Date Published: March 16, 2021
Author, speaker and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones shares tips for conquering fear and making good trouble. “Facing fear is absolutely a muscle,” Ms. Ajayi Jones says. “Being courageous is literally a moment-by-moment decision.” Her new book is "Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual."
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 00:00
You don't conquer fear in that all of a sudden, one time, you say, I have now figured out fear and that means you'll now be courageous. No, I think being courageous is literally a moment-by-moment decision
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, this is Road to Resilience. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is author, speaker and podcast host Luvvie Ajayi Jones. Her new book is "Professional Troublemaker: The Fear- Fighter Manual." Facing fears is a key resilience factor, and Luvvie's book is about how to speak out and act up when it really matters. In our conversation, Luvvie shares tips for conquering fear and making good trouble, whether it's at home, at work, or out in the world. Luvvie Ajayi Jones, thank you so much for coming on Road to Resilience.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 00:52
Thank you for having me.
You begin the book with one of my favorite fear-facing strategies, and that is harnessing the power of what I'll call your "deep story." All of us are descended from survivors and from fighters. All of us have beaten fear before. And we can draw inspiration from that story. And so you have something in here that I've never come across. It's the oríkì. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about this tradition and how you've been inspired by it?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 01:20
Yes, the oríkì is from Yoruba land, I'm Yoruba by tribe in Nigeria. And it's the importance of honoring who you are and whose you are, where you came from, who is a part of your lineage. And it reminds you of all of that to basically remind you of why you belong on this earth. It's an affirmation of your spirit. It's a way to basically gas you up. I call it the hype mantra. And I think I am especially drawn to it because I love hyping people up. I think we do need to gas each other up from time to time. In this world there's a lot of time spent abusing us and salting us, telling us that we are not enough. And an oríkì basically tells you you are.
Can you share your oríkì with us?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 02:13
So the one that I wrote for myself is: Luvvie Ajayi Jones. First of Her Name. Assassin of the Alphabet. Bestseller of Books. Conqueror of Copy. Dame of Diction. Critic of Culture. Sorceress of Side-eyes. Eater of Jollof Rice. Rocker of Fierce Shoes. Queen of the Jones Kingdom. Taker of Stages. Nigerian Noble and Chi-Town Creator.
I love that. I found it was a really interesting exercise for me to do. You gotta get over yourself a little bit. You gotta let your ego happen.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 02:47
Yes. And I think it's okay. Take a moment to basically give yourself some props. We spend a lot of time critiquing ourselves and each other. So it's a moment to do the opposite. What are your gifts? What are things that you own? What about you is dope. And then don't be shy about it.
Now you are, like I said, we're all descended from fighters and survivors. You are definitely descended from an amazing one, your grandma. Can you tell us a little bit about her and how she has been a role model for you in terms of facing fear?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 03:18
Yeah, my grandmother is the professional troublemaker who I looked at growing up. And that's because she wasn't afraid of being herself. She wasn't afraid of taking up space and being honest. And I think that was important to watch because it gave me permission to own who I am, to show up as this person, to be celebrated. And it's a powerful thing because we're not told that it's okay to be celebrated. We're told to be humble all the time, whatever the definition of humility that people think they have. And my thing is, I'm like, being humble doesn't mean you're diminishing yourself, it means you don't take full credit for everything you have. And my grandmother was deeply spiritual. She was always giving gratitude and thanks to God for anything that she had. So yeah, my grandmother was amazing.
There's so many great stories about her in the book. I was wondering if you could pick one and just share it with us to give us some of the flavor of what she was like.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 04:21
Yeah, my grandmother, anytime she'd go to church, they would welcome her in with her own music. And she would take her time and dance her way in, and it might even take 20 minutes. And she would really revel in the fact that they were taking this time to celebrate her. And for me that was awesome to see because, again, a lot of us can't even accept compliments, let alone gifts. And she accepted being celebrated every Sunday like it was something that was a forgone conclusion. And I just think about how even that is revolutionary, even that is troublemaking, when somebody wants to do something grand for you, and you're not saying, no, no, I don't need that. No! Sometimes you should get it. You might not need it, but I think it's okay to accept it.
