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Professional Troublemaker

With Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Anica Malabanan and Dani Jackson Smith


Fear—how do you overcome it, embrace it and turn it into action for change? To discuss this, Edelman's Dani Jackson interviews two-time New York Times best-selling author, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, on her latest book—"Professional Troublemaker"—and how she uses fear as a driver to do more.


Episode Transcript

Dani Jackson Smith [00:00:01] It's who you are at work after hours and back at home exploring every layer, finding out what makes you uniquely you and letting that shine back out into the world. It's authentic 365, a podcast that takes a glimpse into how some of the most inspiring people among us express themselves and make magic happen. I'm your host, Danny Jackson Smith, VP at Edelman by day, community enthusiast and lover of the people, always. At the top of this year's select offices across our U.S. network read Professional Troublemaker: The Firefighter Manual, a tremendously successful book from the now two time New York Times bestselling author Luvvie Ajayi Jones. This episode features our conversation with the Luvvie about the book, and later in the podcast, our employee network groups Gwen and Griot shared their commitment about also being professional troublemakers. So Luvvie, 17 year blogging professional New York Times bestselling author for I'm Judging You the Do Better Manual, multiple podcasts. What inspired you to write Professional Troublemaker: The Firefighter Manual at this time?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:01:12] Yes, I wanted to write this book right now because I feel like the subject of fear is urgent. It feels urgent. Because we are at a time, I mean, when I pitched this book, I didn't know you're going to end up in a global pandemic. But for me, I understand that my career is where it is and what it is today because of the moments that I have dared to do something that felt too big. Something that felt scary, you know, and I think about my TEDTalk being one of those things. I, I have a TEDTalk that not has five million views, and I almost didn't do it. I said no to a twice. I turned it down twice because I was afraid of not being ready to take that stage. I was afraid that I wasn't. I wasn't at the place where I wouldn't bomb or that, you know, I wasn't. I didn't have time to prepare because Ted does not play about their speakers. You know, Ted official make speakers, get coaches. You have to wonder script through the ringer and I turned it down. This is 2017 and the third time they came around about the same event. I was about to turn it down when my friend Eunique Jones Gibson and I called her and I was like, Listen, it's kind of crazy because it's three weeks before Ted and they want me to come and speak. And I was like, everybody else has had a coach, everybody else has had their talks figured out for months and here I am, about to come in three weeks to go. Eunique told me, Everybody ain't you. So I want you to get off my phone and go write this talk and kill it. And what Eunique did in that moment which you loaned me courage I didn't have for myself and I got on that stage and I killed it. And ever since the talk came out over three years ago, I've gotten thousands of messages from people all over the world telling me what their talk did for them. You know what impact that it had, and it had me thinking, like, how often? Do we say no to yes opportunities that could transform our lives, how often do we let fear stop us from doing what we're supposed to do? And I realized that in the moments when I have not let fear stop me, when I've been like, I know, I'm afraid, I know this is big. I know this might feel scary. And I choose to move forward any way, I win. So when it was time to determine what I am writing, what I was writing about, I felt convicted to write it about fear and. I really wanted to use that as a gateway, because in this world, for us to do better, which is what I asked for us to do for book one, we're going to have to do a lot of scary things. And what does that look like? It looks like we're going to be making trouble. We're going to have to be professional troublemakers. And that's actually how I introduce my TEDTalk because to make trouble in this world, it's to disrupt for the greater good. It is to continuously do the things that are scary because you want to hope that you are making some type of positive change, whether at work or at home or just with your friends. And that's why I wrote this book because I feel like. We need to use fear as a driver. We're not weak because we are afraid. We got to actually commit to the fact that to be fearless is just that you're not going to do less because of fear. So, you know, me being the professional troublemaker, I was like, This is the book that I want to write, because it's the book that I need. This is a book that I want to read in the moments when I get another option, another opportunity to do something like a TED talk or something that feels really big. I want this book to be like somebody else's permission to do that scary thing and be audacious no matter what margins that you live in. And it was really important that that I wrote this book because as a black woman who has a lot of reasons to cower in this world, a lot of reasons to, you know, not honor myself, a lot of reasons to fail because the world is rooting for me to fail. I wanted to write this book because I wanted people to see my audacity and hopefully unloading them courage that my friend did for me. So I want people to be loaned courage with my book.