple Dollar, or follow Alexa Von Tobel’s LearnVest on Twitter.
There is always someone you can count on to putty up the hole. Find them.
Once You’re Up the Trunk, Keep Climbing the Branches
Now, once you’ve finally found some sound influencers, how do you build out your influencer profile from there?
First, take a look at your hand-picked heroes and ask yourself, what core ideas unite them? Read biographical content about — and interviews featuring — your people. Find out who influenced them when they were getting started, and who influences them today.
Watch podcasts they are featured in, and pay attention to who they are following and what they’re sharing on Twitter and other social media platforms — their peers, or the initiatives they are promoting.
Are they contributors to magazines, blogs, or newspapers? What do these resources cover and what do they seek to achieve? This is a great way to diversify your exposure a bit in the appropriate areas.
The more fingers you get into all the related pies, the more chances you will have to grow, morph, and expand your reach and vision. If you keep climbing the branches that spread out ahead of you, it is more likely that results beyond what you could ever foresee will unfurl — and we all know how much excitement knowing the end (or worse, being able to predict it) takes out of a story. Open yourself up to the possibility of living out a real thriller.
There Is No Such Thing as a Panacea
Value systems, vertically and horizontally related industries, and the desire to overcome weaknesses are all important considerations when looking for influencers to feed our hungry, spongy skull muscle. And even though it would be great to have a ready-made, all-in-one model for each of us, we are never going to find someone who satisfies every unique requirement of our own respective needs.
Can’t find a stay-at-home single parent who successfully runs three businesses from the kitchen, is actively contributing to world peace, is working in your industry, and has a personal success story about overcoming financial Armageddon? It’s okay to compartmentalize if you have to.
This brings me to my final point. While you may focus on value alignment or industry know-how to develop your more general influencers in a macro sense (as in, the heroes you’ll always have your ear to the ground about), having more specific influencers that could come and go according to time-specific need can keep you rolling with the punches more effectively, too. Hopefully, this will be the case when it comes to the “overcoming weaknesses” factor — because this will mean the heroes you’ve picked to help you in these areas have served their purpose!
The same goes for time-specific aspects of doing business that merely represent stages in your journey and are somewhat irrelevant once worked through.
Three final aspects to focus on when considering whose expertise would make for a great machete to slash through some such “stage in the business” tangles:
- Your specific goals for this year
- The obstacles standing in the way of achieving them
- The specific help you require in order to reach said goals
This may require you to zone in on some less generally aligned, potentially less accomplished, but situationally relevant influencers.
Yes, they do say that if you reach for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars — i.e., the further you reach, the further you’ll go. But using these final three points as a proverbial stabilization and control system to keep your vessel on course won’t hurt, either.
So, go forth in who you know yourself to be, warts and all, and be mindful about the people you listen to, what they say, and whether they will drain the rocket fuel or replenish it. Think about it: space exploration is only really limited by time and energy. The same goes for you, space cowboy. Houston out.