Whitney Johnson on why we like to learn

In his masterpiece novel Love in the time of cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) writes about his main character: “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”

This is a feeling that certainly is shared by U.S. author Whitney Johnson. Former equity analyst in Wall Street, Whitney Johnson has analysed her career path by applying the concept of disruptive innovation created by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen. After having cofunded an investment firm with Christensen, Whitney Johnson thought to apply the concept of disruptive innovation to personal journey and career. This is the subject of her book Whitney Johnson, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. In the chosen book excerpts, Whitney Johnson explains why we so much like facing new challenges:

“One of the best models for making sense of a nonlinear world is the S-curve. This model has historically been used to understand how disruptive innovations take hold – why a growth curve will stay flat for so long and then rocket upward suddenly, only to eventually plateau again. Developed by E.M. Rogers in 1962, the S-curve model is an attempt to understand how, why, and at what rate ideas and products spread throughout cultures. Adoption is relatively slow at first, at the base of the S, until a tipping point, or knee of the curve, is reached. You then move into hypergrowth, up the sleek , steep back of the curve. This is usually at somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of market penetration. At the flat part at the top of the S, you’ve reached saturation, typically at 90 percent. I believe the S-curve can also be used to understand personal disruption – the necessary pivots in our own career paths.”

Having walked into Wall Street through the side door and from there having climbed to the top, it is at the pinnacle of her career that Whitney Johnson understands that it’s time for her to disrupt herself – what Gabriel Garcia Marquez would describe as giving birth to oneself over and over again:

“Why did you walk away from Wall Street? Knowing that work does a functional and emotional job, the logic becomes clear. I was at a point where I could continue to hire Merrill Lynch to pay the bills, but I could no longer hire it for the emotional rewards. Not only had I reached the top of a learning curve with no prospects for jumping to a new one because management liked me ‘right where I was,’ I discovered that notwithstanding performance metrics that were 20% better than my peers, we all received the same bonus. The emotional cost of staying had become too high when I could no longer bring my dreams to work.”

So why is learning and jumping into new challenges so gratifying? Whitney Johnson explains:

“The S-curve also helps us understand the psychology of disrupting ourselves. As we launch into something new, understanding that progress may at first be almost imperceptible helps keep discouragement at bay.

It also helps us recognize why the steep part of the learning curve is so fun. When you are learning, you are feeling the effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel good. It’s an office dweller’s version of thrill seeking. Once we reach the upper flat portion of the S-curve and things become habitual or automatic, our brains create less of these feel-good chemicals and boredom can kick in, mailing an emotional case for personal disruption. At a career peak, there is certainly the specter of competition from below, but just as importantly, there’s the risk that if we weren’t on a curve that satisfies us emotionally, we may be the cause of our own undoing. When you are no longer getting an emotional reward from our career, we may actually end up doing our job poorly.”

Disrupting oneself into new learning curves isn’t that simple. Whitney Johnson admits:

“The looming mountain may seem insurmountable, but the S-curve helps us understand that if we keep working at it, we can reach that inflection point where our understanding and competence will suddenly shoot upward. This is the fun part of disruption, rapidly scaling to new heights of success and achievement. Eventually, you will plateau and your growth will tapper off. Then it’s time to look for new ways to disrupt.”