Whitney Johnson is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. She developed her proprietary framework and diagnostics after having co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen. This framework is complemented by a deep understanding of how executives create and destroy value, having spent nearly a decade as an Institutional Investor ranked equity analyst on Wall Street.
00:55 – What’s life about?
04:29 – Growing up.
11:48 – The psychology of disruption.
22:09 – Lightning round.
30:31 – How has the process of writing changed?
40:33 – Knowing your audience.
48:22 – Advice to people working on their first book.
Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream by Whitney Johnson
Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work by Whitney Johnson
Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve by Whitney Johnson
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen
Disruptive Innovation Fund
TEDx – Whitney Johnson – Disrupt Yourself
You Were Born Rich by Bob Proctor
Focus @ Will
Time Out For Women
BRYAN: 00:50 Whitney, welcome to the School for Good Living podcast.
WHITNEY: 00:54 Thank you for having me, Bryan.
BRYAN: 00:55 It’s my pleasure. So Whitney, tell me, what’s life about?
WHITNEY: 01:04 Oh, way to stump people right out of the gate, Bryan. So I would say life is about learning. I think we were born to be learning machines. I think we’re here to learn how to do good and to be good. For me there’s an a priori assumption that we existed. There’s an essence of us that existed before we were born and in my particular case, I believe that we are born as children of God. And so we’re here in this life to learn how to be better children of God. And then after this life will continue on as who we are, I’ll continuing to be Whitney, you’ll continue to be Brian. And so we’re here to learn. It’s like going to college and it’s gonna be really challenging and really tough and we’re going to get an A If we try our best to learn and to do good and be good. And so that for me is what life is about, is how do I learn, how do I help the people around me that I love and maybe even the people that I don’t love to learn and to basically figure out who we really are and what we were meant to do.
BRYAN: 02:14 Wow. Awesome. Well thank you. Mind if I borrow your answer for- parts of your answer going forward? I love that.
WHITNEY: 02:23 Feel free! Thank you. Thank you, thank you.
BRYAN: 02:25 Awesome. Whitney, when someone asks you who you are and what you do, what do you tell them?
WHITNEY: 02:31 Well, I think it depends on who I’m talking to. So if it’s in a professional context, I will say to people, I help you become a boss people want to work for, or I help you and your company manage through change. I help you figure out how to avoid being disrupted. So that’s in a professional context. If I meet someone and they say, what do you do? If some- if I meet someone and they want to know more about me and who I am, I’ll say things like, I am- I live in Lexington, Virginia, though I originally grew up in San Jose, California. I was born in Madrid, Spain. I’m married. I have two children. I love my work, I love to read, I love tennis, I’m not very good, but I want to be good. And then I talk about books that I’m reading because I love to read as well.
BRYAN: 03:18 Well that’s one of the things that I’ve loved talking is books, about books you’re reading, books you’ve written, books you were writing at the time and your new book, Build An A-Team just came out this week, which is really cool. Congratulations on that. And I understand it’s at the top of the charts and Amazon right now in a couple of different categories.
WHITNEY: 03:36 Thank you. I’m so excited. It was really, really, really- I mean you- it’s like you check it constantly and we’re all supposed to say that we don’t cuz our vanity metrics but you still do check it, so thank you.
BRYAN: 03:48 No, that’s great. So you have a background in music and I’ve been in the room when you’ve played the piano, so I know you’re a talented musician and I also know that you’re the world’s leading expert on disruption, and that’s maybe not like a logical path. Will you tell me a little bit about your journey, just knowing now you’re in New York and you’ve worked with Clayton Christensen and now you’re a three time author and you’re working around the world with leaders and CEOs. Tell me how this transformation happened.
WHITNEY: 04:29 So like I said a moment ago, I grew up in San Jose, California and very solidly middle class background. I’m the oldest of four children, which I didn’t say earlier and I was always wanted to work really hard, very determined, very ambitious. But I was a girl so I couldn’t really say I was ambitious. I had to pretend like I wasn’t ambitious. And so, you know, in high school I did things like wanting to get straight a’s but focused on being a cheerleader. Got to college, had no idea what I was going to study because I was a girl and I was gonna get married and that’s all I was going to do. And one of the things that happened is I go to college, I major in music because my mom pretty much wanted me to, but then when I graduated from college at this point I was married and my husband and I moved to New York and he was getting his PhD in microbiology and I knew I didn’t want to do anything in music and so, and I also knew that I had to work because we needed food on the table because food is actually a really good thing. And so I went out to get a job and the best job I could get was as a secretary. I was working because I was a female because I had a degree in music, because it was the late eighties. And so I worked for a retail broker on Wall Street. It was 13, 45 Avenue of the Americas at sixth avenue between 53rd and 54th. And as I started working, I started to make this discovery, which was Wall Street was really exciting, and I think also because I was now married, I’d kind of checked that box off, some of that ambition that had laid dormant, I was allowed to somehow allow it to come out, and besides I needed to work. So why make x if I can make 10 x? And so this was really an awakening, if you will, for me, where I saw all these people working on Wall Street. I saw a lot of guys sitting across from me. They were retail brokers and you know, saying things like, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this is a great stock idea or throw down your pom poms and get in the game. And for me that was particularly poignant because I had been a cheerleader and I was kind of offended. But also there was this meta experience that I was having where I needed to throw down my pompoms and get in the game. And so I started taking business courses at night and started- and then had a boss who allowed me to and helped me move from being a secretary to an investment banker. And from there I just worked really hard and I did banking. And then I had a boss get fired. And so I got moved and basically was disrupted and moved into equity research. Did that for about eight years, started having our children, disrupt myself this time connected with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School who is known for disruption, disruptive innovation. He wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma and co founded an investment firm with him and where we were investing in privately- excuse me, privately owned companies and publicly traded securities, all which were disrupted. But the big Aha that I then had as we were doing all this work together was that it wasn’t companies that disrupt that. It’s people who do. And so for the last five years I’ve just been researching and codifying and thinking through what does a framework, a personal disruption look like? How do you take these ideas and needs of this theory and apply it to people? And in applying it to people, how does that, how does you disrupting yourself actually allow your organization that you work for or the organization in which you are embedded to be disruptive and be competitive. So as you disrupt yourself, you’re helping the people you work for be disruptors.
