What We Can Learn From Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Stan Lee’s passing yesterday marked the end of an era. The characters Lee created redefined the notion of what a superhero was and allowed everyone to relate to them. From the weakling who became a super man in Captain America, to the creativity and flawed genius of Tony Stark, to the anger we all bottle up with Hulk and the kid with responsibility and a gift in Spider-man, he created a new type of superhero.

Before Lee’s incredible run of creativity, DC ruled the superhero roost with aliens, Amazons and other fanciful characters. But what’s truly remarkable is that Lee’s most famous and best work came after he was in his 40s.

This tweet had me thinking.

Lee almost left the comic book industry before he was given the opportunity to create the characters he wanted. And all that work came after over 20 years of persistence and learning the craft that he was able to create something incredible.

There are a couple of lessons here – one that younger folks might want to pay attention to and some encouragement for those of us sporting a few grey hairs – unless we’ve already lost them!.

Getting really good at something and building expertise and developing talent is not accomplished by doing something once or twice pretty well. Often, when I interviewed potential staff, I asked younger candidates about their work history. Many were looking for the next step up the corporate ladder because they had spent a year, or even less, doing something and felt they were experts. In some cases, I had people applying for senior project management roles on large projects after managing one small project.

Success doing something once may not be talent or expertise – it could just be luck. Lee learned his craft, honed it, listened to others, partnered with smart people and then succeeded.

For some of us who are more experienced but feel that we’re stuck in a rut – take heart. Stan Lee was in that place and came through it to create something truly marvellous. He stuck it out at a time when he was ready to quit.

If what you’re doing isn’t satisfying you – look for opportunities to use your skills in new ways. A colleague of mine, who rose to become a very senior manager in one of Australia’s largest businesses, oversaw a significant restructure of their team. Their success in helping people through a very challenging period was such that they became the business’ senior HR manager as well as IT manager!

You may need to move away from the safety of what you have for that happen. And that can be very hard to do. It took me three years to have the guts to quit my lucrative but soul-destroying day job to freelance.

Stan Lee might have inspired many people through the heroes he created – real people thrust into incredible positions – but his real life might be even more inspiring.


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