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Disrupting the Universe

In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “‘Do I dare?’ . . . ‘Do I dare?’ . . . Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” Although I haven’t always recognized it, this simple question has been one that has guided my journey through life.

Cartoon image of people doing various activities

I started my educational career at BYU as a music major. Some may wonder how a music major ends up giving a graduation speech at a business school. The answer? You disturb—or disrupt—yourself.

Getting in the Game

When I graduated from BYU, my husband and I went to New York so he could earn his PhD in microbiology. I would never have chosen to go to New York on my own. I can still remember the terror I felt as we were driving across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.

For the first week, I wouldn’t go anywhere by myself. But we needed to eat, so I had to leave our seventeenth-floor apartment and find a job. Because I had zero connections and very little confidence and—at the risk of stating the obvious—was a woman, I started as a secretary at Smith Barney on Avenue of the Americas.

Across from my desk there was this bull pen of young, male stockbrokers. Aspiring masters of the universe. This was the era of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Liar’s Poker, and Working Girl. The pressure to open accounts was intense, and they’d say things to each other like, “Throw down your pom-poms and get in the game.”

At first, I was a little offended. I had been a cheerleader in high school. But after hearing things like that again and again, and knowing that I was going to be working for at least five years, I asked myself, “Why settle for making X if ten times X was a possibility?” Besides, these guys weren’t any smarter than I was.

I realized it was time for me to throw down my pom-poms.

At the time, I didn’t know what to call what was happening to me, but I do now. This was the beginning of me disrupting myself.

I started taking business and economics and accounting and financing courses at night. Within two years, I moved from being a secretary to being an investment banking analyst. And just so you know, that type of move rarely happens.

In the next few years, I moved from banking to equity research, had two children—a huge disruption—left Wall Street to become an entrepreneur, and cofounded an investment firm with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School. And now, several disruptions later, I’ve become an author and a researcher, and I’ve codified a framework of personal disruption that I use to teach businesses around the world.

But none of that was what I had in mind in the beginning as my husband and I drove over the George Washington Bridge.

And that’s my message. As you graduate, you’re at a beginning. Now is the time to start disrupting yourself. Disrupt yourself over and over and over and over again.

Climbing Ladders

Cartoon ladder

What do I mean when I say disruptive innovation?

Think what the telephone did to the telegraph, the light bulb did to the gas lamp, and the automobile did to the horse and buggy. That’s disruption. More recently we’ve seen Netflix disrupt Blockbuster and now cable TV. Uber is disrupting taxis, and Amazon could very well upend Walmart.

A disruption isn’t always a bad thing. A disrupter secures a foothold at the low end of the market and moves upward. When Netflix entered the market in the 1990s, initially the service was inferior, and the product was weak. Blockbuster could have crushed the upstart like a cockroach. But it didn’t, because market leaders rarely bother with the little guys. “It’s just this silly little DVD service,” people thought. “Let’s go after bigger, higher, better margins.”

The bad news—or the good, depending on your point of view—is that once a disrupter gains a foothold, it too is motivated by bigger, better, higher. And so it goes.

Personal disruption is taking those same ideas and applying them to yourself. Make them meaningful to you. As we disrupt, we start out like an Amazon with our sights on Walmart. We start at the bottom of the ladder and climb to the top. And when we get to the top, we jump to the bottom of another ladder, kind of like the children’s game Chutes and Ladders. We can do this every time we get a new Church calling or start a new job or move into a new neighborhood.

Companies disrupt industries, and you can disrupt your lives.

Stepping Back to Step Up

I’d like to share three examples from my life to illustrate what this can look like. After several years in investment banking, the bank I was working for was acquired. There was a shake-up, my boss was fired, and I was moved—shoved, actually—into equity research.

In case you’re wondering, that feels like going from flying a jet to flying a cargo plane. My ego took a huge hit. But this disruption was a career maker. I still remember receiving a priesthood blessing in which the Lord told me that equity research would teach me how to build a case to persuade people and that it was something I needed to know how to do.

