A New Line

People who end up as ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love. – Condoleezza Rice

James Altucher is an entrepreneur, blogger, and New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book is Skip the Line: The 10,000 Experiments Rule and Other Surprising Advice for Reaching Your Goals. He’s one of the most interesting people you could meet in the average week, overflowing with energy and ideas.

Some years ago, while employed by HBO, James took it upon himself to create a website for the organization. No one asked him to do it; he didn’t ask anyone if he could or should. He thought they needed one, and it was a project that interested him more than his regular work, so why not?

Through the mysterious rumblings of the grapevine, someone at Comedy Central caught wind of the project and asked him to do the same for them as a consultant. James agreed on the basis that he be allotted the 3 to 4am time slot for a show in whatever format he chose. Did I mention that James does stand-up comedy and is part owner of a comedy venue?

They initially rejected his idea, but he ultimately sold the powers-that-be on the concept of an original web show he would host. The time slot was only being used for infomercials anyway; what did they have to lose? That’s how James came to host III:am, a “talk show,” where he interviewed random people on the streets of New York at 3am on Tuesday nights for over two years. It wasn’t Friday or Saturday night, with the entire Big Apple out partying. He discovered a whole new world of people living unusual lives, following different rules than those that govern the daylight hours. He calls it the best job he ever had. You can get fascinating detail from his blog.

This week’s podcast focuses on the first accelerant of personal disruption –– taking the right risks, which means playing where no one else is playing. It’s a sort of gateway episode in which I offer a view into several other episodes that can help you as you think about risk. How to evaluate risk, how to figure out the better risks to take—especially in your career. One of the episodes I recommend is number 212, with James, where we discuss his ideas about “skipping the line.”

But James isn’t talking about cutting ahead in line. He’s talking about skipping it altogether, playing where others don’t play by starting your own line. He’s advocating for disrupting processes that we typically take for granted; we think we have to approach things a certain way because that’s how most people would do it.

In other words, why wait in line, competing for the same opportunities as the people ahead of you and those behind. You can get there better, faster, more efficiently, and achieve your goals and dreams by doing something unconventional, being the first person in your own line. You are taking your talents to the vacant playing field.

For example, who was James competing with for that 3am Tuesday slot on Comedy Central? Nobody. It was a short line that he had all to himself.

Last week our newsletter was about doing something new, making a fresh start. Right now, a lot of us are in the “new you” reboot mode. Listen to the podcast. Skip the line. Play where no one else is playing, where you haven’t played before either. Do something you love.

Take the right kind of risk.

My best,

228. Take the Right Kinds of Risks (Encore)

If you've already answered the question we posed in episode 80 (Why should you disrupt yourself in the first place?), then it's time to revisit risk, the first accelerant of personal disruption.

In this encore episode, Whitney discusses why not all risk is created equal, and why taking the right risks can have huge upsides.

If this podcast is valuable to you, email Whitney at wj@whitneyjohnson.com. She responds to every one.

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A Fresh Start

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Chinese proverb

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Here’s one of many things that have interested me:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, amid the Great Depression.

One week before the inauguration on March 4, 1933, a journalist wrote, “The world was rocking beneath our feet.” Says Goodwin, “Following three years of precipitous decline, the vital organs of the financial system were shutting down. The economic system had entered a physical and spiritual state akin to death throes.”

“The sense of helplessness, impotence, dread, and accelerating panic had to reverse before a recovery could commence.”

Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office would be crucial, beginning with the first day.

As Kearns Goodwin describes it, Roosevelt drew an immediate sharp line of demarcation between what had gone before and what was about to begin. “The Inauguration Day of FDR began in prayer and ended in action.”

Every word and deed communicated that “something vast and debilitating had come to an end; something new and hopeful was beginning.”

Roosevelt understood the power of a fresh start. These days, pundits always talk about the first one hundred days of a new American presidency. It doesn’t seem like a long time—not even four months of the four years of a presidential term, but it’s characterized by a flurry of activity and change, or at least, attempts at change.

The power of a fresh start is one of the several things that Katy Milkman, a professor at Wharton, talks about in this week’s podcast. She’s written a book titled How To Change in which she articulates eight things that will aid and abet change; one of them is the importance of a fresh start. She says fresh starts increase our motivation to change because they “give either a real clean slate or the impression of one; they relegate your failures more cleanly to the past, and they boost your optimism about the future.” In our discussion, she also talks about the role that constraints play as well as confidence. There was much to learn from her–––many tips on how to change.

