John Hagel — One of the Greatest American Thinkers of Modern Times

How Smart Moves can Unlock Unlimited Potential

John Hagel III (John Hagel) is a prolific author, speaker, entrepreneur, and management consultant. John has been named one of the “25 Most Influential People in Electronic Business” by Business Week, “Elite 100 Most Influential People in the Digital World” by Upside, “50 Most Powerful People in Networking” by Network World, and “Top 100 Business Gurus” by Accenture. He is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, a member of both the Board of Trustees of the Santa Fe Institute and Board of Directors of The Independent Institute, as well as a host of the Aspen Institute’s executive roundtables. John is one of the greatest American thinkers of modern times.

A prolific writer, John received the McKinsey Award for “Best Articles Published in Harvard Business Review.” He is the author of “The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion,” “The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization,” “Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities,” “Net Worth: Shaping Markets When Customers Make the Rules,” and “Out of the Box: Strategies for Achieving Profits Today and Growth Tomorrow through Web Services.” His personal blog is Edge Perspectives.

John is the founder of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a research center headquartered in Silicon Valley with offices in Australia and the Netherlands. John was a Principal at McKinsey & Company, the Chief Strategy Officer of Atari, a founder of two tech startups, and consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. He is a graduate of the Philips Academy Andover, with a Bachelor of Arts in African and Asian Studies from Wesleyan University, a graduate degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University, a Doctor of Jurisprudence from Harvard Law School and a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School. John speaks Spanish, Italian, French, Arabic, English and some Swahili.

You are a prolific writer. What motivates you to write? What are some of your productivity tips?

Writing is a way for me to connect, engage and build community with people. I’m an introvert and writing has helped me to overcome my shyness by drawing people to me that I would never have met otherwise. But I would write even if I knew no one would read it, because I find that the process of writing gives me new insight into the topics I’m addressing, insight that I never would have just be talking about the topics with others.

I’m currently writing two books in addition to blogging on Edge Perspectives and contributing articles in a variety of venues. I wake up and write between the hours of 3:00 a.m. — 7:00 a.m., seven days a week. When I write, I am a detailed and persistent outliner — I go through increasingly detailed outlines of what I want to write before I start my first draft. I spend a lot of time upfront thinking through the structure and the key message so that I spend little time on editing once I have completed my first draft.

In deciding where to invest my time and how to prioritize my many activities, I use a “Zoom In — Zoom Out” approach. First I “zoom out” and spend time looking ahead on where I want to be in 10–20 years and what I need to do. Then I “zoom in” to identify the 2–3 things that I could do in the next 6 months that would have the greatest impact in accelerating my movement to the longer term destination that I have identified. I then track my progress on those 2–3 things and periodically step back to reflect on how I can have even great impact on those shorter-term initiatives.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

I was born in the state of New Hampshire and grew up outside the United States living in a different country in South America and Europe every year. It was a fascinating experience as I was exposed to many different cultures and environments. It was also very challenging because each time I started a new school, I didn’t know anyone there and, worst of all, I knew that, if I made any friends, I would have to leave them at the end of the year, never to see them again. The difficulty was amplified by the lack of a nurturing life at home; I had a dysfunctional family. I overcame these challenges through reading about the wonderful, optimistic worlds of the future captured by science fiction authors like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and H.G. Wells. I learned at an early age that good things don’t always last, and to enjoy and be in the moment. I had to adapt quickly to new things and I developed an explorer’s mindset.

What do you like to do for fun?

I like to listen to live music, visit art galleries and travel. I attend concerts a couple times a week. My preference is obscure music in diverse genres such as Algerian Rai, swing and 50’s rockabilly. I enjoy art, especially impressionism, where through the reductionism there is an emergence of the bigger picture from the small dots of paint. I like to explore new places. If I had to pick my favorite destination it would be the beautiful island of Capri, where two very different worlds, deeply traditional local Italian villagers and cosmopolitan decadence, live alongside together on the edge of the ocean.

What’s a little-known fact about you?

I never learned to ride a bike.

What is your view on technological singularity? Do you view artificial intelligence as an opportunity or existential threat?

I love the human body and am not a fan of the concept of downloading myself to a computer to live in perpetuity. Living has a physical component. I’m much more focused on the opportunity to grow new organs and augment the body, rather than replace the body. Technology can be used for good or evil. There’s nothing intrinsic about it that makes it good or evil; it can be used for both purposes. I view technology as a way to potentially augment, amplify and extend longevity.

Based on how you see the future, what should businesses, government and individuals be doing now in preparation?

We all have unlimited potential. To harness opportunity, we need to change our approach. Don’t get stuck in the short term. We need to bring people together. The paradox is the more we focus on the short term, the more pressure we create versus stepping back and looking ahead at the long term. Use the “Zoom In, Zoom Out” approach. The key is to focus on emerging opportunities.

What is your view on Universal Basic Income?

Generally, I’m a skeptic. There’s certainly a need to help people make the transition to the very different world we are creating but the core risk at stake in programs like UBI is how not to breed complacency and instead how to cultivate a sense of urgency about the need to learn faster and find new ways to earn a living.

What is your view on complexity?

In complex systems, there is no one simple dimension. It’s the world we live in from the vast universe to the smallest microorganism, to society itself. And in a world that is more connected, the complexity of all systems increases, making it more and more challenging to employ reductionist approaches — they blind us to interdependencies that can lead to very unexpected outcomes. We can’t apply simple models — they can become very misleading. I subscribe to the notion of emergence. The one constant is that things are constantly emerging, creating both new challenges and new opportunities. The key is to keep pushing the boundaries.

What motivates and inspires you? What do you see as your legacy?

There is an opportunity for each of us to have more impact if we harness more of our potential. One of the reasons why I was attracted to Silicon Valley was the “change the world” cultural attitude, optimism and focus on opportunities.

I believe we all have unlimited potential, not a fixed potential. Over time your potential will expand. It’s important to stay on the edge and keep venturing beyond our comfort zone so that we can find new ways to grow.

We are at the intersection of technology and human beings. Technology can help us be better as communities and individuals. The key is how we combine the two to achieve much more.

I’m a long-run optimist and short-run pessimist. The opportunity is out there and is achievable. There will certainly be many challenges along the way, so you can’t sit back. I strive to achieve more of my potential by pursuing the next challenge and helping others achieve theirs.

Originally published at on November 5, 2017.