Disrupt Yourself to Reduce Anxiety at Work

Disrupt Yourself to Reduce Anxiety at Work with Whitney Johnson   Welcome to the Anxiety at Work Podcast. I’m Chester Elton, and this is my dear friend and co-author, Adrian Gostick.   Welcome everyone. We hope the time you’re going to spend with us will help remove the stigma of anxiety and mental health in the workplace and in your personal life. We invite experts from the world of work and life to give us ideas and, most importantly, tools to deal with anxiety in our world.   Our guest today is Whitney Johnson, CEO of Disruption Advisors and one of the 50 leading business thinkers as named by Thinkers50. Whitney, author of the new book “Smart Growth” and bestsellers “Build an A Team” and “Disrupt Yourself,” started her career as a Wall Street stock analyst. As a member of Marshall Goldsmith’s hundred coaches, she now assists individuals and companies globally with her disruptive innovation theories. She also hosts the podcast “Disrupt Yourself.” Welcome to the show, Whitney.   We’re fans of Whitney’s work and excited to discuss her new book, which presents a smarter approach to growth. Everyone seeks growth in their lives and careers but often gets overwhelmed when things move too slowly or too quickly. So, how can we view our personal growth in a healthier way?   We’ve developed a concept called the S-curve of learning, which is based on Everett Rogers’ diffusion curve from the ’60s. This curve was used to understand the pace of innovation adoption and group changes over time. While working with Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, we applied this S-curve to study the adoption of innovations. This led me to an insight that we could use this curve to understand individual change as well. The S-curve of learning is a simple visual model tracing your growth and the emotional experience accompanying it. It consists of three main phases: the launch point, the sweet spot, and mastery. Each time you embark on something new, you’re at the start of a new S-curve. At the launch point, you might feel overwhelmed and discouraged, which is completely normal. Your brain is running a predictive model, and many of these predictions are inaccurate, causing a drop in dopamine. Although growth is occurring, it feels slow. But knowing this can help you acknowledge your feelings of discouragement as a normal part of the process and curb any impatience. It also cautions you against moving too quickly, as hasty decisions may not be in your best interest. Once you’re ready to move into the sweet spot, your brain’s predictions become increasingly accurate. You’ll start to feel exhilarated, and growth not only speeds up but also feels faster. Then comes the mastery phase. Here, you’ve figured everything out, but growth slows down. You’re no longer receiving dopamine hits, which means you’re not growing as you were. So, when thinking about your personal or organizational growth, this model of slow-fast-slow becomes your roadmap. Understanding it can help increase your capacity for growth. Simply put, “slow, fast, slow is how you grow.” It’s an easy mantra to remember, right?   I appreciate your reference to Clayton Christensen, a major mentor of yours and truly a delightful person. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, and I must say, his height always surprised me – he stood around six feet eight inches tall! Reflecting on your early career on Wall Street and in investing, I’m curious to hear more about your personal growth. You’ve faced situations where you had to “disrupt yourself,” in your own words. That’s no easy task. This seems like the perfect moment to mention your podcast, “Disrupt Yourself,” which Adrian and I both enjoy. But let’s return to your journey. You were learning so much alongside Clayton Christensen, and surely, it wasn’t always a smooth ride. Could you share more about that?   Whitney: Thank you for mentioning my podcast – I could learn from you how effortlessly you talk about other people’s work. As for my journey, I was an equity analyst on Wall Street, consistently ranked by Institutional Investor for eight straight years. However, as per the S-curve, I reached a point where, despite being proficient at my job, I felt restless due to the lack of dopamine hits. After doing the same thing for eight years, I yearned for something more. When I approached my boss about wanting to try something new, I was told, “We like you right where you are. You can do this in your sleep.” That’s when I started thinking about how disruption isn’t just about products and services but also about people. This led me to leave Wall Street and become an entrepreneur. It wasn’t until about two years later, when I started working with Clayton Christensen. That interim period was messy as I navigated the launch point of the curve as an entrepreneur. Looking back, I wish I knew then that feeling overwhelmed and lost was a normal part of the process. Those initial couple of years were very messy.   I love that you talk about the messy beginnings. It raises an important point I’d like to discuss. We all want to learn and start new things, but it often proves difficult to stay the course. It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed or discouraged at the start. So, why is it that we struggle to stick with new things? More importantly, how can we overcome this tendency?   