Friday, February 17, 2012

Developing a Disruptive Mindset

The rebel secretly quite wants the world and the system to remain as it is.  Its permanence, after all, is the guarantee of his continuing ability to "rebel."  The revolutionary, in contrast, really wishes to overthrow and replace existing conditions.
-Christopher Hitchens, via Jean-Paul Sarte

Before you can be Disruptive, you must embrace a Disruptive mindset.  This is one of those things that takes concerted effort and time.  It also is not a widespread trait in general society.   Yet even the most iconoclast of us can think in this manner if we truly want to.

My own journey began senior year of college.  Before this, I was your standard strait-laced Midwestern kid.  I grew up with a conservative, established religion. I never rebelled against my parents.  I always did what I was told.  I supported the establishment and felt uncomfortable around "rebels" and unorthodox thinkers.  I never smoked anything, didn't drink until I was 21.  These things served me well.  But I was missing something fundamental about the world.

Two things started this Disruptive transformation in 2003: I met a girl who showed me new opportunities, and met a mentor who introduced me to the habit of challenging established orthodoxy.  In the former case, fundamental questions I had never considered reared their head.  In the latter, I was exposed to leaders that shaped our world, but only because they willingly challenged the incumbent powers -- often at great professional risk -- and because they believed they were right.  One person with a right opinion outvotes a majority.

Nine years later, Disruptive Thinkers was born over a beer as a buddy and I complained about the outdated military pension model.  I'm the last person any of my high school peers would have expected to be a Disruptive personality.  Yet now, it's pretty much all I think about.

Here's what I've learned along the way:

1.  Never Stop Questioning Core Beliefs.

Simply stated, and to once again quote Hitchens: "In order to be a 'radical,' one must be open to the possibility that one's own core assumptions are misconceived."  This is the most important element about being Disruptive.

This does not mean that your assumptions are in fact misconceived, only an acknowledgement that they may be.  In doing so, you can begin the process of learning, and potentially discovering something revolutionary.  You may find you need to alter your outlook as new facts emerge.  You may also find your beliefs are true -- and more strongly held.  In either case, as Frank Herbert notes, "Knowing is a barrier that prevents learning."

Those who knew monarchies were Divine couldn't fathom democracy.  The French along the Maginot Line who knew the Germans would resort to trench warfare just prior to World War II never imagined Blitzkreig.  Americans who knew that housing prices would never fall failed to learn from past bubbles.  Those who know that blind allegiance to a Party will give them success miss the joy and opportunities of being a free thinker. 

Learning opens us up to people and philosophies we had never considered before.  It leads us to question why anti-immigration and pro-life policies must be inextricably linked, or why being pro-union means a person must also be against voter-ID laws.

To learn best, however, we must embrace the next element as well:

2.  Be Extremely Well Read -- Especially of Those You Disagree With

If you are a conservative, Paul Krugman should be on your daily reading list.  If a liberal, Charles Krauthammer.  If you are a Christian, you should read Brian Greene on Cosmology.  If an aethiest, Lewis' Mere Christianity.  If a Socialist, Milton Friedman's Free to Choose.  If a Capitalist, The Communist Manifesto.

The crazy thing about this is that there will be moments, if you are truly objective, when you find yourself nodding in agreement with the opposition.  I am a professing Christian, yet Hitchen's diatribe against religion in "Letters to a Young Contrarian" hit home.  This is where we grow in our beliefs, and even adapt them to new understandings of the world.  It also allows us to defend them more adeptly when they come under attack.

The more we read, and the more diverse the opinions, the better we become at discerning logical arguments from specious ones.  Furthermore, if you want to really be Disruptive, read about subjects well beyond your expertise.  Communications majors should probably learn a bit about physics.  Engineers about behavioral psychology.  You'll soon pick up patterns and cross-over applications you never imagined  You may even find yourself questioning assumptions you never thought possible. 

3.  Never Miss an Opportunity to Travel Outside Your Home Country

When I was first assigned to the West Coast, I was devastated for a number of reasons -- not least of which was that my deployments would be to Asia and not Europe.  But after seeing Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, Dubai, Bahrain, Thailand and Malaysia, I was hooked.

Sure, there are differences in cultures and religious traditions.  But many things remain the same.  Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Hindu, all people want what's best for their kids.  They walk them to the park, gather for family picnics, want good schooling and opportunity.  Men everywhere like fighter planes.

