There’s tremendous power in knowing who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what talents and energy you can bring to your career and your life. It also helps to know what you lack — not as a deficiency, but as an awareness of who you can find to add depth and resilience to your team.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Littman and Susanna Camp.
Littman and Camp are the authors of The Entrepreneur’s Faces: How Makers, Visionaries and Outsiders Succeed. Littman collaborated with IDEO on the bestsellers The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation (more than 650,000 copies sold worldwide in 12 languages). The author of ten books, five of his works have been optioned for films. His award-winning journalism has appeared in Playboy, the LA Times and Forbes. Camp is the Editor-in-Chief of SmartUp.life. A journalist specializing in emerging technology, she was an early team leader at Wired magazine, and has also been on the staff of Macworld, PCWorld and Outside magazines.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Jon:I was 27 and had a great job with a very hot tech magazine. They paid me well and sent me all over the country to write fun, entertaining stories. I was comfortable. Then I stumbled onto a big story and developed great sources, and realized it could be my first book. I abruptly quit my job (without saying why) and the advance was so tiny that I lived on credit cards for about 9 months. But the book was a critical success and soon I was writing for the LA Times Magazine and Forbes and had two new major book contracts. If I hadn’t made that first leap I’m not sure I would have become an author.
Susanna:I’ve done many kinds of writing over the years: Technical writing, direct mail campaigns, game reviews, annual reports, my master’s thesis in education. But I didn’t truly dive fully into storytelling until I met Jon. A few years ago, we started writing articles about entrepreneurs for our website, SmartUp.life. After about a hundred stories we knew we had the beginnings of a book. Jon’s written ten, so he was a great guy to team up with for my first book.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Susanna: I grew up immersed in the study of archetypes. My father was a Jungian scholar (Jung of course presented 12 archetypes. The outlaw and caregiver, the jester and sage). And my mother was actually certified to administer the Myers Briggs type indicator test. She force-fed that test to me dozens of times. (The introvert vs extrovert binary opposition was the bane of my teenage years.) So those were models I did not want to repeat when we set about to write The Entrepreneur’s Faces.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Jon: Early in my career I had to essentially speed-write two big books in a row — write and research them in an insanely compressed time period. That pressure spilled over my whole life. I couldn’t turn off — and that was terribly stressful and not very productive. Later on I rented this wonderful office and that was the healthy dividing line between work and life. I wrote at the office, and lived everywhere else. It has worked for me. Leaving the work is necessary and ultimately good for the work.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Susanna: Due to operator error with my recording device, I missed out on the most significant pitch we saw at WebSummit, Europe’s biggest tech conference, in 2017. This was Uwe Diegel’s first appearance on the pitch small stage, and he was the most interesting guy we came across during the entire week in Lisbon. So while Jon was meeting the guy who would become a major character in our book and in our lives, I was deep into reading the manual to try to figure out how to free up storage space. The lesson: don’t take your eyes off the prize. If your tech fails, go analog. Better to take notes than come up with nothing at all.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Susanna: I’m pursuing a certificate in Learning Design and Technology at Harvard. I spent my summer creating advanced digital executive coursework around the book. For years, we’ve been leading workshops to help people to tap their inner innovator and engage their entrepreneurial mindset, and we still do this now in our fun and dynamic interactive digital workshops. Now we have a way to reach audiences at scale, with a self-paced, instructor-absent online format. The crisis has pushed us to go digital faster and to see how many elements of an executive course can be enhanced online.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Susanna: We tell the stories of ten inspiring entrepreneurs, so I wouldn’t say that any of them is more interesting than the others. But one of our most surprising archetypes is the Accidental. As a writer you need to be open to unusual ideas and directions. The Accidental is someone who becomes passionately obsessed with a new hobby or project without any immediate plan of profiting by the work (perhaps not that different from how someone starting on the path of a writer). Mait Müntel of Estonia was a brilliant physicist at CERN. That’s what he would be today if he didn’t have an accident. He was embarrassed that he couldn’t speak French while working in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. But what made him an Accidental is that he did something about it. Late at night he borrowed the CERN supercomputers and created the first AI language learning program. A few months later he passed the high school French language exam. He had no ambition to launch a startup but then he showed it to another brilliant Estonian physicist who happened to co-found Skype. The rest you’ll have to read in The Entrepreneur’s Faces.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Susanna: There’s tremendous power in knowing who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what talents and energy you can bring to your career and your life. It also helps to know what you lack — not as a deficiency, but as an awareness of who you can find to add depth and resilience to your team.
Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.
Do something radical:
Susanna: We flew to Europe and got interviews and introductions to entrepreneurs along the way, in 14 countries, on three different trips over many months. We didn’t plan the itinerary in advance, only the start and end points and a rough plan to get to certain places along the way. Often we’d show up in a city with only one lead, but would then end up in back-to-back meetings with fascinating people. We found that the people with more entrepreneurial mindsets were much more likely to say yes — just because we just showed up — in Warsaw, Ljubljana, Amsterdam, Tallinn. That risk-taking and optimism helped make things happen
Don’t listen to the naysayers.
Susanna:We had agents and editors tell us that we couldn’t or shouldn’t tell a narrative story about entrepreneurs. One New York-based editor said we should write for what she called “want-repreneurs” instead of the real thing. They were so wrong — people love that we tell the journeys of authentic, inspiring entrepreneurs. Learn to spot and reject bad advice.
Be crazily curious.
Jon:There are people who say you should have a genre and be happy to churn out the same book over and over again in different flavors. That never interested me. I’ve written a lot of true narrative books and stories (on crime, sports, and business) but also books around methodology on innovation and entrepreneurship. Every book is different. I find that thrilling.
Your job is to get people to talk and get out of the way.
Jon:I learned this lesson on my first book. My main subject was an eccentric billionaire — back in the days when that was a lot of money. He was living in Saipan. My book would ultimately expose his tragic failings, but somehow he granted me a telephone interview. He never stopped talking and I realized after five minutes that I just had to keep the call going as long as possible. It went on non-stop for seven hours. I barely talked (and it cost over 500 dollars; this was way before Skype or WhatsApp). But that one call helped make my book a critical success. He didn’t even realize I took a bathroom break after 4 hours.
Listen to your gut. Sometimes say no.
Jon:A few times I worked on articles and books that I wasn’t that wild about, and boy can that be hard. I once wrote a little book about Churchill with his granddaughter. I quickly learned that she knew nothing about her relative or the craft of writing. It was hard slogging.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft, study) Can you share a story or example?
Jon: Our new book, The Entrepreneur’s Faces, is about recognizing who you are and getting the most out of what you do well. We have an archetype we call the Athlete, which is about bringing the fire and dedication of a competitor to a job, task, or company. I was an elite soccer player in college, and naturally brought that mindset to writing. This training and perspective has helped me tremendously, as few writers succeed without learning how to overcome tremendous self-doubt and rejection.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Susanna: I read a lot of science fiction. I love the work of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, and am currently reading Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy. I find this genre combines cutting-edge technology with futuristic scenario planning, and the emotional hooks of storytelling. Science fiction authors are a lot like entrepreneurs. They need to have the skills of the “Visionary” (one of the archetypes in our book) in creating a fantastical world that builds on present realities, and the “Evangelist” archetype who tells a story that converts early adopters to their cause.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Susanna: Our movement would be about self-empowerment. In the book, and in our courses and workshops, we help people to engage their entrepreneurial mindset. This goes beyond startups and small businesses, and can extend really to anyone, any project, and of course also applies to intrapreneurs within corporations. This kind of flexible, forward-leaning mindset is a rejection of business as usual, and is useful in innovating your way out of a jam, say … in a pandemic. Additionally, we feel that the kind of deep self-awareness that comes from knowing your type is terrifically empowering. Knowing who you are, what you’re passionate about, and what superpowers you have, gives you an extra layer of confidence. This is all foundational. And being aware of what you lack will help you to attract partners with complementary skills, to build a successful team.
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