Whitney Johnson is a leading thinker on driving innovation via personal disruption and a co-founder of Clayton Christensen’s investment firm Rose Park Advisors. A TEDx speaker, author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Whitney is available for both speaking and consulting. You can follow her on Linkedin here.
Where There’s a Why, There’s a Way
At least once a week, I hear my son, a sophomore in high school, say, “What is the point of school? I am never going to use [insert subject] again.” He may or may not, depending on his chosen profession. My counter argument tends to be, “You may not use all of it. Some of it you will. Regardless, good grades get you into college, and knowing how to work gets you into a happy life.” On days when I’m desperate, or just exasperated, I huff (and I puff), “Do it because I said to.” At which point I lament aloud, “Why doesn’t he have a vision for what his future might hold?”
In her provocative piece, “The Last Thing You Need Is Vision,” Jesse Lyn Stoner explores the notion that “vision is overrated.” She doesn’t think it is, but she has me wondering if I do. In all my work on dreaming and disrupting, I place an emphasis on the discovery-driven approach — you can’t see the end from the beginning when you play where no one else is playing, so simply start. There is little in my writing on the endpoint, or vision.
As I consider my apparent double talk, am I really suggesting that vision is overrated? Compare Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, says negotiating expert Jim Camp. Lincoln had a vision of saving the Union at any cost. As a general of the Union troops, Grant hewed without hesitation to Lincoln’s vision. “But as a president, Grant was a failure, taking bad advice, making bad decisions, mainly because he didn’t know why he was president and what he hoped to accomplish.” To paraphrase Proverbs, Where there is no vision, we really do perish.
Erin Newkirk, the founder of RedStamp, provides a good case study in grappling with this paradox. After the birth of her first child and a devastating diagnosis for her dad’s health, Erin’s life became overwhelmingly busy, so much so that she felt out-of-touch with those she loved. In trying to live in a world that she envisioned, Erin started an online reminder service mixed with high-end occasion cards. That was 2004. But as her business grew, what she envisioned became blurry, as she focused on fine paper and cards, the accoutrements of correspondence, rather than on relationships. Only when she pivoted and re-focused on making it easier for people to connect – and utilized mobile technology, which by 2008-2009 had become available, – did RedStamp evolve into an easy way to send correspondence not only via mail, but also e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter. RedStamp was just honored by Entrepreneur Magazine as 1 of 100 Brilliant Companies.
Once you know your greater purpose, there are lots of roads that will take you there. Consider, for example, the journey of a solitary e-mail message. Whenever you send an e-mail, it is broken up into packets. Those packets may travel the same route as all of the other packets in the message, or none of the routes. Ultimately, the route the packet travels is irrelevant, so long as the e-mail gets to the recipient. Or as Amar Bhide writes, 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different than the one they initially pursued.
General Grant knew his how. A purpose was harder to come by. When Erin Newkirk pulled her why into focus, she could discover her way to a how. I have only recently figured out my why – to help people believe it is their birthright to dream and disrupt. There are a gazillion routers, a google of hows, but there are very few whys. When we know our why, instead of seeing drudgery, we see discovery. Instead of aimless wandering, we see ourselves at the low-end of our personal S-curve. Once we know our why, there will be a how.