Finding personal strains in the music of disruption

Sometimes, the compliments we dismiss are the very things that mark our strengths. Author Whitney Johnson, a three-time BIF storyteller and former investment analyst, says we often can’t identify our own greatest assets until we are well into our 30s and 40s.

“People tend to overvalue what they aren’t and undervalue what they are,” Johnson says.  “It takes them a while to tease out what those strengths are.”

One compliment that Johnson used to dismiss was that she was good at piano. She enjoyed playing, but got weary of hearing about her “musicality.” And yet, the attribute that she considered a bit ordinary was something quite unique.  She is an astute listener, with keen senses and a canny ability to — almost — read minds.  “My superpower is anticipation,” she says. And that makes her a great accompanist on the piano. 

Johnson’s musicality has served her well beyond the keyboard. As an investment analyst, she earned a reputation as a superior stock picker, someone who could read the market and anticipate the way people would respond to its sometimes esoteric fluctuations.  Like a good accompanist, she could sense what was about to happen, because she was completely in step with the rhythm of the present.

She is also attuned to the movements of her own life and the ways her strengths have evolved. She left the financial industry at a high point in her career, personally living the principles of disruptive innovation, as she jumped to a new challenge before plateauing on the old one.

“If we aren’t on a curve that satisfies us emotionally, we may be the cause of our own undoing,” Johnson writes in her recent book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015). 

Disrupt Yourself, Johnson’s second book, marks a shift for her.  She describes her first book, Dare, Do, Dream (2012), as a “cup of hot chocolate” shared with friends, mostly women seeking to help each other to work and be nurturing at the same time. It was personal, she says. But Disrupt Yourself is geared toward a wider audience of people on the verge of transition, which she defines in musical terms as “a moment of modulation, a passing from one key to the next.” 

Having made such transitions many times herself, Johnson knows how unsettling they can be. That is why, in addition to writing and blogging about personal disruption, she has been coaching others through moments of change. She used to dismiss the compliment that she was a good coach, but now, she says it makes her feel strong to advise people who are poised in the crucial spot between getting comfortable and taking a risk.

“After I ask them a whole series of questions, I can see clearly what their strengths are, what they should do, and how they should do it,” Johnson says. Through this practice of discernment, she helps people identify their strengths and open doors to what comes next.

Johnson’s focus on the personal is her distinctive twist on disruptive innovation. She considers not just the pace of the market, but the pace of the self as separate from, and contributing to, that market at significant moments. She says taking personal risks in business is an “organic” process: “You’re feeling your way toward something. You’re making connections to people and figuring out what their needs are and responding to them.”

In 2015, Johnson was named a Thinkers50 top management thinker, and one of Fortune’s 55 Most Influential Women on Twitter, with over 50,000 followers.  Clearly, her ideas resonate broadly.

Johnson says that much of her work today — writing, coaching, tweeting, and otherwise sharing — is a way of showing gratitude, a habit she learned years ago from her mother. Being grateful is a choice, she says, and in difficult times, it is the only sensible option.   

For Johnson, gratitude also means learning to be more patient when other people are not in tune with her, when they cannot anticipate the way she does. She makes a conscious effort to recognize and be thankful for that person’s individual talents, which may differ from her own. “I’m refining and becoming more mature — I’m growing up, I think.”