Whitney Johnson is impressive in what she writes about and what she has done and is doing. Whitney challenges us to live and lead in a way that matters. It was an honor to talk with her and discuss her thoughts from her new book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.
Jon: I enjoyed your book, Disrupt Yourself. Self-disruption is such an important topic for a lot of us, yet it seems very challenging to do. What have you seen as some of the key triggers that enables someone to be able to make that shift? To really disrupt themselves?
Whitney: That is a great question. I think there almost always has to be this sense of a push and a pull. Let me back up.
This idea of disruption. If you think about whenever you buy a product, you are effectively hiring it to do a job. And whatever you hire it to do, you are hiring it to do both functional and emotional jobs.
The functional job is, for example, if you buy a house, you’re buying a house to put a roof over your head. The emotional job might be you want a place to call your own, or you want a backyard where you can garden, or you want a really, really big house so everybody can crash. The emotional job can be an array of things.
I think that one of the main catalysts for people, when they decide that they want to jump to a new curve or to disrupt themselves, is they could stay where they are from a functional perspective. They could continue to earn as much money as they’ve been earning, and they’re sort of happy from that perspective. However, they can no longer rely on whatever they’re doing currently for the emotional rewards that they once had.
And so one of the biggest battles, or triggers, for people to be willing to disrupt themselves is that the current path that they’re on is no longer doing the emotional job that it once did. They need to find a place that will allow them to continue to learn again and feel like they’re being as useful today as they felt two years ago.
The S-Curve and Distinctive Strengths
Jon: That’s interesting. There are many conversations about quarter-life crises or mid-life crises. Is disruption age-related or do other elements come into play that cause someone to jump on another curve and scale that one instead?
Whitney: I do think that age can play into it. Just to recap quickly on the S-Curve. The S-Curve allows you to figure out how quickly an innovation will be adopted. It helps you understand the psychology of disruption. At the low end of the curve, you’re going to work really hard, feel like you’re not making any progress, and you can get discouraged. And then you move into the sweet part of the curve where you feel confident and competent. At the high end of the curve, you know exactly what you’re doing. But you’re kind of bored, and so you need to drop to a new curve.
If you think about this for a minute, the need to disrupt yourself often comes at about 40, the mid-life crises stage. When you hit 40, you’ve reached a peak in terms of your career. You’ve achieved a certain level of competence and achievement. There is a bit of a sense of “Okay, I know how to do this. I want to do something new.”
When you hit the age 40, there is a question people ask – “What else am I going to do with my life, and what legacy am I going to leave?” It manifests itself in a mid-life crises, as you said, where people do stupid things like, have an affair or whatever.
But more often, it is just an invitation for people to recreate what they’ve done thus far and potentially jump to a new curve, if we use it constructively. It means we’ll rethink the metrics that we’re using to measure our lives and consider different metrics.
Jon: I know there’s a lot of various tools to help people to discover their strengths. Our strengths help us get to the upper part of that S-Curve. What point do you find that people close that gap from understanding what they’re strengths are and applying them to scaling that curve?
Whitney: When I think about this idea of strength, I think the first thing is you’ve got to figure out where there are unmet needs. The key is to figure out what those unmet needs are and then pair that with your strengths. One of the things I focus on is not only figuring out what you’re strengths are, but figuring out what your distinctive strengths are – what you do well that no one else in your sphere does.
For example, someone can be a computer programmer. They may be sitting in an office with 20 other computer programmers. It’s not really all that helpful to anybody because there’s 20 of them. However, if you take a computer programmer and you put them inside of a high school where everybody is an expert in history, all of a sudden that becomes a truly distinctive strength. They’re in a position where they can contribute in an incredibly meaningful way, when they couldn’t in a sea of other programmers.
One of the things I try to emphasize is there are lots of situations where you’ve got to figure out what the pay-to-play skills are and get those skills. But then, if you are really going to make a contribution, you need to figure out what skills you have the other people within your particular sphere do not have. Often, your unique skills are the ones that you value the least.