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:05:17] 100 percent, this book does that, and I've already started loan in my book out to friends and family. Now tell me, how were you influenced by John Lewis, who we know as Freedom Rider, civil rights activist, U.S. representative that encourages us all to make good trouble?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:05:34] I quote the late, great John Lewis because he talked about us making necessary good trouble, and it's really good for us to use that as perspective. Because when people see like, Oh my god, profession troublemaker, that sounds bad. I'm like, No, that's not a bad thing. The people who make the good trouble in the world are the people who are sitting in the meetings and challenging the idea. That's not great. You know, they're the people who are sitting at the dinner table when the uncle makes an inappropriate joke and say, Eh, that's not cool. Professional troublemakers are the ones who are making sure they're elevating the rooms that they're in. And what John Lewis was asking us to do was to make trouble in our lives in the world. For the greater good like trouble looks like what he did on that bridge, right? But trouble also looks like having a hard conversation with a friend that you know is necessary. Trouble looks like challenging a coworker, thoughtfully challenging them. And I think for us, we shouldn't silence troublemakers. We shouldn't run away from making trouble. We should actually run towards it and realize that it is necessary. We have to make trouble for the world that we want to see. So let's let's normalize troublemaking.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:06:45] Hmm. Stay in good trouble. I am so on your page. So what do you say to those that want to be professional troublemakers but are thinking, I'm no Luvvie, I'm no John Lewis.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:06:56] One, acknowledge the fact that we are afraid day to day small things, big things, right? So a lot of times people are not feeling like they are strong because they're feeling afraid. And I'm like, No, no, we're always going to have something. Life is going to throw something at us, and I want us to not turn our fears into these big dragons. You know these we will be afraid of asking for a raise because we're like, What if they say no? What if they say no? Did you die? You know? And I think about the fact that sometimes the thing that we're afraid of, it gets created into this big monster that takes up a whole room. And all we got to do is slay the dragon because we created the dragon. And what that looks like day to day is you thinking, you know, if I speak up in a meeting, Oh my God is going to write me up and am I going to get fired? You know, if you are working at a company that will fire you for challenge for thoughtfully challenging a coworker, that's not the company for you. But most companies do not fire you for it, right? And there might be different microaggressions that are attached to it. But I often think about how we will opt out of the best case scenario for because of the fear of whatever that worst case scenario is. We will act out of doing what is our obligation, our job, because we're afraid of that mosque that we've built up in our heads, we're afraid of getting fired. And I'm always like, You know what? Quantify your decisions. Put it on paper, what is the worst case scenario if you do get fired somehow because you spoke up in the meeting? Well, do you not have a savings account? And I'm talking to people who are privileged. You know, when I when I say that we should be troublemaking, we should be disrupting rooms. I'm talking to those of us who can especially afford to. We're not in acute danger of losing our homes, our livelihoods. And so when we build up these fears and we're like, Oh, well, if I get fired, what if you get fired? Do you become, do you lose your home, you become homeless? Do you lose everything you've ever worked for? Can you get another job? Is this the only job is the only company? And we're constantly acting out of that best case scenario because of all these fears and all the things that we tie to the actions we do. And I'm like. Covid should have given us more perspective, and I hope it does. In that that's what fears for, you know, keeping us from physical danger. Fear is what keeps us from putting our hands in fire. But the same thing that keeps us from putting our hands on fire is the same thing that's telling us not to speak truth when we are obligated, when there's nobody else in the room to do it but us, you know? It's the same thing that's keeping us from using our power and our access and our privilege. Because we don't want to lose those things, but I'm just like all those things are infinite. And as we are the privileged ones, we