How to Identify Your Disruptive Skills: A Whitney Johnson Guest Post

When I had the opportunity to attend the Social Good Summit in New York City recently, I was not surprised to hear the trendy word “disrupt” uttered in more than one session.

Elizabeth Gore, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell, used the word “disrupt” in both of her panels, Enabling Entrepreneurship Everywhere and Tech Disruptions for a Sustainable Future.

It’s one thing to disrupt business models worldwide in order to make it possible for the economically disadvantaged to do business and for technology to improve quality of life across the board, but it’s another thing to turn the idea of disruption around and direct it inward.

In Disrupt Yourself, which is being released on Tuesday, October 6, Whitney Johnson explores disruption for individuals. She is someone I have respected and followed for years; it is my privilege to host a guest post by her here at Perspicacity.


How to Identify Your Disruptive Skills

As a professional, you should constantly be engaged in the process of re-evaluating your portfolio of skills and leading with those that are unique — your disruptive skills. These may be capacities that are so innate you may not even consciously recognize them, or skills you have honed over years of practice. These are the skills that can help you carve out a disruptive niche — consequently upping your value in the marketplace. But how do you identify these skills? Or as one reader queried on Hacker News, “How do you identify the skills that disrupt others’ previously-established judgment of your worth to them?” This is a subject I’ve researched and thought deeply about; readers of my last post also left some great advice. Here are three questions to get started.

What do you do reflexively well? You can arrive at an answer by asking questions such as: “What do I think about when I don’t have to think about anything?” Or, “what one or two things do I spend time doing that I would continue to do even if I weren’t compensated?” Alternatively, as Alana Cates recommended in a comment on the prior post, ask yourself: “When are you exasperated? The frustration of genius is in believing that if it is easy for you, it must be easy for everyone else.”

Marcus Buckingham, the author of Now — Discover Your Strengths, frames it well: “Our strengths…clamor for attention in the most basic way: Using them makes you feel strong. Take note of the times when you feel invigorated, inquisitive, successful…These moments are clues to what your strengths are.”

What do others identify as being your best skills? Neil Reay, who also weighed in on the previous post, wrote that when he asked for recommendations on his LinkedIn profile, “several things that others said about my strengths were not the things I was using as “Core Skills” in my own profile, but were valuable to those around me.” Sometimes what we learn about our core skills isn’t what we want to hear, like the fourteen year-old who is told he’s built to be a long distance runner rather than a football player, as he aspires to be. Sometimes, however, the assessments of our colleagues and friends will actually surprise and delight us. A well-respected author who is a family friend told me he couldn’t wait to see what I was going to accomplish over the next decade. To him, it was probably just an offhand remark, but for me it was a real confidence booster that he saw me as someone with potential, a do-er.

We can gain perspective on our strengths more systematically via 360-degree feedback analysis, which we often receive in the workplace. Just such an analysis at a previous job — which indicated that my skill of networking outside the firm was exceptional, but I was perceived as not being as good at networking within the firm — helped me to identify a pattern in my life I later recognized in Professor Boris Groysberg’s article, “How Star Women Build Portable Skills.” (Groysberg found that women are generally more successful than men in moving from one job to another because we have, out of necessity, built external networks.)

If you’d like to try a little self-analysis, I recommend an HBR article titled “How to Play to Your Strengths” which provides step-by-step instruction to determine those strengths — and involves asking trusted colleagues and friends. One of the leads is asking trusted colleagues to fill in the blank, “One of the greatest ways you add value is ______.”

Do you have a confluence of skills? As you begin to inventory and mine for your unique abilities, you may discover that your disruptive skill may not be one skill, but an unusual intersection of ordinary proficiencies. As Ed Weissman opined on Hacker News: “It’s tough to claim to be one of the world’s best php programmers, unix gurus, or apparel e-commerce experts. But there may not be many excellent php programmers who are also unix gurus and apparel e-commerce domain experts. For the right customer, that combination is your disruptive skill.”

