Jeff Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist, social activist, motivational speaker and political commentator. He’s served as a BET host, senior adviser for Media and Youth Outreach for People for the American Way, national director of the Youth & College division of the NAACP and vice president of the Russell Simmons Hip Hop Summit Action Network.
And now with the release of his first book, “Everything I’m Not Made Me Everything I Am: Discovering Your Personal Best,” Johnson can add published author to the list above.
Johnson talked with Clutch about his inspiration to write a self-help book, why he based its title on a Kanye West track, and why you should read it.
Clutch: This is your first book – what made you write “Everything I’m Not?”
Johnson: Well, I’ve been travelling around the country for the last 10 years lecturing on campuses, communities, and schools. And no matter whether I am lecturing around public policy, electoral politics, hip hop, or a social science of some kind, the question I’ve gotten more than any other is: how do I get to where I’m supposed to be? And it just seems as if no matter how academically successful we are or professionally successful, we continue to be bombarded with this notion that that is what being our best is. I’m attempting to dispel the myth that being your professional best is being your personal best, and also to create a practical roadmap to be able to get to that place. And that’s really what the book is about.
Clutch: How different do you think it would be for a younger person reading the book and starting out on this journey to his or her personal best than an older or more established person?
Johnson: I don’t know if it’s so much younger versus older, as much as it is personal experience. I think it really depends on where are you in your life right now and how do you feel about it. What does the reader want to get? Where does the reader want to be? Because I think there are those of us who are pretty successful professionals who would have to admit that we aren’t where we want to be in the rest of our lives. So for those people who only want to be single-faceted, those people who only want to focus on one aspect of their life and aren’t willing to do anything differently – the book’s really not for them at all. But if you are willing to accept the fact that look, no matter what I’ve been able to do professionally, there’s more of who I can be, there are aspects of me as a parent or as a spouse, or a community member that I know I haven’t paid attention to – those are the people who this book is for.
When you’re really walking in your personal best, you understand that you have options and you’re willing to step out and take risks.
Clutch: In the recession we’re in now, many people are being forced to find other careers and paths. How do you think the book is relevant now?
Johnson: I think that at the end of the day all of us are realizing that we’ve got to be more multi-faceted than we’ve been. If for no other reason than to be marketable and not get stuck in a place where if my job downsizes or if the economy shifts I’m stuck. When you’re really walking in your personal best, you understand that you have options and you’re willing to step out and take risks. In many cases, those risks are connected to your passion, your calling – what you were created to do. If you’re not looking at those things – then you’re only looking at how do I get a paycheck, how do I keep this job, how do I stay in this place that may be comfortable, but may not necessarily be where I’m supposed to be.
Clutch: Stepping back a bit into the development of the book – its title comes from a song by Kanye West, “Everything I Am.” What was it about this song that made you want to base your book’s title on it?
Johnson: The title of the song just really says it all. Many of us don’t find out who we are until we acknowledge who we’re not. Because so many of us have been stuck in these boxes and these titles, in these prisons of identity that are based on what the world says we are, what our parents say we should be, who our friends think we are, what media says is the best way to go. And until as individuals we attack those things and say I’m not this, I’m not this, I’m not this – seldom do many of us go the other way around and say, this is what I am. Most of us have to go through the process of saying, this ain’t me, this isn’t who I am, this isn’t what I do, this isn’t what I want, to get to the point where we say, well this is who I am. For me, the song really spoke to my own path and the path of so many of us who have to go through the first part before we go through the latter.
Clutch: Speaking of Kanye, your book was released a few days after Kanye West caused a stir at the VMA awards. What were your thoughts about your book coming out with a foreword from him right in the middle of his controversy?
Johnson: I watched it, and I was worried about Kanye as a person. It’s obvious that he continues to suffer from the loss of his mom and hasn’t really dealt with that pain in a real effective way. As opposed to being like, “Oh my God, he’s messing up my book sales; I can’t believe I asked that Negro to write this foreword,” I was really like, this is a tremendous opportunity because Kanye serves a perfect example that you can be at the top of your game professionally and still not be whole because you haven’t focused on the other areas of your life. To me, it was divine opportunity to say look, here’s this brother that wrote this song that speaks directly to the title and the subject matter, who has gone to the top of his game professionally and is still not whole. That to me is what I think the book is about. Because all of us get to that place. The easy part for us is that most of us never have to have our problems thrown up on TMZ, CNN, Fox News, MTV, VH1 and BET. I sometimes question if many of us would be able to make it if we were forced to deal with our problems publically. I just thought it was an awesome and divine way for the book to come out and I was encouraged by it more than I was upset by it.