are the ones that are on Zoom, which already makes us privilege, we're the ones who are like, yeah, like I have a savings account that can last at least four months. We are the ones that should be putting ourselves on the line, not the person who's living paycheck to paycheck. Not a single mother who is like, I'm only making minimum wage and I do need this job. I don't want her to make trouble. I want her to survive. But we are beyond survival. We are thriving. And that thriving looks like now, OK, now that we have made ours, we've gotten comfortable. We have gotten the homes. We have paid our rent now, mortgages. We're not in constant acute danger, so our power needs to be used for other people. This trouble that we're going to make is not just for us, it's for those who are not in the room, the times they were speaking up. We're speaking up for the people who are not at the table. We're literally sitting at the table and we're still being quiet because we're expecting somebody else to do this thing. And I'm like, I don't know who you waiting for because who else but you know, you're literally at the table. It's you. You're supposed to speak up, not the person who not there or you're waiting for your coworker to say so you can be like, Hey, I agree. We always waiting for people, and I think we need to start waiting for that permission.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:10:52] That is tremendous because you will wait and wait and wait and waste away in your waiting. I've heard Seth Godin describe what you just described as the lizard brain, right? That thing that gets you stuck and in that fight or flight fearful mind state. How much has being from Nigeria shaped the way you approach this book?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:11:12] I mean, my Nigerian-ness informs everything that I do, including my writing in my voice. But at the core of this book is my very Nigerian grandmother, like she was an elder stateswoman, and she is in the tradition of black grandmas everywhere that we all know. You know, she didn't take anything. To, she didn't allow people to tell her she didn't belong. My grandmother took up space without apology. She was fierce. She was kind. You know how like, they will lambaste you one moment, then be asking you if you want to eat the next. That was her all day, and everybody was her daughter and her granddaughter to where people actually didn't really know who was her actual real blood family. Because at the heart everybody was family and the way she allowed herself to be celebrated, the way she was unshakable. She had this energy of grounding that made you feel like everything was going to be OK. She didn't question herself. In any big way. And I watched that and I didn't realize that it was given me permission to be there. I didn't realize that I was learning from her. What it was like to kind of go through life and then get to a point where you realized that all along you've been good enough, and I'm just wondering what happens if we have that type of idea, but ourselves before we turned 65. What if we had that energy before we had grandkids that unfuck-with-able energy before we have gray hair? Some of us have gray hair and authorities shut out to me. But you know, at the core of this book, I put her in it because just the audacity that older black women carry that they don't get to have until they are older. I'm like, Why are we got to wait that long? You know what? How will our lives be different if we kind of moved with that fearlessness? And it's not even the idea that they weren't afraid of anything is that they always move forward regardless. Is that like the fear didn't make them do less? My grandmother was definitely that. So having her woven through the book was important because I wanted people to learn from her story and hopefully be affirmed by her story. Again, the world gives us many reasons to not celebrate ourselves, to cower. And she did not. She refused to buy her head. You know, she walked in every room, what she owned it and she found no stranger, nobody was a stranger to her because that woman could talk to a rock. Will ride in a taxi by the end of the taxi, shoot. She has asked this man who his family is, how is his kids, what their names? And almost nothing like  making a friend everywhere. There are no strangers. If I rode with her in a taxi, we weren't paying for that taxi because by the end of the day, the people are like, No, no, no, you guys go ahead. I'm sorry, what magic you do, but it just because she was just so she fit anywhere she was and she let herself be there and she didn't apologize for herself.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:14:18] Let's take a short break from the interview to talk Nigerian culture, specifically Yoruba culture and the purpose of an oriki, which Luvvie calls a standing ovation for your spirit. It is a word that combines two words to mean praising your head and or mind. Here is my oriki, Dani of House Jackson and Smith first of her name. Reflection of the Universe Lover of the people. Champion of community. Curator of connections. Dragon slaying culture queen. Can't stop. Won't stop creator. Generational wealth builder, and chi-town's finest. Now let's hear a few other orikis.