Before launching coverage of my first stock, my financial model was ready to go, but from an evaluation perspective, it wasn’t a clear buy or sell. I was doing a lot of hand-wringing. Was it a buy? Was it a sell? What if I was wrong?

Then a colleague said to me, “Stop being a shrinking violet.”

Ouch. But hearing that was exactly what I needed. Having an opinion and learning to build a case and persuade gave me confidence to be a good stock picker. Those same traits have been invaluable as I’ve written books and tried so many other things in my career. My cargo-plane days provided me with some of the most valuable professional development I’ve had.

Example number two: After eight years as an award-winning equity analyst, I tried to move into management stock. I was met with “No. We really like you, but you’re doing such a good job right where you are.”

I had read Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and I believe the theory also applies to people. I realized that to move ahead, I was going to have to take a step back.

When I quit, my boss said, “You’ll regret this.” Which, by the way, is often what disruption looks like to the observer.

Going from a well-paying job to no job at all was not easy. But it was this decision that led to my connection with Christensen and creating the foundation for the work I do now.

In a 2004 fireside address, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “God is eagerly waiting . . . to answer your prayers and fulfill your dreams. . . . But He can’t if you don’t pray, and He can’t if you don’t dream.”

And He can’t, I would add, if you don’t disrupt yourself.

Enduring Free Fall

The last example is one that I rarely share. When I was still at BYU, I met a young man. I liked him a lot. But I was afraid. My parents’ marriage had not been good. I was conceived out of wedlock, and they never really loved each other. My dad attended church on Sunday, but during the week, he was a serial philanderer and embezzler. And unfortunately, I transferred feelings about my father over to this relationship. I also had to grapple with my idea that in becoming a wife and a mother, I would somehow lose my identity.

So I sabotaged our relationship. Our courtship and the first two years of our marriage were miserable—just ask my husband. I clearly had to disrupt my way of thinking if I didn’t want to lose my marriage.

Sometimes we need support from others to disrupt. Thankfully, with a little help from above, my husband saw my potential and didn’t give up.

Cartoon woman riding on a plane

With the exception of my decision to follow Jesus Christ, marrying Roger Johnson is the best decision I’ve ever made. How could I have known that in having our two children, I would not only lose myself, but I would also become more me than ever?

And how could I have known that by starting as a secretary, I would be able to pursue a career that I love?

The most important and hardest disrupting you will ever do is integrating to a new version of you, jumping from who you are to the ladder of who God wants you to be.

That’s one of the things that no one tells you. The textbooks on disruption don’t talk much about the fact that, by definition, disruption is scary and lonely. When you leave the comfortable perch at the top of the ladder of doing what you’ve always done, there’s a moment of free fall, a loss of identity. You feel like you’re on a thrill ride, and your PE (puke-to-excitement) ratio is uncomfortably high.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disrupt. It just means that if it’s scary and lonely—if you feel like you’re wandering in the desert like Lehi and his family—you may be on the right path.

In fact, if you have a feeling in the deepest part of yourself that you need to try something new and you don’t, you will die inside just a little. That’s why it’s a dilemma. When you innovate—when you graduate and start a new journey—there’s a risk.

T. S. Eliot knew that when he queried, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

And I know it when I ask, “What is your disruptive path?”

Regardless of whether you jump from one ladder to another of your own accord or someone shoves you to your next ladder, when you stay close to the Lord, personal disruption can bring the greatest joy and satisfaction, the greatest growth and success, that we experience in our lives.


Speech by Whitney Johnson
Illustrations by Jakob Hinrichs

About the Speaker
Whitney Johnson was named one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50 and is an expert on disruptive innovation and personal disruption. She has authored or coauthored several books on the subject. This text is adapted from the convocation address she gave to BYU Marriott on 27 April 2018.

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