BRYAN: 08:08 I think that’s such an interesting perspective because you know, as we know, change is inevitable and that just seems to be a law of the universe. But improvement is certainly not a given. Right? And innovation is certainly not a given. Right? So it’s like most of us, perhaps many people anyway are kind of just going through life, doing whatever they’re doing and if they’re not consciously, like I think you- your message is very essential. If you’re not going to disrupt yourself, you’re going to be disrupted.
WHITNEY: 08:45 Exactly. Exactly, right.
BRYAN: 08:45 Why? Why is this, I mean obviously you’ve lived this as you just described, but why is this idea important to you? I mean, why- I look at you as an evangelist for this concept of conscious disruption, potential disruption. But I’m interested to know, why does this idea matter so much to you?
WHITNEY: 09:03 You know, Bryan, that’s such a good question, right? Because we- I remember there was a quote by David Brooks and that I just love, and I’m going to paraphrase it, but he said that so many of us find- want to figure out what our calling in life is, you know, what it is that we’re meant to do. And he said, you know, it doesn’t usually work that way is you just get out there and you start, you start trying to figure things out and then a problem finds you, a problem that you have to solve. And I don’t know why for sure, why this speaks to me so deeply. I think part of it is, is that I know change is important and I know that I don’t want to feel stuck. Like stuck is like the worst thing that I could ever feel. And so, but it’s also been very difficult for me to figure out how to change and how to improve myself because that is something that I just absolutely must do. And so this ability to be able to maybe make it safer for people to change. And certainly maybe not, and maybe you can’t make it safer, but to say to people, here’s a framework, here’s what it looks like, and by the way, I’m here for you. If it feels scary, it feels lonely. You’re on the right path to disruption. So I’m going to help walk you through it. And I believe that so much of so many problems could be solved both individually and certainly societally if we are willing to change ourselves. Change is contagious. And so as I’m willing to disrupt myself for the better, then it makes it more possible for the people around me to do the same. And so when I say companies don’t disrupt, people do, I really believe that the world doesn’t change, but we change- the world changes one person at a time.
BRYAN: 10:44 Yeah, I love that. And in fact, one of my previous guests davidji talks about, we transform the world by transforming ourselves.
WHITNEY: 10:52 Bingo. Bingo.
BRYAN: 10:54 I think that’s such a great, such a great perspective. And as I read Build An A-Team, there’s this concept that I know you’ve been speaking about for awhile that I hadn’t understood, this S curve, that Ian Rogers popularized back in the fifties, I think, and you know, it’s one thing to get this as a concept and it’s another to see it in your own life or to understand and apply it. And to be honest, I think I saw this a little bit just this last last couple of weeks. I have an assistant who I love who’s been with me six years and she’s about to take another role in our organization and as I read your book, I’m like, oh, she was at the top of the S curve. Well, you, and I- it wasn’t anything that had even occurred to me, but will you talk for just a moment about what the S curve is and how we can use it as leaders to, as you say, to be a boss that people love to work for?
