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Book Talk

Luvvie Ajayi Jones’ Guide to Professional Troublemaking

Photo Credit: Kesha Lambert

The author of “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual,” Luvvie Ajayi Jones offers a guide to dealing with imposter syndrome, boosting self-confidence, and becoming a professional troublemaker.

Luvvie Ajayi Jones is an award-winning author, speaker, and podcast host who thrives at the intersection of comedy, media, and social justice. She is the author of the Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual and The New York Times bestseller I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. Her site AwesomelyLuvvie covers all things culture with a critical yet humorous lens.

S&H: What inspired you to write Professional Troublemaker?

Luvvie Ajayi Jones: My TED Talk in 2017 is what put me on the map, but I almost didn’t do it; I turned down an invitation to speak twice. I didn’t think I was ready. I thought I was too busy. I didn’t think I had the time to prepare in the way it would deserve. But I kept being asked to do it. I was about to turn it down for the third time when I called my friend Eunique Jones Gibson and told her, “Yo, they want me to do this Ted Talk, but it’s in two weeks. Most people that do this spend months prepping, getting their talk ready, and working with speakers’ coaches. I don’t know if I can do it.”

And she goes, “Well, everybody ain’t you,” and she convinced me on the spot to take this opportunity that I was afraid of. I was afraid of bombing. I was afraid of getting on that stage.

After I finished the talk, I got a standing ovation. TED featured my talk and in one month it had a million views; it has since had more than five million views. So, after that process I asked myself: How often do we say no to yes opportunities because we’re afraid of them? How often do we think that we aren’t ready for something that we've already been preparing for in different ways?

At the time, I was trying to figure out what book two was about and realized “Oh, it's been right in front of me this whole time.” My first book, I'm Judging You, is a do-better manual. I'm asking us to leave this world a better place than we found it. But how are we going to do it?

This book shows us that we’re going to have to continually do the things that feel bigger than us, things that scare us, things that make us nervous. I use my story throughout the book to show what it looks like to be a professional troublemaker in action. I knew it was the right book for me to write because it was the book that I wish I’d had when I first got asked to do that TED Talk; it’s the book that I wish I’d had when I was still afraid to call myself a writer.

What exactly is a professional troublemaker? What does it mean to be a professional troublemaker?

Professional troublemakers are disruptors—people who don’t know how to be quiet, even when the world is asking them to be, when they see something happening that is not OK. Being a professional troublemaker means not choosing to do what’s familiar just because you’re comfortable; we welcome change and don’t run from it. To be a professional troublemaker is to commit to live in a life that’s bigger than you, even when it scares you.

In your book, you talk about struggling with imposter syndrome. Even a well-known professional troublemaker like you deals with these feelings, so how can people, in particular women, get past this to “own their own dopeness,” as you say in your book?

It’s about being intentional—you have to decide to be brave. But you can’t be brave without fear. If you’re doing something that doesn’t scare you, maybe you’re just doing it because it’s easy. You need fear for courage to exist. And it’s a decision you have to make because it doesn’t just accidentally happen. We’re constantly faced with things that are scary, and usually we turn back and say, “You know what? I'm not going to do this; I’m going to double back.” What makes you decide to do the thing anyway? Once you acknowledge that doing something absolutely scares you—once you name it—you can do something about it.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because it’s not the kind of book usually written by somebody like me—an immigrant black woman—at the intersection of three marginalized identities. Books like this one are typically written by white men who will tell you to get out your own way and just do this thing.

But black women operate in this system that does not want us to win, that is actively designed against us, and that teaches us we aren’t deserving. However, though this is the case, I don’t ever want to feel helpless, like I have zero control over my life and what happens in it. So, we have to almost trick ourselves into thinking we have those same privileges. We have to have the audacity to want to be dope and do big things. With that in mind, I try to walk into every room as if I have all the privilege in the world.

You split the book into three sections to provide a kind of blueprint—Be, Say, and Do—to help people conquer their fear and become professional troublemakers. Can you talk about why you divided it into those three parts?

For us to be fear fighters, for us to show up to be who we are and need to be in this world, we need to do some internal work and really work on our beliefs. Because again, what we think is possible, becomes what’s possible. If we think something is not possible, then it won’t happen. The Be section is really about what we believe about ourselves. For you to be able to dream audaciously, for you to be able to do that thing that feels big, you actually have to believe that it is possible and that something good will happen from it. If you don’t believe it, it’s going to be hard for anybody else to support you. We also need to start saying it out loud and giving voice to those beliefs. And then the Do of it all is to determine what we want to put action to. What is the thing that we believe in?

So, the Be is the first thing you have to do. Then you have to Say—speak it out loud. Then you have to Do, which requires putting action behind your beliefs and words. I thought it was important to talk about things in that order because you don’t just wake up one day and say, “OK. Today, I’m going to do something amazing.” What if you still don’t believe it’s possible for you? What if you still think you don’t deserve it? What if you still don’t feel like you have the space and the capacity to actually say and name this thing? Then how does this action happen?

What do you do to boost your self-confidence? How do you harness your awesome and powerful voice to be a professional troublemaker? Are there any rituals that you do that help center you?

Developing a life mission statement is important. In the first chapter of the book, I provide an exercise to help people build their own life mission statement. I think it’s really important to know who you are and to be really clear about it, because in that moment when it becomes really tough, you’ve got to return to that person. So, print out that mission statement, put it on a prominent spot on your desk; even if you’re not reading it, it’s still there and you’re absorbing it.

I see mine throughout the workday, and it changes. I might change it once a week or in six months—it just depends on what I need to hear in the moment.

Read our review of Luvvie Ajayi Jones' Professional Troublemaker.


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