She seems to have been such an interesting combination of having a big personality and taking up space and owning it, but also doing it in the service of other people. And I think that in and of itself is sort of a fear-facing hack. That when you're focusing on other people, you're often capable of doing things that you wouldn't be if it was just for yourself.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 05:31
Yeah, I think being in service of people does not necessarily mean you're always bending yourself backwards for other people, but it means you're using your power, your personhood, your voice for others. It means you're existing in the world, trying to figure out what you can do that can make somebody else's life better. And I think being a fierce woman, being a woman who takes up space is in itself being of service to others, because it's one of those things that if we can normalize more of that, more women win. If we can make it our jobs to make trouble in the rooms we're in by showing up in the way that's most authentic to us, then more people will get used to it. Then it stops being extraordinary. So being of service and being a servant leader looks like a lot of different things. It looks like being bold when you're expected to not be. It looks like saying that you are perfect just the way you are when others are telling you that there's something wrong with you. And it looks like just advocating for yourself because that's not also encouraged. And I think for me, professional troublemaking really comes down to disrupting what's what's happening that's not okay for the greater good. It means speaking up when it's hard, it means asking and loaning voice to somebody who's not given access. It means giving your time, your energy, your privilege for somebody else's good. That's what it really means.
And you have this great idea in the book of "spend your privilege." How does that tie into this?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 07:07
I got it from Rebecca Cokley, a disability rights activist, and it's the idea that our privilege and our power are things that are limitless, and we should spend it for other people because if it's limitless, you will still have more. It means when you have a voice or you're given access, okay, why do you have the access? Can you have somebody else in there with you who would typically not be there with you? It means, when you're the person running the meeting, can you loan your voice and the power to the intern and call them out and say, "Hey, we'd love to hear what you have to say." It means if you're the person who has a million dollars, give some sum of money, even if it's 20 dollars, to somebody who hasn't eaten that day because they can't afford it. So time, energy, power—you loan it by letting somebody else have some of it. Anything that you have an abundance of, hand some of it over.
Let's talk about intentions. Because I think intentions is another thing that comes up in the first section of the book that I really liked. This three-point checklist of, before you're going to challenge something, before you're going to step up and maybe say something that's difficult, asking yourself three questions to make sure that your heart and your head is in the right place. Take us through those.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 08:25
Yeah, I think a lot of times when we are afraid to speak up it's because we don't want to be impulsive or we don't want to rock the boat, or we're not sure if we should say something or whether it's our place to say something. So I created my own questions. I like to quantify my decisions because it makes it easier when you can quantify something, it takes some of the guessing work out of it. So in those moments when we want to say or do something that feels tough, there's three questions that we should ask ourselves. And if the answer is "yes" to all three, I say go forth and do it. And that's—"Do I mean it?" is the first question, because am I just saying this because I feel like hearing my own voice? Or feel like being a contrarian? Or do I actually mean it? Yes. Okay. Can I defend it? If I'm challenged on it, if somebody pushes back on it, if they ask for where I got the idea or whether it's worth my time, can I actually provide some backup? And then, can I say it thoughtfully? Is there a way to say this as thoughtfully as possible? Yes. Okay. Answer is all "yes's," let's do it. And then however it falls, it falls. Now, running through this checklist does not mean it will be always well-received, but it is risk mitigation. It is a way to make sure you're doing your part. We cannot control other people's ideas and other people's projections or how other people will take what we say. As long as we did our own part, that's all we are responsible for.
Can you think of a time recently when you've had to go through this checklist? Is this a daily thing for you?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 10:11
I think it's a daily thing because the thing is it's not just in the big moments, sometimes it's in the small moments, it's in whether you want to have a tough conversation with a family member or a friend, whether it's challenging your boss on a campaign idea, whether it is talking to your colleague about how they behaved in a meeting that was not productive. It can be used in the small and in the big moments.