WHITNEY: 11:48 Yeah, absolutely. So, as you just mentioned, this was popularized by Ian Rogers and it was originally meant to help you figure out how quickly an innovation will be adopted, and we use it at the Disruptive Innovation Fund that I co founded with Clayton to help us identify investment opportunities. The big Aha that I had was that you could use this S curve to help you understand the psychology of disruption, to understand the psychology of change and in fact learning. And so I’ve reimagined it as The S Curve of Learning. And so if you can picture in your mind for just a moment, if you’re, if you don’t have this in front of you, you picture this ascent at the bottom of the S. Every time you start something new, it can be a new role, a new job, a new project, whatever it is. The bottom of the s, a lot of time is gonna pass. And it’s going to feel like nothing is happening. This is the area of inexperience. It typically lasts for six months to a year. So you’re going to come home from work everyday thinking, I have no idea what I’m doing. I should quit my job. No, it’s just that you don’t know what you’re doing and your brain hasn’t been able to sort out all the disparate pieces of information that have- are coming at you and you haven’t been able to make sense of those yet. So that’s the low end of the learning curve. And then after six months to a year in a role in particular and thinking about your assistant, you move into the knee of the curve and that’s the part where you start to tip into the steep part of the curve where very little time passes and lot happens. This is the area where you’re competent, with that comes confidence and it also comes engagement because you know enough, but not too much. Again, thinking about that jumble of pieces, you’re starting to put enough pieces together that you’re making sense of things, but you haven’t made complete sense. So it’s still really fun. There’s some novelty to it and then you get to the top of the S. That’s after you’ve been in a role for four years. Typically people can stay on one learning curve for about four years. That’s on average before it’s time to jump, so you actually got more time out of your assistant than most people do, and once you get to the top, you become this master. You’re great at what you do, but it also means that you’re bored, because your brain’s not learning anymore, you’ve figured it out, and so this is that danger zone where you think, oh, my employee is a master. I’ll just leave them. No, no, no, no, you can for maybe six months. But after that, you’ve got to allow them to jump to a new learning curve. And so what I explained as I’m working with organizations is that every single person on your team in your company is on a learning curve, including you and you optimize for innovation. Your organization that can manage through change by at any given time, having 70 percent of your people in this sweet spot, that steep part of the learning curve, fifteen percent of your people at the low end where they’re inexperienced, but they’re also asking some really good questions and then 15 percent of your people at the high end where they know everything and they’re a little bit bored but they also can set the pace for people and facilitate collaboration for people coming along and when you’re able to optimize in that way, you got people who are maximally engaged and a team and an organization that can be innovative, and basically you are in- you’re lowering your “we’re about to be disrupted” score.
BRYAN: 15:04 I think that’s such a cool way to think about about ourselves or team and it can inform hiring decisions, you know, career paths, like these kinds of things. And I also love that you take this out of the realm of theory and you offer a diagnostic.
WHITNEY: 15:19 I do.
BRYAN: 15:20 Right, you can go through and evaluate themselves and get clear, like how is this, so, yeah. And one thing you talk about as well I think is really interesting, I’d love to hear you just share a little more about it, which is this idea that what holds us back is actually what propels us forward. Right? What- and will you talk about that for a little bit? I’ve heard you as I watched your TED talks and a couple other videos I saw online that this was something that came up a couple of different ways. You talked a little bit about constraints as a part of our learning curve. You know, this kind of thing, but will you tell me a little bit more about that? I’m fascinated by paradox-
WHITNEY: 16:00 And this is paradox.
BRYAN: 16:03 What pulls us back is what propels us forward.
WHITNEY: 16:04 Yeah, absolutely.
BRYAN: 16:05 Tell me what you mean by that.
WHITNEY: 16:07 Yeah, so what’s interesting is that when you get into that sweet spot of the curve, what you actually- it’s easy with your people who are in that sweet spot. You’re like, they’re doing a great job. Let’s, you know, let’s just keep them going. And yet in order to have the momentum that they need to climb the curve, they need friction. We know from the law of physics that without friction, nothing moves and it’s the same for people who are in the sweet spot, in order to be able to go up that steep back of the curb, you need friction and that comes in the form of constraints, that comes in the form of challenges. It comes in the form of stretch assignments. And what’s interesting about that is that the research has shown is that we tend to be reluctant to give people stretch assignments because we’re afraid that they’ll fail and yet they can’t climb the curve unless you’re willing to give them something where there’s the real risk of failure. And just to illustrate this so you have an idea from a visual or metaphorical standpoint, a practical standpoint, I guess actually all three, the film Jaws, we all know Jaws, right? I mean, it’s iconic. And what’s fascinating is that the most famous scenes in that film came about because the mechanical shark that Steven Spielberg wanted to use, it did not work. So now he’s got the constraint of being over budget. He’s behind schedule, he doesn’t have a shark that will work and so what does he do? He decides to shoot all the scenes from the shark’s point of view and he lets the music- and I can guarantee that every single person on the podcast that’s listening, they can hum that music in their head, and he lets the imagination- you can probably sing it, right Bryan? If you want to, but you’re not going to, I can tell. And then let our imagination do the rest. And so that’s the power of a constraint. Another one that I think is fascinating, actually, I’m going to tell you two more just to really drive this point home is there was this postmortem done of 200 failed startups and they looked at, they divided it into funded startups and unfunded startups. And the number one reason that the funded startups went under, the ones that were able to go out and raise capital from third parties, the number one reason they went out of business was that they ran out of cash. They ran out of money. And it was for the people who had had to bootstrap, the people who had to prioritize, who had constraints, it was only the number 10 reason. Fascinating to me. And then the third story, which I love so much, is skateboarders, they are some of the quickest learners in the world. Think about, we just saw the Olympics. You’ve got all these snowboarders, quickest learners in the world because they receive incredibly fast and incredibly useful feedback. And so then the question becomes, when we’re thinking about our people that work for us or ourselves, we’re trying to climb a curve, are we successful in spite of or because of our constraints? And so this is the paradox of we need constraints. We need challenges, we need stretch assignments in order for us to successfully climb a learning curve.
BRYAN: 19:08 What a fascinating question. Are we successful in spite of or because of our constraints, where I know for myself, I often wish some of the challenges I had, I didn’t have, right? But this allows such a wonderful perspective and even invites us to explore our challenges with gratitude.
