How To Sow The Seeds That Will Change Your Lifea chat with Whitney Johnson

If you want real change in your career, then this chat is for you! This conversation with Whitney took place a couple of years ago, but it's just as relevant today, full of gems that can help you be courageous and make a shift.

We talked after the release of her book Disrupt Yourself, which explores how we as individuals can take advantage of innovation models to propel our lives forward, dare to take risks, and leave old limitations behind. She recently put out a new book Build an A-Team, and I thought this was a great opportunity to remind you and me of the wisdom and invaluable tips that Whitney shares from her experience and research.

Here are some of the questions we're exploring in this story:

  • At what age can you disrupt yourself in your career?
  • How can we move beyond a negative disruption in our past?
  • What are prevention-focused and promotion-focused personalities, and why is it important for you to know which one you are?
  • How can we create an environment that uses failure to thrive and innovate?
  • Why could success actually stall your progress?

So if you feel you are stuck and not sure how to move towards your big goals, then read on and dive right into this chat to learn how to disrupt yourself.

Whitney, your own life is full of stories that reflect the message of disruption. One major disruption began when you moved to New York because of your husband's work and then decided to do something unusual: work on Wall Street despite not having any experience or credentials in finance. What prompted you to make that decision and how did taking such a risk feel to you?

What I knew for sure is that I didn't want to do anything with music, my major. What I discovered about myself when we moved is that I wanted to achieve something. I wanted the brass ring. And for me the brass ring in New York was Wall Street. I was determined to do it, although I had no idea what to expect. So I sent out my resume. I was proud of it. I got a job as a secretary and it was my way in. I was 27 at the time. And by understanding the path of disruption, I managed to become an investment banker within 3 years.

Now on one hand, that sounds impressive. On the other, I was already 30 years old. So often young people, many of them in their mid-twenties, ask me: I don't know yet what to do. My career is over! What should I do? There is this belief, this expectation that everything has to be figured out in a certain order, by a certain age, otherwise something is seriously wrong. And it is just not so. That's why understanding disruption is so important: you can make it happen at any age.

You definitely took a big leap. But not everyone has the confidence to do so. There are high-potential individuals that don't know that they are. They don't know because somewhere along their journey, maybe as a child or an adolescent, maybe later, their sense of self was disrupted. They became discouraged and began to believe others who don't believe in them. They have great skills, talents and ideas that could take them somewhere, but they are stuck. What would you say is one of the first steps they can take to disrupt their earlier disruption of self?

One of the main obstacles to personal growth is people's struggle with the perception of themselves. It's a fact that we all have issues and disappointments in our lives things that didn't go as expected, something that threw us a curve ball. Yet it's up to us to rise above that, to just go and do something despite of what others make us think about ourselves.

Take Eunice Kennedy Shriver, for example. She was not only the sister of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, but also of Rosemary Kennedy. Born mentally incapacitated, Rosemary underwent a lobotomy in her early twenties, which worsened her condition. Eunice was a very talented woman. Her father said that if she had been a man, she could have been a great politician. She wasn't a man, but that didn't stop her from actually using her political acumen. Combined with compassion for her sister, she used her talents to develop initiatives for disabled children and adults and co-founded the Special Olympics, which transformed society's perception of people with disabilities.

The key is to start where no-one else plays. Find your fresh territory and experiment. It's not about perfection, it's about sowing the seeds and letting them grow into a thriving plant.

And matching your skills with that new territory is one of the tricks. You mention in your book that many of us don't realize the true worth of all of our skills. We've been trained to pay attention to the high-profile skills, the ones we think will get us the attention or accolades, but are shoving everything else into a corner.

We're selling ourselves short. Yes, it's important to communicate what I call the basics, those skills that get us into the door, that get us the job. However, it's easy to overvalue them because we worked so hard to learn them. We're showing them off with the unsaid words: Aren't you impressed?

All the while we're forgetting some of the skills that make us unique, maybe a talent, and we're not mentioning them because they come easy to us. So we're undervaluing them. That's unfortunate because it is exactly that mix of basics and our personal skills that sets us apart from each other.

One good way to recognize such an overlooked skill is to ask yourself what kind of compliments you often get. Those are the skills you take for granted, they feel to you as easy and natural as breathing. So we don't mention them, but we should.

You also talk about another factor that impacts our ability to disrupt ourselves: whether we are a prevention- or promotion-focused personality type, a distinction made by psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson. Promotion-focused people take risks relatively easily, while prevention-focused individuals prefer safety and work carefully to prevent anything from going wrong, you write. Thinking of what great things might await them if they dare to move out of their comfort zone, will not motivate people that are prevention focused. Instead you suggest that they should try to become more comfortable with venturing into something new by looking at what they might lose by staying put. What else could help them move forward?

There are two things they should recognize: First, that they alone cannot control the safety of their circumstances. If they have been comfortable for a while where they are, they should tell themselves: If I stay on this curve, I might get pushed off. So, I better jump. Second, you need to peel back the reasons behind the resistance to take a risk. A good way to do that is the 5 Why's. Ask yourself why you're not daring to move forward, take your answer and ask why again, until you've reached the fifth why. That's when you have or are very close to the real cause.