You also gain a greater appreciation for the deficiencies, but even more so, the advantages of your home country.  You see your culture from the perspective of others, and can evaluate it more objectively -- pinpointing the elements you want to improve upon, those that deserve bolstering.

4.  Make Friends with People You Wouldn't Normally Associate With

I was once manning a static display at an airshow in Bahrain.  A man approached, wearing the uniform of an Iranian Air Force officer. We struck up a conversation, and in the course of a few minutes, discovered we had much in common.  This was an "enemy." Yet, somehow we got along and learned from each other.  Surprising things happen when you reach out.

One of the core tenants of the Disruptive Thinkers group in San Diego is that it is strictly non-partisan.  Politics is not allowed to be mentioned.  This facilitates friendships between people with good ideas regardless of political affiliation.  Some of our most brilliant members are diametrically opposed to my core beliefs, but their ideas make sense.  It shouldnt matter who gets the credit for a good idea.  Simply implement it, be gracious, and work to improve on concepts cooperatively.   

5.  Recognize That Change is the Only Constant

Daniel Ford notes that "the fundamental, unavoidable and all-pervasive presence of uncertainty is a starting point" for understanding the world.  I've learned over the past few years that adaptability in the face of uncertainty is one of the most valuable skills anybody can possess.

I used to have a grand plan.  No longer.  Too many opportunities pop up that require considering possibilities outside the way "things are supposed to be."  Do I have goals and aspirations?  Of course.  But to limit possible outcomes because in the past I had a desire to be one thing instead of another is absurd.  Some say luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  You have to be ready to jump on board, whether you think you are ready or not.  

6.  Take Risks -- Ask for Forgiveness Rather than Permission

Here's the thing about risk:  the word implies there is a possibility of failure.  And most humans hate failure.  But in my experience, risk leads to more success.  It exposes you to more types of people, more opportunity, and an increasing appetite for further risk.  You can test your assumptions, change them, even strengthen them.  It takes iron to sharpen iron -- and a mindset of calculated risk sharpens our ability to effect change.   

Taking risks slowly acclimates your body to reacting calmly in stressful situations.  Landing a jet on a pitching deck at night with no visibility makes virtually everything else in life seem like a cake-walk -- even combat.  Take that leap, fight the urge to run and hide, and everything else becomes easier.  When you've faced down your greatest fears, it's a lot easier to speak up at a board meeting when your boss is about to make a horrendous decision.

7.  Encourage and Learn From Failure

We live in a very risk averse, no-defect culture.  But our greatest lessons are learned when we fail.  When we fail, it means we probably took a risk -- did something outside our comfort zone.  Yet even in that failure, we grow.  We reassess, recalibrate, try a different method.  We learn perseverance, and sometimes, as with the discovery of something like penicillin, accidentally save the world in the midst of failure.

Thinking Disruptively is not a process that takes place over night.  These habits need to be ingrained daily, over the course of months and even years.  But one day you wake up, and are able to call shenanigans on those in power.  You find yourself going from a mere rebel to an actual revolutionary, with the tools necessary to effect real and lasting change. Most of all, you discover things about yourself you never thought possible, and get addicted to the discovery of the unknown.  

Being Disruptive has costs.  You may lose friends.  You may upend an institution.  You may find yourself an outcast.  But at the very heart of this mindset is being true to one's own self.  Fight for what you believe in and never stop learning.  Push the envelope, experience new adventures and see what happens.  It will probably pleasantly surprise you. . 


  1. I haven't been as 'disruptive' as I could have been. But, this post gives me the 'starter set' to start thinking a bit differently. Especially, #1 (why do we do things this way, or why are we like this?), and #2 (being an expert of our own philosophies or beliefs may seem advantageous, but understanding the other team's play book could mean the difference between winning and losing). I think I have made progress with #5 & #7. #3, #4 and #6 will need some work. Thanks for this post.

  2. Ben, Thanks for the post and for this blog. I've been following since the start and your writing is well structured and fascinating. Looking forward to see what's next. It is also helping inspire me to get myself back into blogging and examining these issues more publicly. -Peter Miller (NU SigEp '03)

  3. These are words to live by. This is the sort of blog post that needs to be spread around.

  4. this article is good and rejunivating my thought process, i always am a disruptive thinker