WHITNEY: 19:30 Right, and the thing is, Bryan, is when we are willing to take a moment of introspection or many moments of introspection, every great thing that we do in our lives, I would argue was made possible brought to you by a constraint.
BRYAN: 19:48 I can see that. Where have you seen that in your own life?
WHITNEY: 19:53 Oh, um, yeah, great question. So- I can’t believe you’re asking me this, but yeah, so- it’s okay that you’re asking me. So I think one constraint that I had growing up is my parents, they- my mom got pregnant and so they got married and she wasn’t happy being married to my dad. And so I think at many levels, you know, inside that DNA, inside the womb, there was a sense of I better make up for how terrible her life is, you know, I needed to be good enough to make sure that it would make it all be okay. And so I had the sense, you know, from really all my childhood is that I wasn’t good enough. Like I’m not good enough and I need to- I was internalizing this and so I needed to be better and I would really credit the fact that I am so driven to succeed, to accomplish, to make things happen because of that experience that I had, you know, that wasn’t fair to me that it was like that, but it was. And now of course as an adult, it’s up to me to make sure that I can take the- discard the bad that comes with that and then just continue to leverage the good. And I think, you know, I’m finally old enough that I’m really starting to do that, is to take all of that drive that I have to make a difference and make things happen and channel in very positive ways. But that’s a big constraint, a big constraint.
BRYAN: 21:18 I can see that. And you are one of the most driven people I know.
WHITNEY: 21:23 Interesting! Really, that’s interesting.
BRYAN: 21:26 Which I think is awesome that, you know, all my interactions with you as I’ve gotten to know you a bit over the last year, one of the things I love is I do think you’re real and you’re present yet you’re very clear. I mean, you live- it seems to me you’re on a mission. I mean, you’ve written your message, as I look back at your TED talks, nearly a decade you’ve been sharing the same essential message about disruption and looking at how this can not, again, not just be a theory, not just be some kind of organizational concept, but it can be something that we apply in our own lives to improve them. And I think that’s really cool.
WHITNEY: 22:06 Thank you, Bryan.
BRYAN: 22:09 Yeah. Well, okay. I want to transition now to this lightning round of questions.
WHITNEY: 22:16 Oh! Okay. Fun.
BRYAN: 22:17 So this is kind of the halfway point and what I have here is it’s about 10 questions. I’ve written these so that they can be answered briefly. You can take as many words as you want, but we’ll start with a single, if you can, a single word response to the following question with, without using like a box of chocolates, right? Complete the following sentence. Life is like a blank.
WHITNEY: 22:51 A merry go round!
BRYAN: 22:53 Oh! Love it. Why do you say that, by the way?
WHITNEY: 22:56 I’m going to say the words that come into my head first. It’s like a Rorschach test, right? The thought that I had when you asked me that was a merry go round, yes It goes around, but a couple, I think a couple of free association. One is that it’s a happy moment being on a merry go round. It’s exciting. It’s fun. I thought of the word merry, that you know, as we go around it is a merry time. And then I also thought of how, I remember when I was young we would go to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and you’d pull out these brass rings and you try to throw it into a thing. And I’ve always cared about the brass ring, for better or for worse. And so, um, so yeah. So I’m here. Life is like a merry go round.
BRYAN: 23:40 Love it. Awesome. And merry go rounds have ups and downs.
WHITNEY: 23:46 Yes they do!
BRYAN: 23:46 Great, okay. Number two, what do you wish you were better at?
WHITNEY: 23:52 Jazz piano.
BRYAN: 23:54 Number three, if you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a T-shirt with a slogan on it or phrase or saying or quip or quote, what would it say?
WHITNEY: 24:07 Learn, leap, repeat.
BRYAN: 24:12 Number four, what book other than your own have you gifted most often?
WHITNEY: 24:18 Born Rich by Bob Proctor.
BRYAN: 24:22 All right. Number five. So you travel a ton. What’s one travel hack, something you do or maybe something you take with you when you travel, that makes your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
WHITNEY: 24:37 A favorite piece of fiction, a book that I’m reading that- oh, sorry, I went too long- a book. Fiction.
BRYAN: 24:46 You can answer as long, as long as-
WHITNEY: 24:48 I can elaborate? Yeah, so I love to travel. I love my travel for work, but I also like to be able to feel grounded and not necessarily feel homesick. And so being able to carry a piece of fiction with me that carries me away, it becomes just a companion for me that I can- I may not read it very much, but I certainly read at night and so I like to have a piece of fiction.
BRYAN: 25:14 What’s something you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age well?
WHITNEY: 25:22 Meditating.
BRYAN: 25:23 Good for you.
WHITNEY: 25:24 I’ve started meditating.
BRYAN: 25:25 Number seven. What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
WHITNEY: 25:30 That’s a gimme, how to disrupt themselves! Actually, I wish people knew that- yeah. How to disrupt themselves, but that at the core that we are- and I know I’m channeling Brené Brown a little bit, but at the core we are worthy, irrespective, and I love this quote from Zig Ziglar. “Failure is an event, not a person.” I wish everybody not only said that or saw that in their head, but they believed that to the core of their soul.
