From Wall Street to Best-Selling Author: Interview with Whitney Johnson

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Whitney Johnson was recognized as one of the world’s most influential management thinkers in 2015 and was a finalist for the Top thinkers on Talent at the biennial Thinkers50 ceremony in London. She is best known for her work on driving corporate innovation through personal disruption. Johnson is also a frequent contributor to and writer for the Harvard Business Review and is a LinkedInfluencer. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015) and Dare, Dream Do (2012). She is a prolific speaker on innovation initiatives, and has delivered keynote speeches to audiences of 30,000+ people on her ideas and vision. 

Hope Tucker: What was your original career plan when you entered college?

Whitney Johnson: “I had some vague notion that I would study music, get married along the way, and eventually graduate. I think that this was partly me, and partly to do with my being a female in the ‘80s. It didn't occur to me that I would need or want to work when I finished school. It was only after I graduated, arrived in New York with my husband who was going to graduate school, that I realized, we need to eat. And it's my job to make that happen. Did I also mention that I was 27 when I graduated? Between taking a year off to work, two years to go on a mission, and having 180 credits when I graduated, I was 27. Definitely, definitely a late bloomer. Paraphrasing NYT columnist David Brooks, "Most people don't form a self, then lead a life. They find a problem, and the self is constructed gradually. That's what happened to me.”

Hope: How did the concept of "disrupting yourself" change your perspective about failure?

Whitney: “I have always struggled with failure. If you did well in school as a child, you probably do too. Parents and teachers reward you for doing well on a test, tell you that you are smart. Your identity becomes wrapped up in 'success'. A = success = smart. So that when you fail, failure didn't happen, you are a failure. What I've learned is that it is shame that limits disruption, not failure. When you fail, you need to grieve, acknowledge that something mattered to you, then ditch the shame. To slingshot forward, to move up your learning curve, frequently, you'll take a step back, sideways and down. The up and then down are part of personal disruption.”

Hope: What is one piece of advice that you would give to college students struggling to pick a major?

Whitney: “If you don't know what you want to major in, don't sweat it; 90% of freshman don't know either. In the absence of finding a subject or major that you absolutely must do, pick something that challenges you, that will open more doors, not less. Put more food on the table, not less. Don't do what I did. I was so worried about getting good grades, I shied away from hard classes. In the end, no one really cared what my GPA was. I just had to get a job. So go ahead, take that hard class - the one that scares you. Figure out how to solve problems, even though this may mean slightly lower grades. You won't start exactly where you want to right out of school, but become a problem-solver. My experience says you'll eventually rise to the top.

Whitney: One bonus for the girls...here

Hope Tucker