The 5 Why's are definitely a very useful tool and applicable to so many different situations. What makes getting out of our comfort zone so difficult in our society too is the belief that failure is to be avoided or at least not to be displayed. Of course there is this mantra to embrace one's mistakes, but for most people it's just a hollow statement.

Yes, for some it's all about celebrate my failures but I'm not celebrating yours. Others don't allow failure for themselves either. We have to be aware that we have been socialized that success is all that counts and our sense of self depends on it. It's time to rethink that. The way I see it, the main issue is that we don't let ourselves be sad. We try to avoid emotion when we deny failure. But we need to feel sad for a while, it helps us learn.

For managers it is just as important to allow themselves to fail as to allow others to fail because as a manager I trust that my team members are the right people for the jobs they're performing. So if they fail it's not because they don't know what they're doing. I believe that they tried anything to do the job right, that they pushed the envelope, and things just didn't work out. And we will learn from that.

As a leader, consider the following when thinking about failure:

  • Hiring the right people is critical, and we should start by assuming that we have the right people for the job. If you trust them and their abilities, then why wouldn't you allow them to fail?
  • Recognize that we should not look at our self-worth simply through the lens of our successes. Look at instances outside work or your area of responsibility where you allow people to fail and observe your reaction to it. See how you can transfer those observations about failure to your organizational setting. For example, like children: when they learn to walk, we don't punish them when they stumble, on the contrary, we encourage them to get up and try again.
  • And if ego has gotten involved in your inability to allow and show failure, then something else is wrong!

Risks, failure, ego: they are so deeply entwined, especially when thinking about competition. Whether that's personal or business competition. In the first chapter of your book you talk about the difference between competitive and market risk and also give the example of a hiring decision gone awry: a firm hired a new portfolio manager to oversee investment decisions, however a senior employee thought that those decisions were already his responsibility. I found it interesting that you chose the verb "thought" when describing the senior person's position and was wondering whether you wrote it that way to intentionally point to the central problem of the situation. What should have been done differently to avoid such an outcome?

Great question. Yes, that was the central issue: both thought it was their job. The managers had failed to clarify at the beginning what each person's role actually was. Not on purpose, it was simply overlooked. So those two people were thrown into the new situation and left to their own devices. The senior person felt threatened and made the new person's life very difficult. Then the new person got the senior one ousted. It was very messy, and left the new person with little internal goodwill

It is a leader's responsibility to ensure that her team or organization is set up to feel market, not competitive risk. Competitive risk exists if there are already players in the market for a product, maybe even one major player. Market risk refers to a new need opportunity for which a market does not exist yet, and we don't know yet whether there will actually be customers for it. You need an environment of market risk if you want a culture of collaboration to exist inside a company.

And one needs to understand the meaning of disruption to innovation.

Yes. Disruption is not the only but the fastest way to thrive. And since it happens inside an organization, it needs to be understood and enabled on an individual level. Everyone should ask himself: How can I as an individual take market risk daily for myself and the company?

The more often he reflects on the opportunities available on those levels, the quicker he will learn and the better he will be able to perform. It's vital that the organization facilitates such individual disruption through its structure and tools.

Leaders at organizations that do well understand that it's okay for people to slow down by jumping on a new S-Curve because in the long-run the payoff will be huge. New companies are better at it, they are more aware of this. As an organization gains traction, as it becomes more successful, it often becomes also more conventional, and it loses sight of individual disruption and as a result it takes out creativity. Then it is more difficult to implement that disruption mindset again.

Not losing sight of what works when success strikes is important not only for companies but also individuals. Chapter four of your book is called "Battle Entitlement". I also heard you say: "Not seeing the abundance in the success of other people is a form of entitlement." What is the problem with entitlement when a person wants to disrupt herself?

Entitlement is especially a problem when you're at the sweet spot of your S-curve. You've reached success, everything is working out very well. In short, you're thriving. And you're thinking: "I am awesome." That's all nice and well, however, if you don't continue to challenge yourself now, you will soon stop being successful.

It's easy to get complacent at that point, thinking that because everything is perfect now that you deserve to get everything else without further effort on your part. Entitlement becomes your trap. In reality, exactly at this point you need to put in more effort than in a long time because it's time to jump onto a new curve. That would be the only way to move ahead. It's easy to miss opportunities due to feelings of entitlement.

Understanding the S-curve definitely makes it much clearer where we as individuals are in relation to our goals and what we need to do to develop careers and to realize our highest potential.

So what is actually your goal with this book: what kind of dent do you want to make in the universe?

I hope to enable more people to dare to dream their very own dream and realize that this dream is their powerful engine of disruption!

Those are some powerful words, and over the last few years, Whitney has definitely found many ways to help people thrive and reach their dream goals. Now the big question is this: what will you do to take the next step forward? If you find that something's holding you back, remember these tips from the chat and get ready to grow:

  • Stop looking at your self-worth simply through the lens of your successes.
  • You can make things happen at any age.
  • What story are you telling yourself about your failures — and successes. Is your perspective on failure helping or blocking you?
  • What skills make you unique, and are you giving them the credit they deserve?
  • Look closely: is your sense of entitlement holding you hostage?

Alright, it's time to make change happen!

External resources mentioned in this story:

Whitney Johnson's Website:

Whitney's Books — Disrupt Yourself & Build An A-Team:


© 2015, updated 2018

More Chats for Change