Inspiration comes in many forms. And it came often in 2015.
Some entrepreneurs found inspiration in Pope Francis's visit to the U.S. Others found inspiration in an inventor's prolific milestone: breaking Thomas Edison's record for lifetime patents. And these were just two of the year's momentous occasions. Here's a short list of the highlights from 2015.
1. Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress.
On September 24, Pope Francis became the first pope in history to address the U.S. Congress.
He spoke in English for about 30 minutes, citing Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton as inspiring Americans. He also mentioned several topics that could be seen as challenges posed to any entrepreneur or business leader. One of them was that the wealth businesses create should be used to share prosperity.
"The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes," Francis said, as a prelude to his remarks on business. "I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem."
He continued, quoting from his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si' from May: "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good."
2. Inventor Lowell Wood breaks Thomas Edison's record for most U.S. patents.
Between his first U.S. patent in 1869 and his final one--No. 1,084--in 1933, Thomas Edison became a historical celebrity practically synonymous with the word inventor. He held more U.S. patents than any other American.
That is, until July 7, when an inventor named Lowell Wood received U.S. Patent No. 9,075,906 for "a device that can imbue medical gear with videoconferencing and data-transmission abilities," reports Ashlee Vance in BloombergBusiness. What's more, Vance notes, Wood used to be an F student. It makes his record-setting moment in 2015 all the more inspiring. The patent he received on July 7 was No. 1,085 for Wood. And there are more on the way: Vance reports Wood has more than 3,000 inventions awaiting assessment by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
3. Tu Youyou, at 84, becomes the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize.
Youyou won for helping to create an anti-malaria medicine. And her path to the award was both surprising and traditional--which is why entrepreneurs will feel inspired by it.
What was surprising was that she doesn't have a medical degree or a PhD. She went to a pharmacology school in Beijing. Then she became a researcher at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine. As the BBC points out, in China they are calling her the "three no's" winner: no medical degree, no doctorate, and no time working in the Western hemisphere.
All of which gives her an untraditional background. Yet her discovery of the prize-winning medicine is steeped in Chinese tradition. Her treatment, called artemisinin, derives from a plant used to treat malaria for more than 2,000 years. In her research, Youyou learned from an ancient Chinese text called The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, written in 340 CE by Ge Hong. "It gave her helpful hints on how to extract the herb's active principle," notes The Economist.
In short, there are two aspects of Youyou's journey from which any entrepreneur could glean inspiration: She did it her way, and she didn't give up.
4. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft takes photos of Pluto.
The heart-stopping photos were the result of a nine-year, three-billion-mile journey. New Horizons launched in January 2006. It passed Jupiter one year later. "For another eight years, it would sail through the solar system at 31,000 miles per hour," writes Nicola Twilley in The New Yorker.
One of the many inspiring lessons you can extract from the New Horizons mission is a general reminder: When your scope is epic, you can yield groundbreaking results even by just skimming the surface. The camera on New Horizons only came within 7,800 miles of Pluto's surface. Yet the photos were no less historic for that distance, mainly because cameras had never come so close to Pluto before.
5. The world's top-performing CEO refuses to take credit for the success of his company.
Not long ago, I spoke to London Business School professor Gareth Jones about employee-first cultures. I asked if there was a large company that startups could look to as a role model--an example of how it is possible to preserve your employee-first culture as you grow.
Jones cited Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant whose CEO, Lars Rebien Sørensen, was just named Harvard Business Review's top-performing CEO in the world.
The key to Sørensen's success with Novo Nordisk is that he is "obsessed with the culture of the organization," says Jones. "He doesn't see culture as something HR builds. It's central to what the business is." Sørensen has also helped instill values that transcend the bottom line. Under his stewardship, the company routinely brings in diabetes patients to visit, so employees can feel more directly how millions worldwide would suffer without medication.
As if all that weren't enough, Jones pointed to Sørensen's reaction to winning the HBR award:
I should have said at the beginning that I don't like this notion of the "best-performing CEO in the world." That's an American perspective--you lionize individuals. I would say I'm leading a team that is collectively creating one of the world's best-performing companies. That's different from being the world's best-performing CEO--it's a very big difference, especially in a business in which the timelines are 20 or 25 years. You inherit the situation from your predecessor. You may be the best CEO in the world, but you might inherit a bad business. Or the last guy spent 15 years creating a better business, and when the next guy takes over, he becomes a hero.
If that's not an inspiring thing to hear from your leader, what is?