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In 2004, after eight years as an award-winning investment analyst, Whitney Johnson loved her job but felt she needed something more.

Reflecting on her situation, she thought back to the theory of disruptive innovation propounded by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, in which a legacy business could be upended by a seemingly minuscule outsider.

“I had a flash of insight. My current equity analyst self was the incumbent – Goliath. My future self was the upstart – David. To wake up the giant, I had to disrupt myself,” Ms. Johnson writes in Smart Growth.

“It was revelatory: Disruption isn’t just about products, but about people. If we are willing to step back from who we are, we can slingshot into who we want to be – who people need us to be.”

Now a coach on human potential, she says the map for any such journey of disruption is the familiar S-curve, first identified for diffusion of new ideas and now used in various fields. To fulfill ourselves, we must embark on – and travel through –successive S-curves of learning, in which each time we will encounter these six stages of growth:

  • Explorer: The thrilling time when you are at the precipice of becoming a better you. You may, of course, also feel awkward and unsure. The pace will be perceived as slow.
  • Collector: You are now seeking input, feedback and data to help you progress. Again, it may feel like a slog, but it will help you grow.
  • Accelerator: This is the fast growth that comes as you pick up momentum, through deliberate practice of your new focus. You are forging a new identity, conquering the change-averse instinct within.
  • Metamorph: Effort is still required, but as the new connects with the old, you pick up speed. It can be exhilarating and difficult to stop should you consider that possibility.
  • Anchor: Ease displaces effort as you reach the high end of the S-curve and the mastery phase. “This newly learned behaviour is anchored in us. It is effortless and automatic. What was once novel, unfamiliar, and difficult,” Ms. Johnson writes, has become “the new normal, the new you.”
  • Mountaineer: Exhilaration can wane and boredom arise, as for her in 2004. You need a new mountain to climb, through the same S-curve route.

Ms. Johnson says understanding the S-curve process can reduce anxiety, fear and impatience, giving you a model of what’s ahead. She warns that once you decide on a new learning challenge, the temptation will be to start really big. Instead, she urges you to set initial expectations really small – “so laughably small that you deactivate your inner procrastinator.”

You’ll want the goal to align with your values – indeed, to be an expression of your essence, your “why.” It was revealing for her to realize that while she was good at picking stocks – and it made her feel important, giving her identity – she didn’t think about the market when she didn’t have to. Her “why” was in fact investing in people.

Toronto-based coach Michael Bungay Stanier suggests in his book, How to Begin, that at the start you are seeking “The Goldilocks Zone”: You make sure your goal isn’t too overwhelming or too small; too heavy or too trivial; or too hard or too easy. At the same time, he advises that you unlock your greatness by working on the hard things.

Mr. Stanier suggests writing down what qualities you will burnish if you commit to the worthy goal you are considering. Those are some of the prizes. But there will also be punishment, he warns, because pursuing goals involves sacrifice. Make the potential loss explicit – and claim it – by asking what you risk, what you will have to give up and what can’t be guaranteed if you set out on this journey.

The S-curve is an appealing notion of moving upward toward greater things. But he offers another image to be wary of, and why it’s important to add up the prizes and punishments: “You have to know how to make progress and also how to mitigate the risks you’ve identified. You don’t want to confidently walk over a cliff’s edge.”

Quick hits

  • The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, one of the U.S. founding fathers, indicated that part of his morning routine was to “prosecute the present study.” Consultant Wally Bock, who read that at age 19, took away the importance of always having a growth or learning project going on that you “prosecute.”
  • In planning your career, focus on what you want to do rather than what you want to be, suggests career development consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni. There are no guarantees in today’s uncertain world, so don’t plan on promotions; devote yourself to what you want to do now.
  • Not inspired by your boss? Try connecting with him or her as a person, advises management consultant Liz Kislik. What motivates them as a person? What do you and they have in common in any aspect of work or life? As well, dig deep to find your own motivation to get through – and excel – in this period.
  • The first step to self-knowledge is recognizing you don’t have it, says executive coach Dan Rockwell: “You think you know yourself, but you don’t. You never have self-knowledge; you gain it gradually, sometimes painfully.”
  • The person who gets one shot in a game needs everything to go right to score. The person who gets 1,000 shots will score at some point. Given that, Atomic Habits author James Clear recommends finding a way to play the game that ensures you get a lot of shots.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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