That’s a great point. We don’t stick to new things because, as we get older, we create an environment where we don’t have to face novelty or uncertainty. As a result, our ‘new things’ muscles can become underused and weak. So, we need to practice trying new things more often. When you’re at the launch point of a curve, there are three key strategies to build momentum: First, recognize that it’s going to feel awkward. Acknowledge that this awkwardness is normal and necessary, and don’t let it affect your self-perception. Just as when you were learning to walk as a toddler, it’s natural to feel clumsy when starting something new. Second, since progressing along an S-curve is essentially a dopamine management exercise – dropping at the launch point, spiking in the sweet spot, and flatlining at the high end – you can trick your brain into releasing dopamine by setting small, achievable goals. Let’s say you want to start exercising. Instead of promising to run for 30 minutes a day, just commit to putting on your tennis shoes every day for a week. This simple act can begin to establish the neural pathways associated with the habit of exercising. Plus, you might even exceed your own expectations, such as by walking for 30 seconds after putting on your shoes. Your brain rewards these small victories with dopamine, which feels good and helps build momentum as you move toward the sweet spot. Lastly, make use of accountability partners. State your goal and your timeline to someone – “I’m going to put on my tennis shoes every day for a week, Chester and Adrian, and I’ll report back to you.” By combining these three strategies, you’ll be better equipped to persevere through the challenges and messiness of the launch point.   You know, building momentum is just so important, isn’t it? Celebrating those little wins along the way, those little check-ins, like you say, just starting with putting on your tennis shoes. And boy, that really is a very ridiculously small goal! But you know, the thing is, once we start to do something new, we get all excited, we start to make progress, and then… It’s not unusual that we kind of get tired of it all of a sudden. It’s like the whole world has ADD. So, how do we not abandon stuff that we’re making progress towards, that we’re having some fun with, and not lose that intensity? Is it about those little, small goals along the way? What else can we do to keep the flame alive?   That’s a great question. At the launch point, you’re building momentum and moving into the sweet spot. In the sweet spot of your curve, the key is to stay focused. Imagine you’re a car racing around a track at high speed. It’s important to stay focused and not take on too many S curves at once. Perhaps three or four at a time can allow you to continue your journey into mastery. Mastery, while rewarding can lead to boredom if you’re not getting enough dopamine. Your brain acknowledges your proficiency but also craves novelty. If you’re in mastery and there’s something you’re really good at but want to keep doing – for instance, if you’re a CEO running a business you care about – the challenge is to make it a summit, but not the summit. You need to find ways to push yourself back into the sweet spot. For a business owner who’s been in charge for 20 years, this might mean starting a podcast, mentoring others, or focusing on developing people. These are S curve loops that bring other people along, challenge you, and push you into the sweet spot. Take my portfolio of S curves as an example. As a podcaster and speaker, I’m in the sweet spot, moving towards mastery. However, I continually strive to improve, which keeps me in the sweet spot. As an author, I’m probably in the sweet spot, but as a business owner trying to scale a business and build a technology tool, I’m definitely at the launch point. This balance allows me to stay in the sweet spot overall. If you view your life as a portfolio of S curves, the aim is to have some at the launch points, some in mastery, and the majority in the sweet spot.   I’m intrigued by the concept of a portfolio of S-curves. It’s a fresh idea to me, suggesting that in our lives, we navigate various S-curves. And when you reach the mastery phase, maintaining your interest and stimulating that dopamine becomes vital. As an author, how significant is it to continually feed your brain? What do you do to sustain that dopamine rush to ensure you’re still growing and learning? Is it through reading or perhaps audiobooks? What’s your method?   For me, it’s a mix of several things. While I sometimes listen to audiobooks, my current lack of a long commute due to working from home makes that a bit challenging. So, it would need to be incredibly short books that can be consumed during brief activities, like tying my tennis shoes. I also run a podcast and a LinkedIn Live, which necessitate continuous reading to prepare for each episode. This keeps me sharp and always learning. Beyond that, my constant conversations with people serve as a significant learning avenue. As a coach, I strive to help others improve, but I also learn a lot in the process. So, my learning comes from my interactions with others, in addition to the reading I do for interviewing people.   We’ve been in conversation with Whitney Johnson, and it’s been a truly insightful discussion. If you haven’t acquired her new book, ‘Smart Growth,’ I highly recommend you do so. She’s undoubtedly one of the finest business writers we have today. Now, Whitney, turning back to our central theme, the podcast is named ‘Anxiety at Work.’ You’ve penned articles on anxiety for the Harvard Business Review and your own website. Could you share some techniques that you recommend for individuals grappling with mental health issues, enabling them to grow and thrive?   First off, it’s crucial to remember that you’re not alone. I myself grapple with anxiety, and I believe being open about your own struggles and discussing them with others can greatly aid in healing. Psychologists suggest that sharing your experiences allows others to bear witness to your trials, contributing to recovery. Secondly, imposing structure is beneficial. We discussed the concept of small, achievable goals. When feeling anxious, I recommend breaking down your tasks into much smaller increments. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done for the day or even the afternoon, concentrate on what you can accomplish in the next five minutes. This practice brings you back to the present moment. Thirdly, practice gratitude. Sometimes, I simply ask myself, “What am I grateful for right now?” Listing three things I appreciate in that moment, like having a microphone for this podcast or speaking with people who make me laugh, brings me back to the present and signals to my brain and body that I’m safe. Additionally, therapy can be a powerful tool, acting as a bonus prefrontal cortex, guiding you through anxiety. Lastly, remember to take breaks and pace yourself. I find my anxiety tends to increase throughout the day if I don’t pause and refresh, so even a short walk or stepping out for fresh air can be a great help in managing anxiety.   