Why You Should Think About ‘Disrupting’ Your Career: Advice from a Former Wall Street Analyst

Beth Stebner
disrupting your life whitney johnson

Taking risks and disrupting your life sounds scary, but it’s not. (Photo: Getty Images/StyleCaster)

It’s easy to talk about making changes in the New Year. Maybe you’ve talked to your friends about your big plans to get a new apartment, finally get bangs, and escape your dead-end 9–5 and pursue something you’re actually passionate about. But talking about launching that new blog, and actually launching it are two different things. One is easy, the other requires you to leave the comfort (and maybe boredom) of your job for lots of uncertainty.

That’s what Whitney Johnson, a former Wall Street executive, suggests in her new book, Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work. The basic idea: taking a “side door” approach to your career by getting your foot in the door somewhere and then climbing the ranks once you’re there. Sure, it’s riskier, but payoff is potentially huge.

Johnson graduated with a degree in music, but ended up landing a secretary position on Wall Street, which in turn led to a position as an equity analyst. It wasn’t the career she thought she’d have, but the point is she was always focused on moving up. Starting in an administrative job on Wall Street was her own “side door,” a way to get into a big company so she could then move up.

First off, it’s important to face your fears. Johnson says that women, much more so than men, are terrified to take risks. Whether or not it’s fair, study after study has found that men are judged on potential and women are judged on their track record. “One of the things research shows is that from a very young age, we tend to have our identities tied to success,” Johnson says.

On the flip side, you’re more likely to tie your self-worth to the inevitable failures, so for most women, it’s easier not to make big moves for fear of one day screwing up. “After a while, the cost of trying something new starts feeling really high to people,” Johnson says.

But don’t let that fear stop you. Your brain fires off endorphins when you try new things, so Johnson suggests tricking your brain. “Try saying, ‘I know this is going to feel very uncomfortable because my visceral reaction is to feel this is uncomfortable.’” So if you want to switch from, say, PR to nonprofit, find a way into that world. And then own it. You’re disrupting your career, and, Johnson adds, you’re being “promotion focused.”

On the other hand, being “prevention focused” means you’re stuck. Stagnant. Staying in a job out of obligation or comfort. Johnson says there’s “no such thing as standing still,” meaning that you’re not growing, you’re not opening yourself up to challenges.

Applying for a job in a sea of candidates can sometimes feel hopeless—but also safe. Johnson calls it a “competitive risk” because you’re competing with tons of other qualified candidates for one or two positions. But taking a “market risk”—where you identify a problem in a company, get a warm introduction to someone there, and write a pitch to your new contact for how they can solve the problem—can actually create opportunities that didn’t exist for anyone else.

“True, you might not get the job, but if they decide that’s a problem that needs to be solved, you’re the only person applying for that position.”

And just like that, you’ve created your own “side door” approach. Higher risk? Sure. But a much higher reward, too.