Stan Lee had a material impact on the person I am today. Much of my success in work and life I owe to the lessons I learned from his characters and how he lived. During San Diego Comic-Con a few years back, I got to sit down with my hero and interview him for a documentary on ADHD and superheroes as role models. I even wrote a book about superheroes and the business lessons they can teach, called How to Be a Business Superhero.
I don't want to simply focus on the characters he created, but also on the man himself. Stan Lee's journey was purposeful, deliberate, and anything but easy. Here are the five things I take from a life well lived and the legends he created.
1. Go where others don't.
Lee, like many of his contemporaries in the comic book business, was Jewish. He was excluded from many traditional creative avenues of work in the late 1930s because of rampant antisemitism. So he went where others didn't, forgoing his quest to write the great American novel and instead writing what he could get paid for: comics. He went on to revitalize the flailing comic book industry and inspire millions. This was a lesson I applied to my life when I became an investor: I focused on funding companies that others don't.
2. Know that we are all flawed.
Stan Lee's characters define the silver age of comics (1964-1986). Unlike their pulp predecessors, all of Lee's heroes were flawed: Daredevil was blind, Spider-Man was a teenager who couldn't afford rent, and the X-Men were feared by those they were trying to protect. Lee's superheroes are relatable. As I have matured in business, I have learned to accept my own flaws, because flaws are what make us human. Acknowledging this also drives up your emotional intelligence, which is directly related to leadership success.
3. One person's disability is another person's superpower.
Daredevil is a blind lawyer who fights crime using his remaining heightened senses. The X-Men were made outcasts because they were different. As a youth I struggled with crippling learning disabilities and ADHD, but Lee helped me re-frame my adversity and turn it into a driving force in my life. I told myself that the daily bullying I experienced could have purpose if I used it to my advantage--if I let that friction make me into a diamond. Today, I subscribe to the the theory that neurodiversity is an evolved trait that can be harnessed for good. The lesson here is that the glass is both half full and half empty: it is you who decides the perspective.
4. Always use an adjective.
The Spectacular Spider-Man. The Incredible Hulk. The Uncanny X-Men. Lee never missed a chance to include a superfluous adjective. This was a sly way to embed a tagline about the mood of each comic, distinguishing it from its cousins at DC comics, like Superman, Green Lantern, and Justice League.
When my business partner and I founded our last company, which we eventually sold for $25 million, we took Lee's lesson to heart. We focused on the extremely high end of the market in order to avoid commodity pricing. I described our product as "extraordinary" and build a tagline to match: "The most expensive available today, and worth every penny." The takeaway here is that to be the best, you should focus on the one adjective you want customers to associate with your product.
5. With great power comes great responsibility.
The concept of noblesse oblige (that those in power are obligated to use it responsibility) predates Lee by a century, but he made it the cornerstone of the Spider-Man mythos. Peter Parker's selfish inaction--not using his superpowers to stop a petty criminal--leads to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. This loss leads Parker to dedicate his life to fighting crime.
While I don't stop muggers, I do try to use my modest success and intrinsic power (as an investor, a professor, and a columnist) to promote truth, justice, and the entrepreneurial way. I learned this from Lee. You should, too. A clear purpose helps bring focus to your priorities.
Stan Lee's story may end with his name joining the ranks of Plato, Shakespeare, and Mozart for his contributions to the global zeitgeist. And even though he is gone, the lessons from his legends and the life that created them will live on for centuries.