In his book When, Dan Pink (you can listen to him on our podcast here) talks about opportunities for fresh starts, or temporal landmarks as he calls them. They include:

  • The first day of a month
  • Mondays
  • The first day of spring, summer, fall, and winter
  • Your country’s Independence Day
  • The day of an important religious holiday
  • Your birthday
  • A new job
  • The first day of school
  • The first day back from a vacation
  • An anniversary (wedding, first date)
  • The anniversary of the day you started your job, became a citizen, graduated from school, etc.

No doubt this is one of the reasons we originated the practice of Resolutions on New Year’s Day—a new year, a new you. A fresh start.

One of my team members, Heather Hunt, says she likes to make her resolutions at the start of December and build momentum through the month. Then, when the new year arrives, it’s easier for her to stay the course. She also plans to start exercising daily—as soon as the manuscript for our new book is finally in the permanent custody of the publisher—August 16th, which is also a Monday!

For any of you wanting to make a change, think about an auspicious day, one coming up soon, that you can leverage to help you make that change. What is that date? Write it down and start anticipating it; build mental momentum and energy to help you make a quick beginning.

As always, thanks for being here!

My best,

P.S. If you’d like to be eligible for one of three copies of Katy’s book, hit return and say I’m going to start a new S Curve on ___ and include the date.

227. Katy Milkman: How to Change, According to Science

There's a lot of common wisdom around building good habits: stick to a schedule, reject constraints, and seek out great advice.

But science would like a word.

Katy Milkman is an economist and behavioral scientist who has done breakthrough research on how people form (or break) habits. Surprising data from her book, How to Change, shows that flexibility, not routine, is the key to conquering procrastination, exercise, and more.

Environmental changes, even small ones like the start of a new week or a new year (resolutions, anyone?) can be psychologically huge in effecting change. And constraints on creativity often yield better results than unlimited resources.

Science also explains why when it comes to mastering a skill, tis often better to give advice than to receive it.

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Key takeaways from this episode:

  • Fresh Starts: A change of scenery, living space, or even the start of a new week or year can be the catalyst for enormous personal change. Take advantage of it when you need it.
  • Crediting colleagues: Citing others' work regularly is such a powerful sign of security and generosity.
  • Flexible habits: Science says they are more resilient than rigid schedules.
  • Constraints: Be like the knitters from Katy's example. Using less colors can mean bigger creativity.
  • Giving advice can lead to masteryIf someone on your team isn't quite achieving their best, task them with giving advice. Self-reflection is scientifically proven to increase effectiveness.

Disrupting Togetherness

Last weekend, my husband and I delivered a series of workshops for 120 teenagers at a gathering in Goshen, Virginia. This was one of several projects we have worked on together recently.

We love and like each other, but we both found doing this together a bit uncomfortable.

We know our family routine—who does what and when, but giving a presentation together or jointly chairing a committee is a new challenge for us. Who is in charge? Who speaks when? What do we do when we disagree on how to present the information?

These new interactions have changed from parallel play to playing together. We are now teammates on the same initiatives instead of supporting each other in our two distinct paths. We've even been a little testy with each other a few times, which is not how we roll in our household. It's unfamiliar territory in more ways than one; it's stretching us, and—I'll repeat it—it's uncomfortable.

Challenges such as this happen to people in the workplace all the time. We work with someone, and over time they become our peer, or they become our boss. We are a moving piece in the reorganization of a company, or we receive a new team assignment. Whatever it is, how we engage with familiar partners shifts, and awkwardness can emerge. How do we work together amicably in the new situation? How do we create with one another rather than compete?

Over the past year, many have had to deal with this shift as we have been closeted together with those closest to us. Weeks and months have passed, often in tight quarters, often with children at home all the time: some who are anxious and others who are bored. We may have suffered from exposure—and overexposure–to each other. With this significant shift in how we were together and the tasks we needed to accomplish, we all had to adapt or suffer the consequences.

The changes in how we work and live together present opportunities to grow if we lean into them. I've had to ask my husband a few times, “Can we have a do-over?” It is also an opening for a newfound appreciation of those nearest to us.

There is a discovery-driven element, as there is any time we focus on a process without knowing the outcome.

Being discovery-driven, the 7th Accelerant of Personal Disruption is the subject of our and the final episode in our series on personal disruption. As disruptors, playing where we have never played before, we don't know where we will end up. That's what we are talking about in this podcast –– how to navigate from the familiar into discovery.

