re: act – disrupt yourself

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.




2 thoughts on “re: act – disrupt yourself

  1. The whole ‘means to an end’ or ‘end to a means’ question comes into play. If we lose the vision of what we want our end to look like, well there rests our issue. Vision. Maybe growth isn’t the absolute answer but losing our sense of self. Our sense of vigor, what makes us go and do. If you can’t answer the age old ‘who are you?’ question by the time you’re 50, we have bigger fish to fry. Not necessarily becoming one’s ‘best’ self but a true self? Of course growing entails knowing who you are, but you can’t grow if you don’t know where you’re starting from. I read recently that this generation will be the first to not make more than their parents have. Hopefully this will give us time and spur us on to overtake the circular vs. linear lifestyle struggle and come out victorious!

  2. Sorry for the delayed response, Nichole–really appreciate your comment. There’s a lot to consider here, but I want to respond to your idea that we can’t grow if we don’t know where we are starting from.

    It’s troubling to think that we can be supremely logical people about what will bring meaning to our lives, and only realize later that we are getting it entirely wrong, as you mention, because we don’t understand the proper starting point.

    We are born. We grow up. We go to grade-school. And we form most of our important beliefs about the world and our place in it during this time. Paradoxically, this somewhat relaxed period where we have the most time to think is also the period when we are least experienced in how to think and how to filter our thought meaningfully.

    About the time we start thinking about what happens after high school, everything about ‘life’ becomes accelerated. We are expected to form ideas about what we want to do and study and become. And all of these decisions are clouded by the context created by external expectations. This seems to be where all of the ‘doing’ starts to go awry. It’s such a time of forward progress, that we often move through it without thinking to consider primal existential questions.

    And it seems to be these questions that bubble up later and shake the validity of the logic that carried us up to the crisis point. Arguably, this ‘mistake trajectory’ might make us more capable of doing our real ‘life’s work.’ I think that can be true. But, I also passionately believe that we can know the right trajectory sooner if we attempt to answer the primal questions sooner.

    Descartes makes an interesting example, since he devoted 5+ years of his life to re-starting by questioning his very existence. It was during this time of wandering that his life’s work was revealed to him in a series of dreams. And, I doubt that dream was a 20 year plan. But, it seems that he emerged capable of living and moving according to this new vision. In other words, I doubt Descartes emerged from his period of wandering with a roadmap to becoming the world’s greatest philosopher/theologian/mathematician/scientist. Instead, he emerged with a firm grasp of his appropriate life trajectory and traveled it faithfully until his death. He went on to revolutionize theology, philosophy, science, and mathematics to such an extent that, while his officially reported cause of death was natural causes, others believe he could have been poisoned by an arsenic-laced communion wafer administered by a Catholic priest. I hope I will one day have bold enough ideas that someone wants to poison me.

    Perhaps most interesting, is that Descartes, as one of our most historically remembered scientists/mathematicians, was more devoted to mastering himself than the actual knowledge of science and mathematics. That he took time to wander and answer primal questions is an excellent proof of the paradox between taking time and losing time. Many worry about getting ahead or doing what they are told because they don’t want to waste time. But, if an empirical study existed, I think we would see similar achievement levels between wanderers and career-ladderists (and my presumption is that ‘wanderers’ are those taking time to answer primal questions, not aimless bums). But–on the metrics of ultimate importance and relevance of contributions to moving society forward–I believe the wanderers would prove far ahead, because they focus on the right ends, using enlightened means that can only come through exploring primal questions.

    Agree? Disagree? Would enjoy hearing more from you…

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