Millennials and Career Insights
Jon: And figuring out where that value is, especially early in a career, is critical, especially for Millennials. Millennials get a bad rap about job hopping, but it is not too different than when either of us were 20 something. What advice would you give Millennials as far as where they may be at in the S-Curve or when to make that jump to a different curve?
Whitney: First of all, I agree with you. I think Millennials do get a bad rap. I think that we talk about Millennials being entitled, but the fact is everybody struggles with entitlement. I would also say that Millennials are in this interesting place where they probably have seen a parent or a loved one struggle with being underemployed, if not unemployed for extended periods of time. I think Millennials said to themselves, “You know what. I am not going to hand over my destiny to a company. I am going to control my destiny.”
I think there is something quite powerful about that. What I would say though is that there are going to be, in any given field, some pay-to-play skills that they have to develop. Millennials need just to get some skills and go in and pay some dues initially. Once they do that, those skills get them in the door. It’s going to be their unique and distinctive strengths that are going to allow them to excel and become superstars in their chosen field.
Jon: Right. At the recent BIF summit, it was interesting the role constraints play in enabling somebody to pursue a different path. With Millennials, it seems like experience creates constraints. How do you overcome the inexperience constraint?
Whitney: At the beginning of your career, you are at the low end of the curve. You don’t know, yet, what you want to do. For example, I got out of college when I was 27. I did volunteer work, and I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. And sometimes at the beginning of your career, if you don’t know what it is you want to do exactly, then take the job that when you finish that job, there will be more doors open not fewer.
For a job you’re going to take, after you finish it, will there be three doors open to you or will the other job open five doors to you? Take the job that will open five doors. If you don’t know what you want to do, take the job that opens doors. And so, I say to Millennials, at that low end of the curve, you want to be just walking through doors that open up opportunities, all things being equal. I think that is one of the most important pieces of advice that I would give.
Just do not get discouraged because many times people think, “Oh I haven’t figured out what I want to do.” They’re 25 and, you know what, I didn’t even graduate until I was 27. I didn’t get on the professional track until I was 31. But because my trajectory started to be a lot steeper, I was able to outstrip people who had even gone to Ivy League schools.
I just wanted to say that, because I think that is really important in the context of this conversation about Millennials.
The Role of Patience and Feedback in Self-Disruption
Jon: That’s a very good point because it is a balance of patience, right? Patience plays a role in self-disruptions.
Whitney: Absolutely. You know you want to work hard, and you want to move forward. Part of it is just putting in those hours and understanding that low end of the curve. You just have to put in those hours. It may not look like you’re making much progress, but trusting that if you just keep going, thinking again about the 10 thousand hour rule, we’re going to eventually accelerate in that sweet part of the curve. In the sweet spot, you won’t even have to work as hard, and you’ll just keep going faster. If you can be patient and not get discouraged, the payoff will start to come.
Jon: The whole idea of constraints does fascinate me, especially after listening to the storytellers at BIF. There seems like constraints can be a motivating element to disrupting yourself.
Whitney: The thing that I keep thinking about constraints is this: If you think about whenever you’re trying something new, you think about a little kid who’s like, “Mom, look at me! Dad, look at me! How am I doing?” When you’re ever trying something new, you want lots of feedback. And you need feedback.
As you’re climbing a curve, and you are trying something new, you also want feedback. Well, if you think about constraint, constraints box you in. You remember the example from the skateboarder?
Skateboarders learn really, really fast. Why? Because they get lots of feedback quickly. When you’re trying to climb a new curve, and you’re trying to do something new, whether it’s starting a business or starting a job, the constraints actually are a way for you to get feedback and to course correct really quickly.
There are many businesses that you think that have gone bust because they didn’t have enough capital. However, there are many businesses that went bust because they had too much capital and didn’t get the information they needed quickly enough, to know that they were going down the wrong path. If we’re really willing to embrace the constraints we have, they can actually force us to rethink how we’re doing currently and give us the information we need to get up the curve more quickly than we would if we didn’t have that.
