How can you disrupt yourself?

This is a powerful question.

It took me unawares. It’s the kind of question which you can’t let go of very easily.

It was the story which was told to illustrate this question which really got me thinking.

An artist friend started to look at his work and noticed that it was becoming just “more of the same”.
This is not a good place for any artist to find him or herself.
The artist decided to throw absolutely everything out of his studio and disrupt himself completely.
He even repainted his studio white – just like a blank canvas.
white canvas

This simple question and story got me thinking.

How could we all disrupt our lives, and, as a result take on change with a different mindset?

My reflection led me to think of some personal stories of disruption from my life. First off I had to understand what disruption really meant.

Disruption is “the action of preventing something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.”
The Cambridge Dictionary

Coming from a family which loves language, I researched the word disruption. What is its origin? My curiosity uncovered that the word disruption comes from the Latin disruptus which means “break apart, split, shatter, break to pieces”.

But it wasn’t the etymology which surprised me. I discovered the remarkable use of the word itself. The use of the word disruption initially appeared in the 1650s but it wasn’t until about 1820 when it became more commonplace.

Having enjoyed a fascinating read of Jeremy Rivkin’s book The Third Industrial Revolution, I asked myself: Could the commonplace use of the word disruption hark back to the first Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries?

My research led me to a reflection on the parallels between industrial and digital revolutions by Karl B. Murr, Director of the State Textile and Industry Museum in Augsburg (Germany) He notes:

“The emerging possibilities appear all the clearer when you examine similarities between the digital revolution and the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. This comparison gives reason to reflect on the disruption caused by such fundamental transformations. Starting from technical innovations, both revolutions describe not just partial but rather comprehensive changes that not only affect economies and the world of work, but also political and social processes and private life.

Disruption and transformation appear to come hand in glove, and according to this historian, contribute to “not just partial bur rather comprehensive changes.”

That’s why the artist threw everything out and started again with an empty white studio:
to change and transform his artistic endeavors.
Disruption in a white room

Which brings me to the my reflection on the simple question:

“How can your disrupt yourself?” and "How have I invited disruption into my life so far?"

Here are a couple of simple stories which I consider to have caused disruption in my life– some small, others more significant.

Learn to live & work in another language

Lima Munich

I have experienced this challenge twice. Once as a Fulbright Scholar going to Latin America to do post-graduate studies, fieldwork and gain experience working in a National Museum.

The other was a move from the United States to Germany

By acquiring some language knowledge before my time in Latin America, I was somewhat prepared to speak some spanish. When I arrived in Germany, I had to start from scratch and ended up going to an intensive language program. This was the easy part.

The disruption of both of these experiences was my new social milieu. I arrived “a stranger in a strange land” in both instances and knew absolutely no one. I had to learn how to cultivate relationships in different countries with other social behaviors. This was a tough disruptive challenge.

Travel to an unfamiliar part of the world

Grand Tour

I have been fortunate to have grown up in a family of travelers. We used to pack up the car and take off to explore new parts of the United States. My first experience of being in ‘another world’ was when we travelled to Quebec, Canada. It was the first time I had been somewhere where I didn’t understand the language.

But it was our family’s “Grand Tour” of Europe which was truly transformative. Not only did we move from country where a different language was spoken (Spanish, Italian, German, French), but each place was so different! I experienced a bullfight, an open air opera in a Roman ruin, paddled in Alpine lakes and marvelled at palaces of all sizes.

The disruption of these experiences was the encounter with the new and unexpected at every corner – from language, food, landscapes and people. I now live in one of the countries I visited as a child.

Go to a museum on a weird topic of no interest to you

Nairobi Rail Museum

Having grown up in New York, going to museums was something which I did regularly as a kid growing up – from marvelling at dinosaurs to pondering mummies to being captivated by Impressionist painters. I have always liked looking at objects and thinking about the era which they represented.

I learned that museums can be disruptive too.

I experienced this first hand when I travelled to Kenya for a project. I extended my stay since I had never been in this part of Africa before. I wanted to experience the animals and the landscape about which I had read and heard about from a friend who had lived there. But I also wanted to see the memories of Nairobi’s colonial history.

Part of this exploration was a visit to a train museum. I am not interested in trains at all. It wasn’t a well-designed museum. But the objects and old photographs which told the story of the history of building the train from Mombasa to Nairobi which captured my imagination.

Even though I stayed to experience the wildlife in situ, my understanding of the impact of colonialism in Africa was transformed by this single museum visit.

Read different kinds of books

Independen Bookstore

For those who like to read it is easy to get stuck in a certain genre - whether it be mysteries, criminal detective stories, romantic novels and the like. However once you encounter a book which opens a completely novel perspective for you, your reading quest inevitably shifts.

Even though I studied anthropology and pursued it professionally for a while, I hadn’t read read this kind of writing for a long time – until now. It wasn’t until I read Gillian Tett’s book “Anthrovision: How Anthropology can explain business and Life” which brought this systemic view of life which I had embraced early in my career vividly back into focus for me. 