That’s excellent advice, Whitney. It’s funny how we keep coming back to tennis shoes. I mean, if a bear is chasing you, you want to make sure you’ve got your tennis shoes on, right? That is another good reason to tie those shoes up every day, exactly. Now, you’ve mentioned a couple of personal practices along the way. I know that you’re a person of faith. When you say, it’s really important for people to know that they’re not alone in your personal practices and whatnot, does your faith play a role in managing your mental health?   Absolutely, my faith plays a significant role in managing my mental health; I’d say a thousand percent. Every morning, I begin my day by reading or listening to a sacred text, followed by prayer. This could equate to meditation for some. The primary aim is to invite God into my daily life, allowing me to feel grounded and centered. This belief that a divine, providential force is with me helps me feel less alone and reassures me that I’ll be okay. Following that I identify my top three to four priorities for the day and start working. I incorporate physical activities like yoga and sometimes running – here’s where the tennis shoes come into play. I also make sure to take lots of breaks and sometimes even indulge in an afternoon nap, which I find very restorative. As the day winds down, I alternate between reflecting on what I’m grateful for and what I loved doing that day – this is inspired by the work of Marcus Buckingham. I bookend my day with these spiritual, reflective practices. They help me navigate through my day and manage the lurking anxiety, enabling me to continue moving forward.   That’s truly beautiful, Whitney. Thank you so much for sharing. Your practices are truly inspiring, and our discussion today has been enlightening. If you had to distill one or two key takeaways for our listeners, aiming to foster more ‘Smart Growth’ in their lives, what would you highlight for us?   I’d keep it really simple. Start by drawing the S-curve on a piece of paper or tracing it with your finger. Identify the Launch Point, the Sweet Spot, and Mastery. Then ask yourself, where am I in my current role? Where am I in my life? What S-curves am I traversing right now? Gaining this understanding helps you orient yourself. It allows you to show compassion and grace for yourself, understanding why you might be struggling if you’re at the launch point doing something new, why things are really fun if you’re in the sweet spot, or why you feel the need to start something new if you’re at the point of mastery and feeling bored. I believe growth is our default setting. Having this map allows you to understand where you are and what’s next, providing you a clear path for your growth journey.   We’ve admired your work for a long time, Whitney, so it’s a real delight to have you on the podcast. Thank you for your vulnerability and for sharing about your S-curve portfolio. I guess there’s just one final question we need to ask, Adrian. That is, how many pairs of tennis shoes do you think Whitney owns?   Whitney, thank you so much for joining us today. We genuinely admire your work and hope that everyone listening rushes out to get your new book. Once again, thank you for being with us.   Author recap: Chester: Well, Adrian, what a privilege it was to have Whitney Johnson on our show. Truly one of the thought leaders in American business right now. Her ideas on the S curve of learning resonate deeply as we all go through this process when we’re deciding on a new career, a move, or any major change in life. We often feel overwhelmed at the launch and want to rush through it as quickly as we can. Her advice to slow down, to accept that “slow is how you grow,” was very poignant.   Adrian: Absolutely, Chester. Whitney is indeed a legend, and we’ve admired her work for a long time. The concept of “slow, fast, slow is how you grow” struck me as a great mantra. It’s about accepting the messiness and the chaos that comes with growth and using it to our advantage. Her advice to stay focused is also very relevant, especially in a world full of distractions. The discipline of saying no is equally as important as the discipline of saying yes, and that’s a big takeaway for me.   Chester: Absolutely, the discipline of saying no can be liberating. Her point on the muscle of doing new things getting atrophied was a wake-up call for me. While we love what we do, it’s important to push ourselves to try something new. I appreciated her advice on setting ridiculously small goals, as they can help us get into motion, which is key. Having an accountability partner, someone you can trust and count on is also crucial.   Adrian: Yes, trying new things and understanding that they may not always work out as expected is important for growth. We’ve experimented with different platforms and found what works for us. Whitney’s advice on not taking on too many S curves at once makes perfect sense. Managing your portfolio of S curves, both in your personal and professional life, is indeed brilliant.   Chester: Yes, we’ve been disrupted, but in a good way. Whitney has a knack for shaking up our thinking, and we’re grateful for that. We’d like to thank Whitney Johnson for being our guest today. A big thank you also to our producer Brent Klein, Christy Lawrence, who helps us find amazing guests like Whitney, and of course, all of you who tuned in today.   Adrian: We encourage you to download the podcast, share it with friends and family, and give us a five-star rating if you can. We also have a community at thecultureworks.com, creating a safe place where people can talk about anxiety in the workplace. We love presenting and speaking to audiences, be it virtual or in person. If you’ve got an event coming up and you want to talk about anxiety, culture, or gratitude, we’d be delighted to be there with you. Until next time, we wish you the best of mental health. Take care and be well.