To kick off the re: act series, I want to share some thoughts spurred by Whitney Johnson’s recent HBR article on disrupting yourself. Whitney really nailed the topic, and it got me thinking about three salient things I have been trying to wrap my mind around:
1. What is behind this trend toward people waking up at 50 and realizing their life trajectory is off? It seems the number of mid-life crises are at an all time high. It seems that people are realizing the path they were told to go down or thought they should go down isn’t capable of satisfying them.
2. How I feel about modern protests like Occupy Wall St.
3. Why was I so stubborn about finding the right place to plug-in to the job market–taking poverty over the easy money, just to buy time and flexibility to navigate around the possibility of getting stuck in a lifeless trajectory? Why was I so cocksure that a year spent wandering in utter ambiguity would be worth saving the time and expense of re-inventing myself later?
Here are some thoughts [adapted from my response on Whitney’s blog]:
Whitney’s key comment, for me, came near the end when she said, “the most overlooked engine of growth is the individual.” While this could be interpreted several ways, I took it to mean that we often overlook our own capacity to grow (rather than the Randian interpretation that society as a whole under-appreciates the individual). So, let’s consider the individual…
One of the most important things I have learned in the last year is the world is essentially made of two kinds of ‘successful’ people–those who rigorously apply themselves to becoming the best selves they can be, and those who rigorously apply themselves to becoming the most knowledgeable they can be in some field of absolute, existing natural order.
To generalize, the first category tend to be creatives—artists, musicians, writers, etc. The second tend to be doctors, scientists, etc (more interested in mastering nature than themselves). You don’t necessarily have to be spiritually in touch with yourself to engineer a vaccine. You do need to be aware of the natural order of the human body. Similarly, Bob Dylan didn’t have to be aware of the intricate science behind human behavior to sing some of the truest statements about humans ever recorded. He had only to know himself. Both catgories demand rigorous application—just toward different ends.
Conversely, I would categorize ‘failed’ people as those who do not rigorously apply themselves toward either end—which is perhaps why I cringe at modern American protestors who demonstrate with a pseudo-rigor. They pretend to be beings of rigor—but surely rigor toward whining can’t be classified as a 3rd success trajectory. And, until Americans lose the freedom to become beings of rigor, democracy has not failed—no matter how mangled it’s face might get from being trampled by all who coast through America full of such pseudo-rigor, letting the sweet wind of freedom blow through their hair and tickle their noses, but never once thinking to open their mouth wide and drink it in by actually applying themselves toward a useful end. But, I digress.
I believe the dilemma we see in business is that it demands rigorous application toward neither defined end. Do you become a master of finance or markets, or a master of yourself to succeed? Increasingly, I believe we have seen the answer—at least for those who wish to sustain their success—is both. And, how difficult it is to travel the two paths simultaneously! But, when we do, we become the kind of beings that are capable of disrupting ourselves. And, even perhaps the entire natural order. We become capable of progress.
I know the dilemma well—I didn’t wait 20 years to find out that disruption is a powerful personal strategy (not to criticize anyone who does, only to say I’m glad I didn’t have to).
I graduated last year, and rather than do the resume-builder jobs I was supposed to do as a graduate, I did the opposite—looked for a foothold at the lowest end of the market for the product management trajectory I wanted to be on; the place where corporate bureaucracy couldn’t touch me and nothing could slow down my journey toward learning; the place where nobody envied the target market of my labor.
Because of this commitment, I have occasionally been ashamed to return to my childhood home for dinner and a place to sleep for a few weeks at a time. I have occasionally been hungry—both for food and for the time to love others outside of the importance of my daily survival. I have also been reduced to tears more than once by the pain of watching others sprint away with what looks and smells like instant success to them, and not having the words or patience to describe to them that it will all crumble one day, because they are not people of rigorous application on both trajectories, or sometimes either trajectory—and others still, so resigned to comfortable fate they don’t even possess pseudo-rigor, becoming what Hunter S. Thompson called the walking dead.
But, I have also had a year of experience that is equal to twenty—if you consider what I have learned about both the natural order and myself. I have trekked across China on my own dime, while leading a multi-national team to discover and develop a viable go-to-market strategy for a biomedical device. I have helped a wild-eyed 50 year-old visionary launch a business from the ashes of a flailing 3-year effort. He recently went from hoping his sales prospects paid for lunch, to closing a consulting gig to teach his methodology. I have advised the CEO of a $300 million INC 100 company on new growth strategies. I have $1.57 in the bank and few remaining friends as witnesses.
Not that I have lost friends–just that they are on a circular trajectory, blind to a linear lifestyle. Incapable of understanding that I didn’t do all this to find comfort–I did it to arrive at a new place where I was no longer restricted by the need for comfort…where the fear of change could no longer grip me. That is a feeling many will never have. I have it at 23. And I wouldn’t trade that freedom for, as the world-weary and world-wise disruptor King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, anything under the sun–even if it’s the kind of imprisoning freedom that actually tastes more like the cold dog soup Guy Clark sings about in his song by the same name.
But, the last thing I want is to impose this view on others. I hope anyone on such a circular trajectory will remain circular forever, staying blissfully unaware that a linear one exists. However, I have a feeling deep down–one that feels like the raw and gasping soreness of a clenched fist to the unexpecting gut–that many will wake up one day, as Colin Wilson describes in The Outsider, alive to such questions and forced to reckon with the disharmony caused by them. And, re-work is hell. The cost of disrupting yourself is not paid with the same tangible dollars poured into products. It is paid with more blood, sweat, and tears than you were capable of when you set out. If you haven’t been awakened by now, I pray you don’t awaken at all. But, if there are things in you to be stirred, let them stir now.