These Stars Are ‘Breaking Big,’ and Maybe You Can, Too

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. It’s a sentiment everyone has heard at some time or another, usually right after something hasn’t quite gone to plan. And it’s always easier said than done.

Failure and all the less-than-delightful things that go with it are pretty much a sure thing in life. And sometimes failing is just the thing to put you on the correct path, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment.

Luckily for all of us, there are people in media, politics and culture who, when faced with an obstacle or failure, learned, grew and moved forward.

Portrait photo of Trevor Noah. Breaking Big pbs rewire
Trevor Noah. Photo courtesy of Ozy Media.

It’s those stories that inspired “Breaking Big,” a new PBS series of 30-minute documentaries that take a look at how some of the biggest names in their respective industries got to be where they are today: Trevor Noah leaping from the freshly minted Johannesburg stand-up scene to the desk of “The Daily Show”; Christian Siriano’s journey from Fashion Institute of Technology reject to a favorite designer of Hollywood stars; and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s ascension from conservative upstate New York to the Senate seat formerly held by Hillary Clinton.

In “Breaking Big,” their stories and others are held up and analyzed as examples of how one person, with enough perseverance and innovation, can break through barriers and rise to the top of their field.

Innovating yourself

And while not everyone’s path will lead to international stardom, an unconventional path can be the best one for just about anyone. In her book “Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work,” executive coach and speaker Whitney Johnson described the theory of disruptive innovation, often applied to ideas, as it applies to people.

Essentially, Johnson’s theory says the most successful innovations create new markets, value networks and upend existing ones. When applied to people, that innovation becomes the person themself. Whether it’s Eddie Huang channeling his childhood into a successful restaurant and a groundbreaking TV show or Danai Gurira filling the void of African voices she saw on stage and screen with her own, each “Breaking Big” subject, whether they meant to or not, followed similar steps to become a disruptor.

In a piece for Harvard Business Review, Johnson identified four principles of self-disruption. Keep them in mind as you strive toward your goals. You may just break big.

  1. “Target a need that can be met more effectively”

Gurira wanted to see more African voices in media. Gretchen Carlson wanted to see change in a sexist, unfair work environment. Ruth Zukerman wanted to bring her fitness passion to people in a way they hadn’t experienced before.

Whatever it is that drives you, excites you or makes you different, focus on that. There’s value in looking at the world in a different way than the norm. Find a problem and make yourself the solution.

  1. “Identify your disruptive strengths”

Just because you identify a problem does not mean that you have the skills to solve it. You may want to create an algorithm that predicts epidemics in order to better prepare hospitals to respond, but with no significant math, science or public health skills, that’s not really an attainable goal.

Figure out what skills you have that others don’t.  For Siriano it was a discerning eye and a willingness to break fashion’s rules about who clothes were for and what they should look like. For Jason Aldean, it was a look and sound that didn’t fit what his label had laid out for him. Your disruptive strengths are those valuable differences that lead to innovation.

  1. “Step back (or sideways) in order to grow”
Portrait photograph of Danai Guira. Breaking Big pbs rewire
Danai Gurira. Photo courtesy of Ozy Media.

Others’ resistance to change is what opens the door to your own innovation and eventual success. Don’t get stuck. Constantly challenge yourself and work toward new skills and goals. Disrupt yourself by welcoming discomfort or testing out a new path.

Michael Strahan is the perfect example here. Not content to simply be a good football player who retired, Strahan moved from playing to commentating and eventually landed spots on morning talk shows.

He’s now a certified TV personality and has pivoted from a career that’s notoriously short-lived to one that he can be successful in for years to come. Having the courage and confidence to do something uncomfortable in order to better yourself in the long run can lead to success in a way you may have never imagined.

  1. “Let your strategy emerge”

It’s important to have plans and goals, but what is maybe more important is being flexible and adaptable with those plans. A business may fail. An idea may not be embraced. Reviews may come back terrible. You may have to choose between opportunities when the path is unclear. Take those experiences and work with them to make yourself and your innovation better.

The first time Jon Stewart contacted Noah about joining the team at “The Daily Show,” Noah turned him down. After all, why would he stop touring when he enjoyed what he was doing? It was only later on a visit to New York that Noah established the relationship with Stewart that would lead to his eventual seat at the desk. Grow. Adapt. Say yes. Say no. Just don’t get stuck in one spot because it’s part of a plan that may need changing.

“Breaking Big” airs Fridays on PBS. Check your local station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times, or watch online at

Christine Jackson

Christine Jackson is a Missouri-based writer and editor who loves the arts but never seems to write about them. Her holy trinity includes the St. Louis Blues, David Bowie and whoever invented iced coffee. You can find her on Twitter sharing snarky quote tweets @cjax1694.