Anica Malabanan [00:14:54] Anica Shalamar of House Malabanan in first of her name. Warrior of healing justice. Seeker of Truth. Challenger of oppressive systems. Filipina fierceness and lover of cheese.

Chelsea Horn [00:15:11] Chelsea Reni of House Horn. First of her name. Wizard of words. Curator of quality time. Eater of all things spicy. Explorer of beach destinations. Master of Meaningful Conversation. Philosopher of pop culture. Scholar of spelling. And Queen of the Horn household.

Orlanthia Phillips [00:15:30] Orlanthia House of Landi and Phillips, first of her name. Fire Tongue, daughter of the most high god gourmet chef of sustenance for the body and resolve. Encourager of many maker of excellent wardrobe and wisdom, kindness and love.

Tiffany Hammond [00:15:47] Tiffany Carroll of House Hammond, Advocate of all. Breaker of Bullshit. Connector of community. Connoisseur of wine. Publicist of positivity.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:15:57] As we get back into the interview, think about your oriki. Think about that standing ovation for your spirit that you may need when you're not feeling confident. Luvvie, let's talk about imposter syndrome and how do we get over it?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:16:11] I think about imposter syndrome. As something that is useful to a certain point, it's useful in that if you have it, you will naturally be like, I got to do certain things to make sure I stay good at my craft and my work. So it actually can drive you to be better. But what happens is imposter syndrome can also start you because if you get presented with an opportunity you don't think you're good enough, you might walk away from it. And absolutely, you can be transformative. Like my TED talk. Imposter syndrome for women, especially like it's debilitating in that it's the reason why we don't ask for raises reason why we don't ask for the number that we want because we're afraid that we're not worth it. We're afraid of people's. No, we're afraid that we have to earn our way into it or that we haven't earned our way into it. We're constantly trying to earn our way in this world, and I talk about how we all know people who are in positions of power who have no reason to be besides the fact that they're just wildly confident about themselves. They are so confident and they will speak of themselves so highly that they would treat their way into a room. And the people who are qualified, who are good, who practice their work have the nerve to say we're not good enough. And then because we're not speaking of ourselves, high enough other people start to doubt us. So it becomes this wild circle. So I'm always like, all right, let's use impostor syndrome for what it's supposed to do to drive us to be better. But let's drop it after a bit. Let's not let it make us not do the thing, right? Ask for the thing. See the thing. And it's a, I think, imposter syndrome just depend on our careers. You know, at first you might think, Oh, I'm not worth that job, and then you get the job and then you get the raise. All right, cool. Now your career can go up. I think imposter syndrome just changes. Then you go. How do I must do certain things? To sustain my way in this room. And then you end up in a wild grind where you just like I must overwork and it comes with all these things, I just think we need some of the behind.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:18:23] Anica Malabanan, in member of Gwynn and moderator of the Book Club, shared her take on imposter syndrome during our discussion.

Anica Malabanan [00:18:31] There's this given moment where I in my head, at least I'm I'm thinking that. I need to be perfect, like I need to do things perfectly, and there's this expectation that I sat with myself, even though I'm very capable of doing my job. If even like the littlest thing triggers me self-doubting myself, that's when that like imposter syndrome comes in, which is kind of weird, because when we have that big group discussion I was talking about like, what is a quality about you? And I think confidence. But that doesn't then turn off the fact that sometimes I will have the imposter syndrome where I don't think I'm capable, which is like a weird balance where you're like competent in one thing, but you still have that self-doubt inside. And I think self-doubt was a big theme that came up in our group discussion.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:19:18] Kelly, Jordan Landy Phillips and Kim Smith join Anica in discussing professional troublemaker, sharing thoughts on confidence, doing too much and change.

