Disrupt Yourself: 5 Ways to Become Your Own Agent of Disruption

Disruption is a bad thing, right? Well, it depends. Are you the disruptor or the disrupted? In startups, disruptors reap the massive benefits of doing things a new way. Name any unicorn company, like Apple, Amazon, or Uber — in fact, name any great company, and behind its success is a story of disruption. But remember, companies don’t disrupt, people do. People who disrupt stand to reap massive benefits for not following the status quo. Reid Hoffman in his book, The Startup of You, advises everyone to think of themselves and their career as their own startup. And Tara Parker-Pope recently wrote, we can use ‘design thinking’ to better ourselves through personal reinvention. I believe that it’s imperative to become your own Agent of Disruption. Yes, I know, it sounds like a fun spy game. Let’s play!

In my book, Disrupt Yourself!, I outlined seven variables for harnessing the powers of disruption. Because you can never know too much about how to ride the waves of change, below are some practical tips from entrepreneurs who have “Disrupt yourself” as one of their favorite mantras.

Gillian Morris, CEO and Founder, HitList

Try Something New
Gillian Smith, CEO, HitList

‘Studies have shown that being in unfamiliar places helps you think creatively. Neurologically, you make new connections between unfamiliar frameworks as you move through new territory, and it can impact how you think in your ‘normal’ life as well.

‘I’ve found that travel makes me more resourceful, and keeps me calm and grounded through the inevitable ups and downs of being an entrepreneur.

Stuck in traffic on the way to a critical meeting? Inconvenient, but not as bad as having food poisoning in Afghanistan and discovering the nearest hospital is in territory controlled by the Taliban. Experiences like that put the rest of your problems in perspective. Being outside your comfort zone reinforces what’s important. It’s said that travel is cheaper than therapy, and though it won’t cure everything, I think there’s a lot to be said for travel as a health benefit.’

If you’re feeling stuck then try something new. It literally feels good to disrupt. When you learn you get a squirt of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you happy. You may think you crave certainty, control, and tasks you can easily complete, but agents of disruption know that moving into terra incognita — the unexplored territory — feels better. A study done by Kennon M. Sheldon and colleagues found that self-expression and creativity may increase positive feelings leading people to act more responsibly, cooperatively, and cheerfully. Launching into the unknown, not only makes you feel good; it inspires your team too. It’s restorative, both emotionally and physically. If you are feeling stuck, focus on who you want to become, not who you are. It will help you move from stuck to unstuck.

Keep Good Company
Anna Curran, Founder, Cookbook Create

‘I surround myself with people who inspire me to live life to the fullest, dream big and go for it. Each friend has their own super power. Deborah Jackson, Founder of Plum Alley, encourages me to push the limits of big thinking and dreaming. Jessica Randazza, CMO Dannone, constantly inspires me to play and cultivate my creative side. Sloane Davidson lends her rose-colored glasses often and renews my faith in the world as a beautiful place.’

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn once famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” It’s true, and what’s good for you is good for them. Research has shown that emotions are contagious. As you enjoy the feel-good effects of disruption, others will too. When you share your dreams of disruption with you mentors, friends and team, you release the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which activates higher levels of trust. Sharing makes other people feel trusted and that makes them feel good, too.

Follow Your Passion
Vanessa Quigley, Co-Founder, Chatbooks

‘I had no intention of joining my husband in a start-up when the last of my seven children started school. I was going to get into yoga, local theatre, and enjoy my newfound free time. But one day I discovered that I had no printed pictures of my youngest child. All he had to show for his young life was a tattered little snapshot taken by his preschool teacher. I used to make elaborate scrapbooks when I was a younger mom, but as life got busier I quit printing pictures all together. So I went to my entrepreneur husband with an idea: could we make creating photo books as easy as taking the photos?

‘My passion for my family and my desire to help people hold on to their memories — quickly, easily, and affordably — drove me to disrupt headfirst into the chaotic, exciting world of a startup. Incidentally, we’ve disrupted the photo book industry, having sold over a million books, and attracted hundreds of thousands of subscribers.’