One final tip from my personal experience: keep an eye out for those compliments you habitually dismiss. It’s possible that you’re discounting a strength that others value. For example, when people compliment me on my interpersonal skills, I tend to deflect the compliment — perhaps because previous employers have discounted my soft skills vis-à-vis hard skills. Or consider a former college athlete who finds himself brushing aside the achievement of playing on a national championship team out of concern that others may view his brawn as eclipsing his brain. The tendency to deflect is often understandable, perhaps even justifiable, but over the course of our career, it will leave us trading at a discount to what we are worth. 19th-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Identifying and deploying your best skills can be a game-changer for your career. Not necessarily because employers will suddenly decide to pay you more, but because accurately valuing ourselves is foundational to disrupting others’ perception of our worth. When you recognize your greatest assets — your disruptive skills — you are on your way to taking stock in you.

This post was originally published at The Harvard Business Review on 10/04/2010.

If you are intrigued by Whitney’s approach to disruption (and I’ll bet you are!), please join her for a webinar on Wednesday, October 7, at noon ET to learn more. Click here to register! 


Whitney Johnson is the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and Dare, Dream, Do. Additionally, she is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.  Learn more about her at or connect with her on Twitter.


Then The Blue-Haired Gorilla Happened

If you follow my blog at all, you know that I love to use my blog as a platform for worthy causes.

In addition to blogging, I enjoy adding “causes” to the reasons I run. In fact, when I made my Badass Army 2012 Resolution, I customized it by adding this statement: 

I will actively seek out and promote fitness opportunities that do good for causes I support.

Back in July, I started seeing posts on Facebook (and tweets on Twitter) that stated that the miles run, biked, or walked by the individual posting had helped causes through Charity Miles. For example:

When I participated in the Boston 13.1 for Autism Speaks in September, our team learned more about Charity Miles and how the app can be used to raise support (via corporate sponsorship) for various causes via the simple acts of walking, running, and biking (25 cents per mile walked or run, 10 cents per mile biked!

Once I returned to Florida, I began using Charity Miles for all of my workouts. Then I came up with a plan. I would do a workout for each of the Charity Miles causes, and blog about that cause that week (if you’re a blogger, you may be familiar with the hunger/desperation to come up with topics!).

That’s why I did a workout on September 27, 2012 that was dedicated to the ASPCA:

But then the potential for this happened:

Read about how the loser of the #teamluau vs #teambecca October Charity Miles Throwdown for Autism Speaks has to run the difference in miles in a blue-afroed, Autism Speaks jerseyed gorilla suit get-up here.

And I couldn’t resist joining in to help some of my favorite people with a favorite cause.

(But I do feel a little guilty about the diversion from Plan A – I actually sent Luau a DM on Twitter that said “somewhere out there an unvaccinated puppy just shed a tear” – I will get back to you, ASPCA, I promise!)

And then the decision had to be made about which team I would be on, #teamluau or #teambecca?

I am a HUGE Luau fan. After all, he convinced me sight unseen to divert (I see a diversion theme here…) from my 2012 goal of running a 5K in 29:59 or less (the long run training probably actually helped that goal actually but that’s for a different blog) in order to train for a half marathon. When forced to make a decision, and noting that Rebecca is a) from Florida like me (yay!) b) someone I didn’t manage to meet in Boston (not sure how that happened) and c) a fellow mom (like me), I decided I needed to throw my miles in with #teambecca (she’s on the right in the billboard below):

Which gets me to this:

First of all, check out Charity Miles.  You can read Luau’s post explaining it all. Or you can watch this video:

Secondly, if you have been wavering about where, when, and how to start (or resume) a fitness routine, why not use this as your motivation?  Pick a cause you love and go for it. Of course, since the Charity Miles Autism Speaks throwdown is still on for the rest of October, feel free to tweet your miles with #teambecca (or heck even #teamluau) if you are on Twitter!!

Lastly, I guess this quote is more pertinent to the Nature Conservancy Charity Milers:

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

But let’s extrapolate to running, walking, biking for autism:

“The creation a thousand ways to help Autism Speaks is in one mile.”

Why not add yours to the total?