BRYAN: 26:07 Yeah. It’s a much more empowering perspective than I think what many people believe, for sure. All right. Number eight. What advice have your parents given you that has made an impact on you or has stayed with you?
WHITNEY: 26:24 So this is interesting. The one that came to my mind, and I think it’s best to just say what comes to your mind, so it’s interesting, my dad was a bit of a philanderer- not a bit. He was a philanderer and I remember him saying to me fairly early in my career when I was traveling a lot. He said something to me like, make sure you stay faithful to your husband. And I thought that was- and that stayed with me because it was so not what he had done, and I have stayed faithful to my husband. But that advice has stayed with me, I think because, I think in part because I think so often, and this goes back to what I just said a minute ago, we know in our brain what to do, but we- our subconscious is often so wired differently. And so we don’t do what we know to do. And so that advice has really stayed with me.
BRYAN: 27:23 Yeah, that’s interesting. That makes me think of when I was writing Behind the Drive and I was collecting stories from others about my dad. There was more than one person that shared with me the advice he had given them to be a present parent, and so it is kind of, there’s this power in somebody who’s lived one way, giving advice contrary to the way they lived, right? It’s like, it’s kind of mind bending.
WHITNEY: 27:48 Yes, right, and it stays with you because you realize- there’s this wonderful quote from Brandon Sanderson who says, “Sometimes hypocrisy is just people in the process of trying to change,” and I think that’s true, or certainly that want to change or want to be other than they are.
BRYAN: 28:06 That’s a very generous perspective. I really liked that. And I love Brandon Sanderson, he’s awesome.
WHITNEY: 28:14 Amazing.
BRYAN: 28:14 The third book in The Way of Kings myself right now.
WHITNEY: 28:16 Me too! That’s what I’m reading right now. That’s what I carry with me on my business trips at the moment and I’m like, string it out as long as possible. So anyway, he’s amazing.
BRYAN: 28:26 Yeah, he’s great. Do you know him by the way?
WHITNEY: 28:29 I do not. I do not. And it’s okay, but he’s amazing.
BRYAN: 28:33 He’s based here in Utah, I think.
WHITNEY: 28:38 Yeah, he is, yeah. We’ll just be his fan club, fan club of two among a million.
BRYAN: 28:42 Cool. Okay. Number nine, what’s your next- I know you’re just riding the wave of Build An A-Team still, so this one might be a little premature, but what’s your next big project? What’s on the horizon?
WHITNEY: 28:56 No, it’s not premature. So my next big project right now is to take the ideas in Build An A-Team and Disrupt Yourself and turn them into a course that people can use. Some type of course, I don’t know what it will look like, but that’s my next big project that I’ve got to sort through over the next six months.
BRYAN: 29:16 Awesome. If people want to learn more from you or connect with you, what should they do?
WHITNEY: 29:23 So I would say if people are interested in doing- seeing where they are in their learning curve, you can go to my website, whitneyjohnson.com/diagnostics. So that’s one way to connect or to know each other more. Another way would be to listen to my podcast, the Disrupt Yourself podcast because that gives you an idea of how I think, and then if you- beyond this conversation that we’re having obviously, Bryan, and then if you want to reach out to me directly, you can email me at [email protected]
BRYAN: 29:57 As a way of expressing my gratitude to you for devoting some of your time talking to me and our listeners here. I’ve made a $100 loan through Kiva.org on your behalf to a woman in Lebanon, and she’ll use this money as part of a $2,000 loan that she’s raising to help pay the tuition for her children.
WHITNEY: 30:20 Oh, I’d love that. Thank you Bryan. That’s lovely. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Will you include in the show notes who the person is so that I can just track who she is?
BRYAN: 30:31 Absolutely, Yep. She’s got a third grader and a kindergartner, so it was pretty- yeah, awesome. Okay. So I want to shift gears again and with our last portion of time, talk about the creative process and talk about specifically the book writing process, but knowing that you have a podcast, knowing you’ve done multiple TED talks, maybe venture into that a little bit, but I want to start- the first thing I’m really curious to know is now that you’ve written three books, I want to know how has the process of writing changed for you? Or how has it stayed the same?
WHITNEY: 31:14 Okay, so I would say the one way it’s stayed the same is that, I continue to think, okay, I want to write about something that has grabbed me, that I have to write about and I want to know about and I am passionate about and that I feel like I have something unique to say about that topic, where I can be the world expert on that topic. So that has been consistent throughout. I think something that has been different is that, and this is not surprising- oh, no, another thing that stayed the same is that- is this realization that you don’t write a book in isolation, that you need to have thought partners. You need to have good editors, people, you know, different kinds of editors and we can go into that in a second if you want, but it’s not this solitary process that it’s somehow made out to be. And you realize that when you read acknowledgements, but it’s really not a solitary process. And I think that that’s the other thing that would be the same. The thing that’s different is I think about the very first book that I wrote, Dare, Dream, Do, which was in 2012, and I think if- I remember reading after I wrote that book, someone said, you know, oftentimes people with their first books write books where they get stories from lots of different people, and the reason that they do that is, or essays or contributions as they do that is because they don’t have confidence in their own voice. And I thought that was fascinating because on the one hand with my first book I did have like 50 different contributors and I wanted to do that because I wanted to give all of these people a voice and it was all women in this particular instance. But I do think that there was some element of, I was still finding my voice and I don’t think you ever find it actually, but I would say the thing that has been different is that I am increasingly confident in what I think, and willingness to say what I think and what I believe. And I still- and that’s so important. Because I remember when I was working on Wall Street, very early on, I’d just become an analyst and I was trying to decide, do we put a buy on the stock. Do I put a sell on it? What do I do? What should my rating be? And one of my colleagues said to me, stop being a shrinking violet. And I remember at the time like I really did not know how to have an opinion. Like I didn’t know how to do that. And so I would say one of the biggest evolutions over the last 15 years really, and certainly with this third book is I’m getting increasingly confident and comfortable with having an opinion, having a view. And so that’s the thing that’s probably the biggest difference.