What have you discovered about your closest relationships this past year?
What have you done to improve how you work with people you respect, like, and possibly love?

As always, thanks for being here!

My best,

P.S. We are shaking things up on LinkedIn Live with an experiment during August. Several of our longtime Disruption Advisor facilitators and coaches––Ralph Campbell, Steve Ludwig, Maureen Breeze, and Monica Loup––will be headlining the on Thursday at 9am Eastern. Join us!

P.P.S. Thank you! I put out a last week asking you to nominate me for the Thinkers50 Global ranking and Talent Award before August 1. And you did! Regardless of the outcome (which we won't know until November), thank you for your kindness.

226. The Power of Discovery-Driven Planning

Reframing failure as a learning experience is so hard to do. But when you can, it's one of the most powerful tools for personal growth.

This week, Whitney explores the value of a discovery-driven mindset through the advice of many past Disrupt Yourself guests, and her own experience.

Knowing where you are on your emotional journey before walking into the unknown removes so much risk. And traditional planning isn't always enough. Discovery-driven planning is a different, and often more flexible way to embark.

Whitney also discusses testing your assumptions by setting milestones, and why sometimes the bravest thing you can do is just show up.

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Relevant links from this episode:

A Quick Request

Hello! Happy Friday!

I have an exciting opportunity as a nominee for a Distinguished Achievement Award and the Global Ranking with Thinkers50, also known as the “Oscars” of Management Thinking. The nomination period for the Distinguished Achievement award closes on Sunday, August 1.

Would you kindly take 1 minute and complete the nomination form on my behalf?

I’ve included instructions below:

  1. Click here to start the nomination process.
  2. On the page that opens, fill out your name and email address
  3. In the field labeled YOUR GLOBAL RANKING NOMINEE, type Whitney Johnson
  4. Scroll down to the Awards section
  5. In the box labeled TALENT AWARD, type Whitney Johnson
  6. Scroll down and click the button labeled SUBMIT YOUR NOMINATIONS

Thank you, it is incredibly kind of you to do this!

I am so happy you are here!

My best,

The Real Deal

Right outside the windows of my office, I have flower boxes.

Two years ago, one of our employees, Jennifer Brotherson, generously built them for me with great love and care. Last summer, I filled them with fake flowers. For the most part, I was happy with those flowers and had even started with artificial flowers again this summer. But after a few weeks, I realized that I needed real plants.

So, I asked Heather Coffey, who can give you the names of more plants than anyone I know. And, who has helped my husband make our garden possible, to plant the flower boxes with real plants. Periwinkle, coleus, and ivy, as seen on my Instagram.

I love seeing those plants when I look out the window! They are vibrant and healthy. But I also notice that they can start to wilt in the heat of the summer day. They need water! Excess water drains out; water evaporates, and the plants have no access to water beyond what is in the soil in the box. The plant's response provides a constant barometer—real-time feedback. They were doing well, but now they are not.

The plastic plants were, frankly, much easier. They required no care and always looked good. But they were far less beautiful than the real ones. They weren't alive, growing, and changing.

Two takeaways––

First, I had an ‘a-ha' moment yesterday about life. There is a lot to do and a lot happening beyond flower boxes. I get tired and sometimes a little overwhelmed. I sometimes equate lots to do with something's wrong.

It occurred to me as I looked at my plants that nothing is wrong. It's just an energy problem, a minor resource shortfall. There's enough light and soil, but it's summertime; maybe there is too much light, too much warmth. Whatever the cause, the plants need more water.

Similarly, when I am tired, I realize that it means nothing more than the fact that I'm tired. I need to rest. Maybe I need a little less daylight and to sleep for a bit. Nothing is wrong. I only need to manage my energy, take a break, do something different, catch my breath.

The second thing I realized is the importance of observing the people around us. How's their energy? Are they wilting a little, experiencing a resource shortfall?

Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy of The Energy Project have reminded us to manage our energy rather than our time. Because time is finite, no amount of management can give us more or replenish it once it's past. Energy is different. Good energy management can make a real difference in how well we thrive.

Everyone around me is also trying to manage their energy. Maybe when others aren't at their best, they start to wilt. They, too, need a little more water, sunshine, rest, or a break from the heat. As part of the ecosystem of others, maybe I can provide that water just like I do for the plants. I can't be everything for everyone. But there are at least a few that I can do something simple to nourish and support, beginning with my family, colleagues, people in my congregation, and people I pass in the grocery store.