Anica Malabanan [00:19:27] We also talked about is finding that way to share your confidence, but also still be humble and appear humble and actually to feel humble, but to not let the humbleness like you, your star. I guess for lack of a better way, and that's a great way to to describe that. There's times in our life where we've been felt to feel a little bit smaller, and I think a lot of the themes in this book is to hype us up and say, Now we got to come out of the shell, come out of that fear and really like challenge what's been going on and like Dove Deep.

Orlanthia Phillips [00:20:04] We also talked about being too much. I personally made the decision to never use that phrase again. And Brooke, who was also in the room, she contemplated that with dealing with a young woman in her life, her niece. I have a daughter who's 13, and she's at that age where they're dramatic in our role and in doing all this. What you say something? And how could you say, you know what? You want too much? Go sit down. I want to hear that too much, you too much. And and instead of saying that someone is too much anymore or they are too some, you're too dramatic to listen to extra because that was my other nickname for her extra. And instead of saying words that could be mistruth for her to be less than what she is or to shrink down in the future and to dumb herself down, and that be all she is. I have made the commitment to never say that somebody is too much or too something if there is a behavior that needs to be addressed and we're going to address that behavior. For instance, you know what? You're not going to speak, talk back to your mom. We're going to address that behavior and talking back, and that's not acceptable. But I'm not going to say this year too much. I want her to speak out when something is wrong. We want her to speak. I want her to absolutely not let somebody bully her and run over her one day. So we were talking about that in our group. How, yeah, we're going to make the distinction now of addressing the behavior without putting that label on someone.

Tiffany Hammond [00:21:41] One of the things that we really honed in on was a part in growing loud for a wildly where she says change is not optional, it's less necessary and perpetual go to that can break our hearts, make us scream, thrill us. It will challenge us and sometimes make us wonder if we can make it past the pains of it all. And I think that kind of just explains everything about this book in every different aspect of it. It's all about change, and we have to realize that it's not optional. We have to just go with the flow and do what's necessary to change in a good way.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:22:16] Returning to the interview, I asked Levi to talk about her writing process.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:22:21] Writing a book takes clarity on what you want to say because you see a book through all these pages and sometimes you're tempted to talk about a thousand things but really need to have a core. And I start every book writing process with the thesis statement. My first book, I'm judging the do better manual. My thesis statement was We are all ridiculous and we got to find ways to do better at being humans. The thesis of this book is to do better and to do better at being a human. You don't have to do some scary things. You're going to have to make some good trouble. Here's how. So I do that. From there, I write the outline, which is really a brainstorming session with myself. What are all the things that I want to put in there? And I just make it rough and there find the patterns and I break it up, and then I write my book proposal, which will include. My outline now, deeper chapter summaries of each thing. How would market the book, what is this book going to be called? And actually my book proposal, says the firefighter manual. So my UK copy of the book is called the firefighter manual. When the U.S., we going with the professional troublemaker, the firefighter manuals and tagline. And then you go into your own bay in writes. Over months, some people do years. I wrote my first book in five months. I wrote this one in four and then you edit because draft one. To exist and needs to be poor, but it needs to exist, that's the job, and then you have an editor who actually breaks it apart. And sometimes that they just make it, they make it seem so. Yeah, the machine of a book and writing it all, it's all tied. But it starts with be clear about what I want to say.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:24:12] How do you get that clarity, honestly?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:24:14] What are the things that are that jump out at you? Start there? For me, my clarity came in. I get clarity in different moments, like I brought this book into three sections, but they do because I like frameworks. Then I broke into chapters like I write, there's an app that I love called Scrivener. That is really great for writing big pieces of things like scripts and books and whatever it is that allows you kind of put it all on paper and then when you're done, you figure out what doesn't fit. Write it all down. You don't have to figure out what fits and what doesn't. Until the end of it. And then you start deleting chapters if you want to and saying that doesn't fit, then you pull that out.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:24:59] That's fair. As we close, what advice do you have for those that may be on the fence about becoming professional troublemakers or that may be exhausted?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:25:07] I hope this book gives somebody permission to speak up in the meeting, you know, because their jobs by being in the room is to make sure that the room is elevated. You can be on the margins and still dream audaciously because I'm a testament of why dreams come true. My hope is that those who have not been doing much decide to spend this moment to rise up and do something and make impact. So those who have been doing all the work can chill for a bit. You know, self-care is sometimes saying no. And maybe that looks like sitting it out for a bit. But listen, the world needs your troublemaking. The world needs you to find some energy after you recharge to come back and speak up. For those who don't have the same voice and platform and access as you and just know that you are a part of a community of troublemakers. For me, what I actually want for this book is to empower a million people to be troublemakers, so the people who are tired can take a nap for a day and trouble keeps going for the greater good.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:26:08] Let's go. Let's be professional troublemakers for ourselves and for the greater good. Lovey. Thank you so much for meeting with us today.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones [00:26:16] Thank you for having me.