BRYAN: 33:57 So when you started your first book, you recall, how long did it take you from the time you conceived the book to the time you finished the manuscript, or- and I’m interested to know the answer to that with A-Team as well, and kinda compare first to third. What’s that timetable?
WHITNEY: 34:15 Oh, sure. Yeah, absolutely. So I think that there’s, at least for me, there’s an evolutionary process because I first started the blog- I blog- to blog on in 2006. And- is that right? Yeah, we’re in two thousand- yeah, 2006. The years all start to compress like an accordion, but 2006, and started, you know, trying to figure out what do I think. And then about a year or two in, I had started having people guest blog, I think it was in 2009, someone approached me, Laurel Christensen Day, who’s at Deseret Book, about writing a book. And so it took me from there about, I want to say nine months to put a manuscript together, although I had a lot of these blog posts I had written. So I had been kind of researching and thinking about this now for several years. And then we didn’t end up publishing with Deseret Book. And so when the book finally came out it was 2012. And so if you think about it from that standpoint, the kernel of what I wrote about started six years earlier. Once I actually had to do a manuscript, it was probably six to nine months, but then we set it aside for a year or six to nine months, came back to it. So very much an iterative process over the course of several years. So I wrote Disrupt Yourself, that was published in 2015. And after I wrote that book, a lot of people started having the question of like, okay, well I get that I need to disrupt myself, but how do you create an ecosystem where that can be possible? And so the seeds of Build An A-Team were planted then, but in terms of the actual writing and again, a team, good editors, we just published it. Now we turn in the first draft of the manuscript in May of 2017. So from the intense writing period was probably about nine months.
BRYAN: 36:17 During that time, what does your writing schedule look like, long stretches? Do you have a certain time of day? Like how do you manage that?
WHITNEY: 36:27 Yeah. So the early stuff, when it’s the first kind of getting something out on paper, it’s early in the morning. Like that is the only time I can because it’s the only time of the day where my anxiety is-
BRYAN: 36:42 Still asleep.
WHITNEY: 36:42 -a little bit quiet than later in the day, it’s still- I like to think it’s still asleep or it’s certainly drowsy. And so early in the day and then what I have gotten really good at doing is saying, okay, I’m going to write for a couple of hours and then I’m going to hand it off to either a conceptual- usually at this stage conceptual editor, take a look at it, see if they can make sense of it, and kind of have it back and forth with people so that I can keep the anxiety drowsy and then when I get stuck, because it’s really hard actually creating something, it’s really hard. And so when you can get feedback and then continue to develop that, that’s the process that works for me.
BRYAN: 37:26 Awesome. Do you have any rituals that you observe? You know, do you have certain slippers you wear or a certain beverage that you bring with you or do you light a candle? Like any- is there anything you do as you’re sitting down to write?
WHITNEY: 37:40 Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, so actually I want to just add one thing that I think is important here is I just to be clear, even though I’ve written three books, I don’t self-identify as a writer, I don’t. Yeah, I don’t, because writing for me is a tool to be able to get my ideas and what I think and to evangelize for what I care about out in the world. Unlike someone like Susan Cain who thinks of herself first and foremost as a writer or Brandon Sanderson obviously thinks of himself as a writer or even someone like Dan Pink. But I don’t think of myself that way first and foremost. So just- I think for people who are listening, that’s an interesting question to be asking yourself, what role does writing actually play? Do you self identify as a writer? Which in some ways is good that I don’t because my perfectionism doesn’t kick in the same way, but what role does the writing process play in your overall portfolio of things that you’re trying to get done? In terms of rituals, I would say I sit down at my computer, I have- I usually have a great big glass of water, and then frequently, I shouldn’t say this, but I’ll get like a little bit of candy to help me get started, and I like to listen to on this app called [email protected] that has music because then it allows me to focus because otherwise my brain starts bouncing all over, like I should do this, I should do that, I should the other thing. And so it allows me to be calm. I’m not ADD, but I do get distracted and so if I have something like [email protected], it allows me to actually focus.
BRYAN: 39:09 Yeah. I’ve just discovered [email protected] in the last few months and I’ve loved it. It’s amazing.
WHITNEY: 39:15 It is great.
BRYAN: 39:15 And the candy, by the way, the candy is the reward, Whitney! It’s the-
WHITNEY: 39:22 There you go!
BRYAN: 39:22 It’s a bookend, beginning and end.
WHITNEY: 39:23 M&M’s for the win. Right?
BRYAN: 39:24 That’s awesome. What kind do you like?