Clutch: The book challenges the reader to really do some self-reflection on their life, their weaknesses, and where they would like to go. What are some of the hardest steps on the path for many people?
Johnson: I think first being honest with ourselves. It’s very difficult for many of us to be honest with ourselves about what we do well, what we don’t do well, what we need to do, what’s good for us, what’s not good for us, and the areas that we’ve punked out and fallen short of what we have the capacity to do. So much of that is woven throughout the book, which is, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. I talk about turning mistakes into opportunity. I think so many of us are afraid of making mistakes that it holds us and puts us in a place where we’re unable to move. And again, what this book is about is really managing fear to be able to not only challenge who we are right now, but to be courageous enough to take the steps necessary to get to that place that we want to be instead of simply talking about it.
Clutch: Why was it important for you to incorporate examples from your own life into the book?
Johnson: Some things I’m great at today; some things still challenge me, but this (book) was about, let me show you a strategy that I’ve seen work. I can tell you right now that 2009 has been probably one of the most challenging years for me from a business perspective. With the economy being what it is, losing clients, not being in a place that I wanted to be, (and yet) I’ve not been in a place where I’m not happy. That I don’t love the work that I do and wake up still excited about the things I’m able to engage in. So it’s this time, more than any other, (that) has proven to me this stuff really works. But if I’m not willing to be transparent in my own life, then how can I possibly believe that someone else should think that this is worth their time?
Without wisdom, you could be moving gangsta in the wrong direction. And without a strategist, you may not be thinking about the four or five steps ahead.
Clutch: In the book you describe members of a personal team who can be assembled to help you become your personal best. How did you come up with the descriptions of the team members?
Johnson: I’m a chess player, and I think in chess you realize you have to use different pieces to checkmate the king. The team that you have, in essence, has to be the same way. It does no good to have everyone that has the same gifts, abilities and talents as opposed to a crew of people that all do very specific and helpful kind of tasks. So I thought about, well what are the attributes and skill sets necessary for someone to be successful, and how can you surround yourself with each of those so that when you’re deficient in one area somebody can fill in the gap. It’s always necessary to have somebody to push you, who can tell you things that nobody else will tell you – the enforcer. Without wisdom, you could be moving gangsta in the wrong direction. And without a strategist, you may not be thinking about the four or five steps ahead.
Clutch: What tips do you have for those who don’t have those team members in their life right now?
Johnson: You really have to be a talent scout. So people need to be able to write down: what are the holes in my team? The places that I need filled? And then who am I looking to draft? How can I begin to go out and scout people and see that they’ve been able to do these things in their own life and help other people? How can I make sure that they fit who I am? And then engage them and say, “Look, I really want you to be part of my team. I need somebody who can do A, B, C, D for me. I’d really appreciate you being that person,” and then go on from there. If they say no, then keep going and find somebody else.
Clutch: Toward end of book, you talk about always striving to be better and not getting comfortable. What do you have to say for those who are in that process?
Johnson: I’m very serious about making sure that people want to do this for their life and not just for a period of time. Because so often, we’re project driven, event driven. We want to reach a certain place and once we reach that place, then everything is all good. This is really about how do I become the best person I can be? And that doesn’t end until life is over. So people can’t be comfortable because when you get comfortable you stop growing. This (book) is really about how do I continue to grow and set new heights. Getting comfortable simply puts me in a place where I’ve stopped. And nobody needs that because if you’re given life that means there’s something more for you to do.
Clutch: For the readers, in your words, why should they pick your new book up and read it?
Johnson: I’m not egomaniacal enough to think that every person is going to pick the book up and every chapter is going to have something for them. I think what makes the book meaningful is that any reader of any age can get something out of it. Whether these are concepts that you used to do and you need to remind yourself of, or if there are one or two things in the book that are revelations of things that you need to do. I don’t think that there’s anybody who can’t be helped by this book. For those who would say, this is only for young people, then buy it for a young person you know and read it before you give it to them. Or read through some of the chapters that seem relevant to where you might be. At the end of the day I don’t think any of us have moved beyond the age of needing to continue to push, continue to learn, or to continue to be inspired.
For more information and to purchase “Everything I’m Not” please visit www.jeffsnation.com.