Since then I have explored other books like “Braided Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental biology and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who addresses the interconnections between indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge.

I have found that exploring all kinds of books ranging from the networks of mother trees, neuroscience and the wellbeing economy disrupt my thinking by introducing novel ways to view the world.

Strive to meet different kinds of people

walking dogs

One of the key ideas of the webinar which sparked this reflection on disruption was intention. Approaching anything with intention can initiate disruption.

Being intentional about meeting different kinds of people will certainly expand your personal network. But more importantly, it just may open up new avenues of new understanding and maybe even a collaboration.

A Canadian colleague whom I met a year ago was a result of pure serendipity. I wasn’t looking to get to know his work; he just liked a posting which I had made on LinkedIn on Mental Health Day. I reached out to him and we started sharing resources with each other. When I was planning a large worldwide dialogue, he personally knew someone I wanted to serve as an idea catalyst for this discussion. It was his introduction which led to a fruitful collaboration with this award winning scientist.

The disruption element was a result of sensing serendipity and the potential of a chance encounter. This chance meeting enabled me to transform the way I conceive high-quality dialogues.

Try out a new hobby or activity

scuba diving day and night

I had to wait a long time for this disruptive element to enter my life. It started with snorkeling off an island in Hawaii. I saw fish swimming at the bottom and wanted to go down and take a look, but couldn’t reach them. Not enough air! I told myself: I need to learn how to scuba dive so that I can swim with the fish.

The time finally came when I had the time (and money) to learn how to scuba dive. I learned the basics in a near-by swimming pool. With this certificate I was able to dive in open water.

When I arrived at my inaugural scuba diving location, I had enjoyed the opportunity of finally being able to swim with the fish underwater and marvel at the underwater environment. 

But unbeknownst to me, disruption was waiting.

It was my first night dive. The idea of entering dark water (even though I had a lamp) was terrifying. I sat at the edge of the water and couldn’t even stand in the water which I had done with ease during the day. An experienced diver saw my fear, came to me and carefully helped me get underwater. He held my hand the whole time. He enabled me to shatter my fear and experience underwater life at night. I love to dive at night now.

Disruption is getting beyond your own sense of comfort and breaking through. It’s a lot easier when trusted friends (or colleagues) accompany you on this learning journey.

Change the focus of your work

Idea for new job

This takes courage and a lot of sensing about what is right (and interesting) for you at a certain time in your life.

As I previously mentioned, I started my academic studies as an anthropologist. An experience in Peru convinced me that I aspired to work in museums rather than doing academic fieldwork. After my graduate studies, I worked in museums and finally in a company which created exhibitions for museums.

Fast forward to Germany. I continued my work with museums but with another focus: visitor research. It was a field I had always been interested in pursuing. I ended up working for numerous national parks and museums to improve their visitor experience. During this work, I gained considerable experience with qualitative research and facilitation of groups of all sizes.

The disruption originated in an undynamic market. It was clear that I needed to re-focus my efforts and searched for other opportunities.

I currently use the skills and experience which I cultivated to work as the Creative Engagement Enabler at  Ensemble Enabler. If you had asked at the beginning of my career that I would land working as part of an Enabling Company, I would have laughed. But disruption brought me to work which I love and enjoy.

Lastly how could one speak about disruption without mentioning the pandemic?

As mentioned previously, I enjoy reading books from a broad spectrum of topics. Before the pandemic, I had read about an insurance company CEO who had a terrible accident. He tried a variety of things to deal with his pain and healing. After many months, he had recovered his health and asked himself: Why don’t we as an insurance company offer these kinds of services to our employees? The book mentioned his personal experience with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Just this mention in a book was disruptive. The next day I researched where I could take this course and participated in the next available cohort.

But it was the challenge of the pandemic with which I would like to end my reflection on the question “How can your disrupt yourself?” 

learning from homr

Once again it was serendipity which created disruption.

Like many of us, I took advantage of many live events online during the course of the pandemic. It was a wonderful opportunity for exploration. I became aware of an online conference about mindfulness and because of my experience with MSBR, decided to attend. There were many interesting presentations but one especially captured my imagination. It was an overview of a neuroscientist’s work on the pillars of wellbeing. I became fascinated by the combination of neuroscience and mindfulness which was the focus of research of the Center for Healthy Minds

I discovered that this research had resulted in the development of an app based on the Healthy Minds Framework of the 4 pillars of wellbeing.  During the pandemic, it became a daily habit to listen to their lecturettes and meditations. Nowadays, I can't imagine a day without cultivating a healthy mind.

Disruption can be positive and transformational

I end with this positive example of disruption because embracing disruption is probably one of the most important capacities we all need to actively cultivate during this era of constant change. As some of the stories which I have shared illustrate, disruption can be challenging and often very discouraging.

We live in challenging times. But unlike the disrupted society of the first industrial revolution, we have the good fortune (and many more options) to transform disruption into opportunities - not only for each one of us personally but for the the communities and work environments in which we live and work.

How will you disrupt yourself?

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