It leads to an idea that—we had on a heart doctor, but he'd done a meta-analysis about optimism. And he really changed the way that I thought about optimism, because I had thought about optimism as this sort of Pollyannaish, everything's going to be great. And he was like, no, think about it in terms of whatever happens, I'm going to be okay. I can handle what's going to happen. And so when you were talking about intentions and not trying to get hung up on or control the outcome of what's gonna happen when you speak up, that to me plugs into that idea of optimism that, you know what, speak the truth, let the heavens fall. I can handle it. I'm going to be okay.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 11:15
Absolutely. I think it's really, really—it's one of those things that you just have to relinquish your idea of what you think is going to happen. Knowing that you can only control what you control, which is you, and we're too often putting ourselves on the hook for other people. So then we think we're responsible for how they take something or how it lands and that's not it. And it stops us from doing that thing because we're afraid of rocking the boat. We're afraid of not belonging. And I'm just like, the fears are valid, but they shouldn't stop us from doing the thing and saying the thing that we know is important.
You make the point in the book that you were kind of born this way, to an extent, but also this is work. It's always been work. Fear doesn't go away. You don't conquer fear. You conquer it day by day. And so I was just wondering what your—if facing fear is like a muscle, do you have an exercise routine?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 12:11
I think facing fear is absolutely a muscle. Truth-telling is a muscle. And it's not even an exercise of here's what you do every single day. It's in the moments that you are presented to make this decision that you must do it. That is when the muscle is strengthened. That is when you must actually practice it. So it's when you need to have the tough conversation, being able to say, okay, here's the thing I'm afraid of saying, but I'm gonna say it anyway. I think, to your point, it is a muscle. You don't conquer fear in that all of a sudden, one time, you say, "I have now figured out fear," and that means you'll now be courageous. No, I think being courageous is literally a moment-by-moment decision. It is when you're asked to sit in on a meeting and you realize that, let's say this campaign idea is not that thoughtful and would probably cause backlash. You can choose courage right then and there just be like, "Hey, I would love to point this thing out because I don't see it going well." Even that is courage. So I don't think it's more about—and I think fear, we talk about fearlessness, which makes people feel like they need to be wearing some type of Superman cape all the time, but it's really less that and it's more of making the decision to not let the fear stop you from what you know is right. So for me, I think that just looks like the everyday moments. It's not always about challenging a major system. Sometimes it's just a simple conversation that feels tough.
So what happens in your head, in your heart when you feel the fear?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 13:55
I recognize it. I acknowledge it. And then I go, "Would I be proud of my silence here? Will I regret this tomorrow? Will I wake up and say, 'You know what? You didn't do what you were supposed to do.' Will I be, honestly, yeah, just will I be proud of myself, however way I'm handling this?" So I always have to contend with myself first. Disappointing other people is not my problem. I don't really— that's gonna happen just because the constant need to have human approval is a futile mission. But ultimately I have to answer to me.
