Apple chief executive Tim Cook has taken a lot of heat lately. The whole world is wondering if Apple lost its innovative mojo when it lost its iconic co-founder, Steve Jobs. And now, word on the street is that the company's board of directors has expressed concern about its pace of innovation.

Yup, it's definitely a "what have you done for me lately" world, even if your name is Tim Cook and you run the most powerful technology company on the planet.

We tend to think of famous, big-company CEOs as being above the fray when it comes to the pressures of the job, bosses breathing down our necks, and even  personal fears and anxieties. Well they're not, not by any stretch.

Now, I bet at least half of you are thinking: I'm struggling to get ahead and this guy's whining about someone who makes millions a year. I'm sure he's crying all the way to the bank. Why should I give a crap about his problems? I've got my own.

I'll tell you why. Because experience is the best teacher. And not just your own experience, but the experience of those who've been around, fought the good fight, and have the scars to prove it. Because nobody's more insightful and inspiring than a leader who has faced enormous fear and pressure, put his neck on the line, and come out on top.

When we casually refer to these people as successful entrepreneurs or accomplished executives, we're missing out on what it took for them to get there. When we observe the outcome without seeing the courage and perseverance it took to achieve it, we're missing out on a tremendous opportunity to learn.

And this is the most important point: When we talk about the qualities of a great leader or read their words on paper without truly understanding the enormous challenges they face and the rare strength it takes to overcome them, we may as well be two-dimensional stick figures trying to imagine a three-dimensional world.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you can't learn a lot through reading and personal experience. Indeed, that's where much of our knowledge, expertise, and confidence come from. But if you truly want to do great things in this world, you need to compliment knowledge with wisdom, expertise with inner strength, logic with guts, and confidence with humility.

Trust me when I tell you there's no way to do that by reading books, watching videos, networking on LinkedIn, or paying someone to coach you. In fact, you need to forget about labels like coaches, teachers, and even mentors. Otherwise you're likely to seek out the wrong people and fail to recognize the right ones when you meet them.

Those people don't usually come with labels. Sure they can be your boss's boss, a friend's father, a small business owner, someone of the cloth, a retired executive, or someone you randomly meet at a party. What's important is that you know them when you meet them. That's the key.

For me, over the course of my life, the conditions by which that occurred were nearly always the same--a confluence of three factors. I was down after a big failure or humiliating defeat; I was searching for answers or a way to redeem myself; and as a result, my awareness was heightened and I was unusually open to change.

That's when I always met people who would become important influences in my life and my career.

While I doubt if that particular set of factors is the same for everyone, I suspect that whatever conditions get you to that last part--heightened awareness and openness to change--are key.

You know the phrase necessity is the mother of invention? This is the same thing.

People who are capable of inspiring you to see things differently, who can help you gain new perspective, seem to arrive just when you really need them. There's only one catch. You've got to be paying attention when it happens. In other words, you can't have your eyes glued to a screen. You won't find them there, that's for sure.