Jon: So maybe it is because of the constraint, we are more open to that feedback to make the adjustments and be more efficient in the way we scale the curve.
Whitney: Exactly. If you think about money, if you say to yourself, well how am I going to make money in the next year? That’s really open ended. But if you say to yourself, how am I going to make money, so I have food on the table next week? Wow.
Totally different focus right?
Whitney: Shifted focus completely. You start to get really serious about the business model I need to make money next week.
Millennials and Defining Success
Jon: Going back to Millennials, one question you say we must ask is “How am I defining success?” In that early stage, what role do you think that question should play for Millennials, in particular, the 20 somethings?
Whitney: Of course you are almost always going to ask about money because that is part of how we measure success and certainly at that age. However, I think the more important question would be is “Am I having experiences that are going to give me more opportunities? Am I having experiences that are going to allow me to contribute in a greater way to the world?”
If you’re asking those questions, then you’re going to be on interesting curves and be able to contribute in a greater and greater way. Even someone says to me “Well, I want to work at a non-profit.” And I think, okay, if you really, really want to work at a non-profit when you’re 22, and it’s the only thing you want to do, then you have to do it. Just like if you want to be a musician. If you’re not sure, go out and get skills you need from a for-profit organization, funnel money away into the bank, and then go work for a non-profit. You can donate to a non-profit, and you can invest in businesses that create jobs. You then start to have a lot more leverage.
So, again I think the main metric is am I learning and am I contributing.
Jon: Those are spot on points to continue to remember. Many people write about or ask what their 30 something self or 40 something self would tell their 20 something self. Being in the disruption game and being at this point in your career, if you looked back at your 20 something self, what type of advice would you give yourself now?
Whitney: I would say to not be afraid. I think I spent a lot of time being afraid of things and afraid of people and just afraid. Just be a little bit bolder. Just be less afraid.
I think a lot of us spend a lot of time being really scared when we’re younger, afraid of what other people think, afraid that, if we do this, it won’t work. Afraid if we try that, then our life will be over. As opposed to just trying to engage fully in what’s happening today, and tomorrow, and the next day, as opposed to thinking about what’s going to happen in 2 or 10 years.
Disrupt Yourself at Any Age
Jon: That is interesting because it shifts as you get older. As we get older, we get more focused on the functional aspects, as far as earning the right amount to be able to support a family and all those types of things. And then we’re afraid to make shifts that would hurt that side of the formula versus getting the emotional satisfaction.
Whitney: You’re right. Absolutely. That’s really interesting, great distinction. So at the low end of the curve there’s this, you might be a little bit afraid, but you don’t really have anything to lose, because you’re at the low end of the curve.
So it’s all upside. When you’re mid-career and you make a decision to disrupt yourself, which often involves less pay or some loss of prestige, at least temporarily, that is scary.
Whitney: And so I guess we battle fear all along the curve don’t we?
Jon: Right! I believe that is part of the human condition, and I think your book provides a lot of great things for an individual to think about and on where they’re at on that curve. Your book also helps us rethink or disrupt ourselves to get on a different curve, if that’s the right time.
Whitney: I hope so. I hope there’s a lot of different hats in there for people to trick their brain into doing things that they might not otherwise do.
Jon: Maybe an unfair question given you are busy with your book launch, but what curve are you on now?
Whitney: I think the best way to describe it right now is I am kind of in this sweet spot of the curve. I have all these ideas. They’ve been published and so now it is just getting to talk about them and share them with people. I think for some people maybe the writing and the research is the fun part and then the talking about it is the hard part. But for me, the writing and the research is the painful part.
Getting to talk about is the fun part for me. I would say that right now when it comes to this book, I am on the fun part of it now.
Whitney: If I’m really taking my advice though, you need to prepare for the competencies you need before you need them. I should then already be thinking about my next book!
Jon: Thank you, Whitney, for your time, and thank you for Disrupt Yourself. You have given me a lot to think through as well as new actions to take. I know that many will benefit from your book and your challenge to disrupt ourselves.