Everyone Is Your Teacher

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten Group

What could you learn if everyone you met could also be your teacher?

It is common for people in business to seek out a mentor or advisor. I was asked recently at a staff meeting what I consider the attributes of the ideal role model to be. Many assume that to be successful, one needs a single, dedicated guide – a sensei – to give sage advice and direction.

“If we open our eyes, we may find that everyone can be our teacher.”


My answer may have surprised some in attendance at the meeting: I don’t have a role model or sensei. Or to be more precise, I don’t have a single teacher. Instead, I take it upon myself to learn from everyone around me. If we open our eyes, we may find that everyone can be our teacher.

Stay humble or stall

I once heard Katsuya Nomura, the former general manager of the Rakuten Eagles and one of Japan’s legendary baseball players and coaches, address this topic. He said: “Everybody other than yourself is your teacher.” I think this kind of humble attitude is very important. Certainly, at the elite level of professional sports it would be easy to assume that you are already at the top of your game and that no one can teach you anything new. Adopting a mindset of humility will allow you to see those around you and learn from them, even if the lesson is a small one. Even that small bit of information may give you what you need to make an incremental improvement in your own game.

“Here’s to the crazy ones”

When you look more widely for teachers, you may find that even people widely considered to be outsiders can contribute to your knowledge base. If you’ve never seen the 1997 TV commercial Apple made called “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” it’s certainly worth taking a look. In it, images of famous innovators, record-breakers and visionaries such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart and Mahatma Gandhi flash across the screen while the voiceover encourages the viewer to seek out the crazy ones, the misfits, the ones who think differently. They are the ones who can change the world.

I often take this advice and keep an eye on the ones the world may dismiss as crazy—Elon Musk included. They are often the ones who have the guts to take on a big project; The courage to be aggressive and innovative. These are leaders who dare to explore space, reinvent commerce and create global conversations. All have heard, over the years, that they were “crazy” to reach for such outlandish goals. Perhaps not everyone would consider them good role models. But they have much to teach us about thinking in new ways, pushing the boundaries of what has become comfortable and accepted.

“Adopting a mindset of humility will allow you to see those around you and learn from them, even if the lesson is a small one.”

Too often, in particular in Japanese society, we are encouraged to fit in and not cause controversy. As the well-known Japanese proverb goes, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” When you look at the leaders who are changing their industries and the world, they are not people who agreed to conform to the expectations of others. I am inspired by the work of these kinds of thinkers.

Everyone can help you on your journey

So, to the young people hoping I will offer a checklist they can use to seek out and vet the perfect role model, I offer this advice: Think differently about how you seek out your teachers. Consider the idea that everyone around you can teach you something, whether they are close to you, like a boss or a colleague, or they are far away, such as a business leader in another country, or a group of athletes like the Golden State Warriors, who approach their goals in a truly innovative way. Whether they behave according to societal norms, or they are criticized for being “the crazy one.” Everyone has something about them that can help you on your journey, if you are open to the teaching they offer.

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