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It’s All About Perception

Interview with Dwayne Johnson

headshot of Dwayne Johnson
Dwayne Johnson, Technologist, Entrepreneur, Social Alchemist

I heard Dwayne talk at the Elevating Impact Summit last May, a conference for social entrepreneurs organized by Portland State University. He was on a panel discussion and spoke eloquently about the need to make the tools of innovation available to all people, not just a privileged few. He is the Executive Director of the Center for Inclusive Innovation and Co-Founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC, and he is actively engaged in co-creating a world that works for everyone. The points he makes in this interview are so helpful—I find I’m much more conscious now about managing my own perceptions. This is Dwayne's story...


I’ve been involved in technology since I was pretty young. I started programming in my early teens and ended up writing programs for the teachers at school to make their lives easier. I pretty much spent my career doing things like that. I’ve probably written every business system you’d ever want to see.

I started or participated in the start up of at least 5 companies before I turned 40. Many of them were on the cutting edge of Internet technology. One of the first jobs I had was at a defense contractor in the early 1980’s. We were making some of the first cable modems, before anyone knew what a cable modem was. The objective was to conduct high-speed communications in a secure manner across the country. Those of us working on it could see the implications of that—the idea that you could move massive amounts of data very quickly from point A to point B. This would really change the way we interact with each other in the world. I was thinking: how do we make this available to a larger number of people and how do we allow people to connect with each other in ways that are going to be mutually beneficial?

That’s the space I usually operate in—how do we take the technology, particularly Internet technology, and apply it to not only our problems, but to our dreams as well?

I did a stint at Disney for 4 1/2 years, which gave me an opportunity to see many different businesses in one place. Then I helped create a startup, Digital Planet, which pretty much put most of Hollywood online, at a time when they swore they would never put their content on the Internet. At another startup, US Web, I helped create a nationwide, professional services, Internet-based company that went from literally 5 guys standing in an old Silicon Valley bank building to a 5000 person, billion dollar, market cap company.

That’s when I jumped over from doing straight technology to doing more of the corporate development and business development. I got to work with people who were like me before, who were entrepreneurs and innovators looking to scale their companies. That’s the work I still do now.

Behind all that has been the idea that we, as a society, could do many more things, positive things, if we work collaboratively. The Internet is a great means of bringing people together.

Now I do policy work, economic development and inclusive innovation. One of my partners has a concept called “Inclusive Competitiveness”. Basically, you get everyone in the community engaged in the activities that help the society and the environment and the emphasis is to do well. You don’t have to go to school and then think about what you are going to do. You actually get to understand what’s going on in your community a lot earlier. And find ways to learn about how you might be able to participate, whether through education, the relationships, the funding, whatever it takes to be able to participate fully.

So in my fantasy world, I can take a push pin and put it anywhere on a map and the person living in that house can see their way clear to the Internet economy. They can see themselves not only surviving, but thriving in whatever vehicle and method they want. So if you want to be an artist, that should be available to you. If you want to be a computer programmer, that should be available to you.

So when I talk about inclusive innovation, it’s really about recognizing that people see the world differently and have different wants and needs. And to be able to take the innovation and the technology and let them apply it in the way they choose.

What is Prosperity?

I’d say prosperity looks like access to the basics. The basics are a given. There’s the ability to provide food, shelter and clothing for everybody at some basic level. And then there are opportunities to go beyond the basics that are only limited by a person’s will and interest. So it’s really the ability to live in a world of abundance. And our focus is on creating and co-creating that abundance. But it’s also living in balance too. Recognizing there’s a difference between need and want. Some of that prosperity is really perception… I don’t want to be cliché and say it looks like people loving each other all the time, but it’s kind of like that. The idea that we can be socially, culturally, physically and ecologically prosperous and living in the space of abundance where our mental and emotional needs are met too—the need for human dignity and respect.

Part of the challenge is perception. I think it’s all in our heads. Until we can perceive something different, that difference is impossible. Until we’re actually willing to take action to create or co-create that different place or that different way of being, our tendency is to do more of what we did before. We can get very busy doing the thing we’ve done before, even though… Well, let’s give a good example.

Fossil fuels are finite. We will run out of them. We don’t act like we’re going to run out of them. But we will run out of them. So when will we actually do something different? Well, if I go by how humans as a collective act, we’ll run out of fuel and then we’ll figure it out. Now there’ll be people out there trying to do something different and we’ll find ways to… Well maybe we’ll listen to them, but most likely not, because it’s in some people’s best interest that we continue doing things the way we’re doing them.

Say I’m from another planet and I don’t really understand what this whole idea of money is for you folks because, quite honestly, you made it up. Right? So you’re going to actually use up all the resources that can move you around on the planet because you want this thing that you made up. Really? Does that make sense? Why not just print more?

It’s obviously more complex than that. But this whole idea that it’s all about money… You can choose to do something different and it may not make you money. But it may actually allow the human race to continue and thrive. It may allow communities to thrive. It may create better relationships between human beings and the planet. It could do all those things.

So I look up into space and look at all the stars and think: the perception is that there are unlimited resources up there. But it’s too expensive to go up there. So we’re going to fight over the stuff that’s right here on our planet. Again, to that space person, this make no sense. “Forget all that stuff up there. We’re going to fight over this.”

I also think we don’t think collectively. Think and act collectively. Our perceptions can be very different. I was just listening to National Public Radio earlier today and they were talking about some of the challenges in Kenya right now. I hate to do the religion thing, but…  Where did Islám come from? It’s rooted in the same traditions that Judaism is. And the same traditions that Christianity has. So you guys are killing each other over interpretations and different time inflections of the same root religion. Hmm… That’s very interesting… that you have so much in common, yet you want to fight over the differences.

Most Valuable Lesson

I’d say that the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is, again, about perception. We all have our own world. We all carry our own world with us. And these worlds can be very different. Before I understood this, I thought that either my world was the right world or that we all saw a similar world. Eventually I realized that’s not true. We all really live in our own worlds.

I believe I can influence other people’s perceptions. But I also get that I own mine. Everything out there is influencing my perception. So I manage my perception. And I’m open to other people seeing things very differently. So I’m not surprised when people don’t see things the same way I do. I might advocate strongly for my beliefs. Just like they might advocate for theirs.

When our perceptions bump up against each other, what do we do? Do I make you wrong for having a different perception? Do you make me wrong? Do we walk away with our own ideas and say the other person is nuts?  You look for common ground.

So it means I listen a lot. Try to understand. Be understanding. I try to be empathetic. And in some ways suspend judgment about it, about other people’s perceptions. And it’s about managing mine, too.

My hope is that we recognize that we have different perceptions, but that there are a lot of similarities in them. And that we use those similarities to bring us closer together to the extent possible for us as human beings.

I love the idea of continuous improvement and evolution. I think we can take a collective role in our evolution as a species and really connect not only with each other, but with everything else that’s out there. We can be very pedestrian and say it’s really about economic development, cultural development, community development… We can play that game, but that’s not really what it’s about. Not really. Not for me. I mean I’ll play that, because that’s the language people use… As opposed to: how do we co-create a world where we are really engaged with each other, playfully even, in evolving beyond what we are right now?

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