It doesn’t always follow that we are good at the things we care about, but it’s an excellent place to start. Successful agents of disruption are those who identify an unmet need that can be filled by their unique talent set. Don’t be dismissive of your passions — chances are that you’re not the only one who cares. If you’re dissatisfied with how existing products and/or services address your needs, then others have the same concerns. Your solution may be the solution everyone is looking for. Don’t we all wish we’d invented Velcro?

Travel the Non-Linear Path
Renee DiResta, Haven

‘Some people have always known what they’re born to do. They specialize early and quickly acquire deep experience. Not me. My latest career move was to help start a company in an industry I’d never previously worked in: transportation logistics.

‘I studied computer science, but a serendipitous interview led me to finance. As a trader from 2004–2011, I watched technology transform the market. I left finance to pursue a hobby, tracking inefficient private market trading of startups. As I worked with dozens of founders, themes emerged. Manufacturing and distribution are still very hard; production delays are common. Teams rely on outmoded methods to meet their deadlines.

‘When Haven’s founders looked at the freight industry, there were many parallels to early financial markets. Transportation logistics was begging to be transformed from an opaque phone-and-email market, through the creation of a technologically sophisticated exchange that reduced overhead costs of time and money and improved efficiency.

‘Depth of experience is incredibly important for a company’s success, and Haven has team members with decades of supply chain and freight experience. But breadth of experience helped me visualize how an innovation that transformed one industry might benefit another. Don’t be afraid of a non-linear path.’

You don’t have to invent something new to be an agent of disruption; you only have to be willing to reinvent yourself. Sometimes that means deploying earned skills in a new enterprise, entirely unrelated to prior experience, but susceptible to the same problems — and solutions — that you’ve encountered previously. Your fresh eyes and mind focused in a new situation may be able to make connections that those with long experience are too fatigued to spot. Agility and adaptability are hallmarks of disruptors. And when it comes to technology, the only thing that isn’t news is that we have to keep up with it.

Taylor Reynolds, the Director of Technology Policy, MIT Internet Policy Research Initiative says, “The verdict is still out on the long-term effects of technological innovation on jobs, but those who can pick up new skills and pivot themselves towards jobs that use these new technologies will be the ultimate winners in our increasingly digital economy.

Invest in Yourself
Jane Barratt, Founder & CEO GoldBean

‘Moving to Asia in my mid-20’s was life-changing. Money and investments were topics of everyday conversation. I adopted the local habit of investing, even though I had no previous experience or real understanding.

‘We’re well-trained as consumers. Aggressive marketing blurs the lines between our wants and our needs. Investing forced me to look differently at how I spent money. I still bought the shoes and bags I loved, but I started to ask who made them. Are they public companies? Worth investing in? Consumers drive the success of investors. Recognizing that fact slowed down my impulse purchasing and prioritized putting money into a trading account versus a shopping spree.

‘When I moved to the U.S., I built my company to encourage people to think differently about money, and to use what they knew and did as a consumer as a starting point to invest in themselves, rather than just the shareholders of the companies they like to patronize.’

Making an investment in yourself is the most basic reason for self-disruption. A direct portfolio investment is only one possibility. When we are agents of disruption we can reap a windfall of benefits: new opportunities, career advancement, financial advantage, personal satisfaction. Doing something new produces a different outcome, an outcome over which we have some control. In this, agents of disruption differ from objects of disruption — the former chooses to act, while the latter is acted upon, without their input.

Conclusion

It may sound “evil empire”-ish, but being an agent of disruption is a very powerful positive force. When you disrupt yourself, you not only cope with the forces of disruption, you enable yourself to harness its power and unpredictability to propel you forward, and potentially those around you, too. What are you waiting for? Join the game. Disrupt yourself.

For further study, see:

1. Listen to Harvard Business Review’s Disrupt Your Career and Yourself.
2. Read Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.
3. Read Quartz Magazine’s To Get Ahead in Your Career, You Must First Disrupt.
4. Read Linkedin’s If You’re Scared and Lonely, You’re Probably on the Right Path.

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Whitney Johnson is the author of the critically-acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and in 2015 was inducted into Thinkers50 as one the world’s leading management thinkers. If you want to receive bi-weekly updates (here’s a sample!), leave a comment, and say, sign me up.

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