Dani Jackson Smith [00:26:19] And that's a wrap for this episode. I hope you are inspired and that you get a copy of Professional Troublemaker over the holidays. Many thanks to you for rocking with me and until next time, keep it authentic all day, every day. Special thanks to our squad. Sarah Black, Denise Busch, Jermaine Dallas, Satyen Dayal and Trisch Smith. Authentic 365 is brought to you by Edelman.

About the Speakers

Luvvie Ajayi Jones, four-time New York Times bestselling author, speaker and entrepreneur —

Luvvie Ajayi Jones is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, speaker and entrepreneur who thrives at the intersection of culture, media, and business.

Her critically acclaimed books Rising Troublemaker: A Fear-Fighter Manual for Teens (2022), Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual (2021) and I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual (2016) were instant New York Times bestsellers, establishing her as a literary force with a powerful pen. Her latest book (and first children’s book) Little Troublemaker Makes a Mess released on May 2, 2023, and debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Luvvie is an internationally recognized speaker whose thought leadership on culture, authenticity, and disruption enables transformative action. Her renowned TED talk "Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable" has over 9 million views, has been transcribed into 23 languages, and has placed her in the Top 1% of TED Talks of all time. She has spoken at some of the most innovative brands, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Spotify, Nike, Bank of America, Deloitte, and American Express. She’s been a featured speaker at noted conferences such as: TEDWomen, Cannes Lions, SXSW, Leadercast, 3% Conference, MAKERS Conference. A 20-year blogging veteran, Luvvie writes on, covering all things culture with a critical yet humorous lens. A prolific writer, she’s also contributed to 5 published anthologies.

A University of Illinois alum, Luvvie is a true force in the world and her work has been featured in such outlets as Fortune, Forbes, Inc, Fast Company, The Chicago Tribune, Variety and more. Born in Nigeria, bred in Chicago and comfortable everywhere, Luvvie enjoys laying around in her plush robe, and eating a warm bowl of jollof rice in her free time. Her love language is shoes.

Dani Jackson, VP, Influencer and Multicultural Marketing, Chicago —

Made in Chicago and matured in New York City, Dani Jackson is a multi-faceted cultural enthusiast and storyteller that is obsessed with curating spaces that build community. As a VP of Influence, Dani takes a people first approach to developing strategies and partnerships that connect brands with the core values of the communities that they seek to serve. With over a decade in the industry, she harnesses her experience in production, multicultural marketing and DE&I to provide clients with top-notch counsel.

Dani has been recognized for her leadership, winning the ADCOLOR 2021 Rockstar Award and the Chicago Ad Federation Rising Star Award. Outside of the office Dani is a filmmaker and works with diverse artists committed to making a difference in society through her endeavor, The Cre8tors.