Let's be honest: sometimes we are a little fake with each other–I'm all good, no water or sunshine needed here. However, to thrive, we all need the right resources flowing at the right rate. We need to manage and replenish our own energy and give and receive resource support from others. I've written before about resource balance and the sweetness of strawberries.

This week's podcast is with Ray Wang, the CEO of Constellation Research, author of the recently released Everybody Wants to Rule the World. He gives us a fascinating look at data—which we are surrounded by—demonstrating that we are advantaged when finding the biggest ecosystem possible to be part of and to participate therein. It might require us to relinquish something, compensated with the more significant opportunity it provides.

My window box ecosystem is the same. I can toss in the fake flowers and forget them, but if I'm willing to sacrifice a little time and effort to care for the real deal, the rewards and enjoyment are far greater.

My best,

P.S. If you'd like to be eligible for one of five copies of Ray's book, hit return, and I say, I Want To Rule My S Curve.

225. Ray Wang: Don’t Compete, Create

In an economy dominated by tech giants, growing your business to compete with Amazon or Google can feel futile. But Ray Wang thinks differently about this challenge.

Wang is the founder and chairman of Constellation Research, a Silicon Valley advisory firm that finds opportunities for businesses to scale — especially in highly competitive climates. He explains why companies that have won the digital innovation battle have yet to win the war.

From Domino's Pizza, to Honeywell, to Walmart, and even Mom & Pop businesses, Wang shares numerous examples of how successful companies stopped playing their competitors' game, and invented new lines of business they can uniquely own.

Wang also re-thinks personal data as a property right — a simple regulatory shift that would completely disrupt tech in favor of consumers and small businesses.

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Takeaways from this episode:

  • Decision Velocity: The faster you can make decisions, the faster you can make progress.
  • Personal Data as a Property Right: A way to rethink our relationship with tech companies.
  • Data, Data, Data:  Harnessing it without drowning in it is the key to staying competitive.
  • Don't Forget to Leverage What You Already Have: Stop looking at competitors and wishing you had their assets, and start looking for ways to use what already makes your business unique.

Coming Full Circle

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

For the past few months, I've made a point of playing the piano every day, sometimes for 15-20 minutes, occasionally for 30.

I am enjoying it––in fact, finding great pleasure in it! I vary my routine: practicing scales, playing familiar pieces, and transposing some of my favorite tunes like Summertime and Amazing Grace into multiple keys. I even learned a song from my latest favorite Korean drama.

For years—and by years, I mean decades—people have pressed me, “Why don't you play? You were really good; you majored in music. You should play.” The short reason is, I didn't want to. It wasn't a pleasure; it was drudgery for me. It certainly didn't bring me happiness or joy. Even though I had been an accomplished pianist, I didn't enjoy it, hadn't for a long time, and couldn't really imagine that I ever would again.

Over the past few years, an impulse slowly re-emerged. A friend loaned us a piano, and I would occasionally sit down to play. Then, one of our newsletter subscribers, C.A. Hurst, started prompting me every few months, asking me the once dreaded question: Are you playing?

Finally, I decided to set a goal to start playing every day, even if only for a few seconds, just to get started again, and maybe I could find my way back.

Well, with that daily habit, however brief, something started to come alive. I played the bass line of Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely––on the piano. Then, I tinkered with playing Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum by Debussy, a piece I prepared and played at my senior recital in college. There are also days that I watch yet another video on jazz piano from Aimee Nolte.

But the thing that really did it was watching a show on television with a protagonist who loved the piano, truly loved it. Playing it was pure joy! And what was waiting to come forth in me finally did. I had to start playing again.

Do you have something like this, something you need to step away from while you attend to other parts of your life, but now you are coming back to it, or you know you will eventually return to it?

What is that something for you?

Why is it important to sometimes step back? If you feel regret that you have chosen—or been forced—to do so, what would you not have learned had you not retreated for a while?

I'm delighted to introduce this week's podcast guest to you. Brooke Snow, who, coincidentally, also stepped away from her music temporarily, but it's now coming full circle for her as well. She is a musician, meditation instructor, podcaster, parent, and author who prefers to be defined by who she is rather than any of these things she does.

Brooke talks about reframing bad days as good ones by recognizing your wins (however small). It's an uplifting perspective we all can use, on some days more than others, but probably on more days than we want to admit. Please join us!

My best,

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