Can you tell us about a time when you made a tough call and faced fear?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 14:36
When I spoke up about a conference that invited me to come speak in Europe. And they wanted me to basically pay my way there. They said it would be great exposure for me. And I found out that everybody is compensated depending on who they are. So black women who were asked to speak there were basically asked to pay their way. White men who were asked to speak there basically had their books bought, their travel paid for. White women who were asked to speak there had their travel paid for. And for me, that type of inequality in the pay hierarchy was ridiculous. They came to me. So I was like, I have to talk about this publicly. And I knew that what I was putting on the line was my financial well-being. I was like, okay, if I speak up about this publicly, will other conferences either not invite me or disinvite me? And how would my business be impacted if that happened? The worst-case scenario was that, yeah, they would not invite me to come speak, and I would lose a huge part of my revenue. But the best case scenario was like, this was talked about publicly. We would have a real, honest conversation, and this conference would have to be held accountable for what was unjust. And I remember battling with myself and wondering like, should I say something? Should I not? And I had to be who I said I was in private, in public. So I was like, well, here's the thing—at that point I'd been speaking for like eight years, I'd been on some pretty grand stages. I commanded a massive fee. I had a lot of respect. And I had to be like, okay, if I don't speak up with that privilege, with that power, who am I expecting to speak up and talk about this issue? Is it the person who just started speaking last week? Is it the person who has never had a paid speaking engagement? Who am I basically now leaving to do the work that I have the power to do? And that convinced me to be like, you're the right person to say this. Yes, you might lose money. But I was honest with myself in that, okay, if I lost money, and people stopped booking me, would I become homeless? Would I lose everything? I have a community of people who would never let that happen, my friends and family, I would never not have a place to stay. I have the privilege of community and resources. That was the worst-case scenario. Oh, my God, disastrous, no money comes in for me ever again. But would I still be okay? Yes. My background is in marketing and communications. As long as I have that gift, I can always take on private clients. I can always work with friends who know I'm good at this stuff. So running the worst-case scenario through my head, I was like, yeah, that's probably not gonna happen. So why would I opt out of speaking out because of that worst-case scenario that is so low in terms of chances of happening? So I spoke out about it, and the best-case scenario happened where the conference was held accountable. There was a Forbes piece written about the whole issue, and the person who ran the conference, the CEO of this 15 million euro conference had his feelings hurt and decided to email me and the Forbes writer and said maybe I would be able to command my fee if it was a more urban demographic. So his doubling down actually helped prove my point. It helped make the story bigger and it helped more conferences see that our silence is no longer guaranteed when they do things that do not serve us.
Have you noticed change in the years that you've been doing this in terms of equity? Has consistently speaking out by yourself and others moved the ball forward?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 19:06
Yeah, I think so. I think normalizing that professional troublemaking is helpful. I think it does help other people to see this in action. Because, again, the danger of systems that don't serve us and companies that don't serve us is that they take for granted our silence. They make it seem as if, because it's a forgone conclusion, they can continue to cheat us. And I think people are getting to the point where they realize that professional troublemaking, speaking out, being a truth-teller, it's not a nice-to-have. It's a must-have. Professional troublemakers save companies, save relationships. They save the world. Because they're the people who are insisting that what's happening is just, that what is happening is fair, and that the people who have the least amount of power are getting some bit of it. And I think instead of people thinking about professional troublemaking as a bad thing, I think it's a good thing. I think societies fall when you don't have the people who hold you accountable, when you don't have the people who are looking at the blind spots and saying, hey, we should do better here. So it's something that I think is happening more and more of, and I want to create a generation of professional troublemakers because I think the more people who are committed to taking on this world in that way, the better everything will be.
So who are you hoping reads this book and is inspired by it?
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 20:50
I'm hoping anybody who's ever been afraid of speaking up in a room reads this book. Anybody who's ever been afraid to ask for a promotion because they don't want to hear "no." Anybody who's ever stopped dreaming big because they thought they were not worthy reads this book. I want people who need to get permission to be audacious, to pick up "Professional Troublemaker" and that be their permission slip. I want young girls to get this message early, because we don't have to wait until we are 65, 70, a grandmother to be able to take up all the space without apology. We shouldn't have to wait all of our lives to be these people who are proud of who they are, to not be constantly scared of consequences or to constantly want approval so we don't do the thing we're supposed to do. So, yeah, I hope everybody picks up this book and either sees themselves in it, or they say, you know what, I've been the person who has spent some time silencing a troublemaker in my life, and I should stop doing that because they actually want good things for me.
Luvvie, it's been great talking to you, and I'm glad that you came and shared your time with us.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones: 22:21
Thank you for having me and sharing your space with me.
Luvvie Ajayi Jones is an author, speaker and podcast host. Her new book is "Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual.” Road to Resilience is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by Nicci Cheatham, me, Jon Earle, and our executive producer, Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.