WHITNEY: 39:30 Oh, actually, what kind do I really love? I love- oh actually, know what I really, really love are the Cadbury mini eggs.
BRYAN: 39:38 Oh, yeah.
WHITNEY: 39:39 Those are the best ever. Best ever. It’s a good thing they only have them at Easter, but that’s the kind I really like. Yeah, and the caramel- I like the caramel M&M’s.
BRYAN: 39:47 That’s awesome. There’s so many kinds nowadays.
WHITNEY: 39:49 Yes, there are.
BRYAN: 39:50 Awesome. When you’re writing, and by the way, what you said about not identifying as a writer makes me think about the distinction. I once heard of the distinction between a writer and an author, right? That there is a big difference between being an author and the author in some ways is more a producer who orchestrates, you know, they envision it, they architect it, they bring the resources together, they see that it exists. Do you see that for yourself, would you say?
WHITNEY: 40:18 Yes, absolutely. I’ve never heard- yeah, I’ve never heard that definition, but that hundred percent I think of myself absolutely as an author, not a writer.
BRYAN: 40:25 Interesting. And it just sounds like maybe you get to wear a jacket and, you know, something too. “I’m an author.” That’s pretty cool.
WHITNEY: 40:33 I’m an author!
BRYAN: 40:33 So when you’re writing, how clear are you of who your audience is? I mean, we know this is like writing advice 101, right? Know your audience. And what I wonder is as you write, who are you writing for and how clear are you that you’re writing for someone, even, do you have sometimes a specific person or a kind of avatar that you’re writing toward, and how does that happen for you?
WHITNEY: 40:57 Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say with Dare, Dream, Do, I was really clear on my audience. It was, I wanted to- it was like I was handing someone a cup of hot chocolate. My audience was women. My audience was women in particular who were having the tension of wanting to be mothers and care for family and loved ones and also have a career. And what does that look like? And really building a case for why it was important to have a dream because I met so many women who were not actually believing it was a privilege and birthright to dream. So that was my audience for that book. Very clear. Disrupt Yourself, my audience, I would say of the three, it was probably the least clear. I knew I had this idea. I wanted to encourage people to be- to have a framework for knowing how to make a change. It was more- probably more B to C, business to consumer of just widespread- anybody who was feeling like I need to make a change, whether it’s a college student, whether it’s someone in their sixties, regardless of what stage they are in life. With Build An A-Team, my audience has been very clear of talking to C suite executives, whether they’re CEOs, chief human resource officers, learning and development officers, with the idea that if you will apply these ideas inside of your organization, it will allow you to retain talent. It will allow you to manage through change better. It will allow you to avoid being disrupted if you will allow the people on your team to manage their learning curves. And here’s how you do it. So I would say of the two, you know, Dare Dream Do, Build An A-Team, clearer on the audience, Disrupt Yourself more the framework, broader application, not as clear on the audience other than the avatar being a person who’s feeling like I need to make a change and I don’t know how to do it.
BRYAN: 42:52 Awesome. What is, for you, what’s the most rewarding part of writing books?
WHITNEY: 43:02 Being done with it? A couple things. I think one part of it is, and I said that tongue in cheek, but there’s some truth to it. I would say being able to get these ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper and the challenge of being able to codify what you think and say it in a really clear way so that when someone reads it, they get it. And then when you hear someone talking about it, your idea, and it now has become their idea, that’s really rewarding because you’re like, I put something into the world and now someone is sharing it. I’m sharing it with them and it’s theirs too and then they’re creating something with it. So that’s super, super rewarding.
BRYAN: 43:49 That’s awesome. So I heard you say that you, after you started blogging, is it Laurel- Laurel reached out to you to write a book?
WHITNEY: 44:01 Actually, kind of. She did. Do you want the bigger story? Because I think this is interesting.
BRYAN: 44:06 Yeah. I mean especially like, I’m so curious. How did you go and how could one maybe follow the same path you did to get, you know, recognized, to get, you know, the opportunity, right?
WHITNEY: 44:16 Yeah. So I think, well, here’s what else, I’ll tell you my story quickly because I’m not sure that it applies to most people. And so, and then I’ll talk through what now tends to happen is. So in this particular instance, I had reached out through a friend of a friend, shout out to David Berkus’ book, to reach out to this- to Laurel Christensen Day who runs this big seminar series, or did, called Time Out for Women. And I had this friend, Macy Robison, who had just done this cabaret act called Children Will Listen and said to Laurel, you need to bring her in because it’s a really great cabaret act. So I was, actually, and as her friend like I wasn’t her age and I was just like, this is fantastic, you should do it because I tend to sometimes do that with people’s dreams is I like, you have to do this thing. So I did it. And in the process of having that conversation with Laurel, she said, well, can you just tell like, first of all, what’s your game here? And I was like, there isn’t a game. And then she said, well, you’re kind of interesting. Tell me about you. And as we got acquainted then she asked me if I was interested in writing a book. So that was an unusual thing. Although I would say that in many instances for people, sometimes things do happen that are positive for you when you are in the process of advocating for other people. Not always, but sometimes. In terms of the process more generally, I would say that typically you do need to have an agent, I would not- and I wouldn’t just blind query agents because you’re never going to get an agent. You’ve got to use your network and you know nowadays we all know, like everybody who’s listening to this, know someone who has written a book like because everybody writes books and so what I would say to you is you reach out to your friends and say, I have a book proposal. Assuming that you do, you need to get a book proposal, who do you know that are agents, can you introduce me? Like that is how you have to do it. Otherwise it’s like banging your head against the wall and then once you get an agent, then they will help sell your book. Unless you want to go the self publishing route, which is becoming increasingly legitimate, Michael Bungay Stanier, he wrote this fantastic piece and I would definitely put it in the show notes, Bryan, about how you can self publish, and he did, and he sold hundreds of thousands of books. Of course he’s a bit of a unicorn, but there are ways to do it and it comes to a bigger question which is when you write a book, what job are you hiring your book to do? Because depending on the job you’re hiring your book to do, it may make sense to self publish, it may make absolutely no sense to self publish and depending on the job you want to hire it to do, then you can start to make decisions about which route you want to go, what kind of agent you want and need, etc.
BRYAN: 46:58 And talking about Michael Bungay Stanier, I loved your interview with him, by the way, he was so honest. You know, and-
WHITNEY: 47:07 He’s great.
BRYAN: 47:08 -that piece he wrote about how he self published and has sold more than 300,000 copies now is pretty remarkable.
WHITNEY: 47:16 It is.
BRYAN: 47:16 Earlier, talking about books here, you said something like, I don’t think we ever find our voice. Something like that. Right? Which is often- writers are told no, just keep writing, you’ll find your voice, you know. Will you say just a little bit more about that?
WHITNEY: 47:34 Well, the reason I said it, I mean it’s kind of like the learning curve. I think if you feel like you’ve found your voice, you become a master and then that implies a status quo. And then that implies that you’re not changing at all. So I would say yes, I’ve found my voice, but if 10 years from now when I’m on my seventh book or eighth book and I sound the same then as I do now, then that would suggest that I haven’t grown at all. And so that’s what- I think if you’re lucky, you never completely find your voice. But that means you’re continually learning, which goes back to what I said at the very beginning, which is the whole purpose of our life is to learn, like we are learning machines and when we’re learning, that means we’re also continually finding our voice.
BRYAN: 48:22 That makes a lot of sense. What advice do you have for people who are working to get their first book done or maybe their next book done? If you were to give them a piece of advice or encouragement, what would you say?
WHITNEY: 48:35 Well, I have a couple pieces. I would say one is write about what you know and you care deeply about and you want to be wedded to for several years because you will be wedded to it, and so that would be my first piece of advice. My second piece of advice would be write a really good book proposal and find someone who can work with you on writing that really good proposal and third, which kind of goes to the second piece is don’t expect yourself to write this in a vacuum. Get good editors, find people who are basically like a coach to you where you write stuff and they give you feedback, so that you are not doing this as a solitary process because I don’t think it’s meant to be a solitary process. So those would be my three pieces of advice.
BRYAN: 49:23 Okay, and how can people-
WHITNEY: 49:24 Oh, and my fourth one is start writing.
BRYAN: 49:27 It’s so basic!
WHITNEY: 49:28 Just start writing! I know, start writing!
BRYAN: 49:32 Journey of a thousand miles, right?
WHITNEY: 49:35 Exactly.
BRYAN: 49:36 How can people find good collaborators? How do they know?
WHITNEY: 49:39 I think it’s the same as what I said about the agent. You just start asking around. I think it’s amazing how once you say to yourself, okay, I’m going to write a book and I need some- I think I need a good editor. You just start asking everybody you know who’s ever written a book and ask them about the process, like who have you worked with? So for example, I have had an editor, shout out to Amy Jamison, who I have worked with on all three of my books who alternates between being a conceptual editor and also a line editor on this most recent book I worked with a woman named Heather Hunt who is also a fantastic editor and writer. And so we actually kind of ping-ponged back and forth between the three of us. And that was before I even sent it to my editor at Harvard Business Press, which is Sarah Green. And then there was two different line editors there. That’s what I mean. This is not a solitary process. It’s just like a film. It’s not one person. It’s hundreds of people, maybe not with literal hundreds of people, but you get the point.
BRYAN: 50:46 You have distribution and marketing and you know, that kind of stuff. It’s a big- it’s a team effort.
WHITNEY: 50:51 That’s right.
BRYAN: 50:52 Okay. And then I do want to be sure to ask, you mentioned [email protected] as an app and you mentioned Headspace. As you go to write and organize your ideas and communicate them, are there any softwares or any tools that you have found helpful also that others might in their effort to do the same thing?
WHITNEY: 51:12 Other than google docs, no, I just use google docs so I can share the docs. I know there are programs out there, but I don’t use them. I just use google docs.
BRYAN: 51:22 Cool. Alright. Well that’s everything I have. I know as soon as we disconnect I’ll probably have six more questions, the perfect questions, but I appreciate what you’ve shared today. I’ve had a lot of fun. I believe people listening to this will get a lot of benefit from it. So again, as it began, want to thank you for making time to talk with me today and just wish you all the best with your new book and your new program that you’re creating.
WHITNEY: 51:49 Thank you, Bryan! I appreciate it.