Disruptive Thinkers

posted on July 26, 2012 in Professional/Career Development

Guest post by Ben Kohlmann

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

“Experts” in foreign policy have been wrong time and again – and these occurrences are accelerating. Lack of communication between agencies, navigating bureaucratic channels and an inability to predict flashpoints throughout the world only exacerbate this trend. This begs the question of whether we should, in fact, be prognosticating a future, or rather, focus our efforts on building a robust, resilient community of knowledge able to adaptably react to inevitable surprises.

Expertise is important, but in the absence of more subtle and pervasive foundations, can lead to wildly wrong applications. Just as entrepreneurs pivot to new market opportunities, so too must our foreign policy establishment embrace methods that encompass a wide range of professions, and learn to recognize trajectories as they occur.

I call this developing a Disruptive Mindset, but whatever your preferred term, the following are things I’ve learned over the past ten years:

1. 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 predicted and prepared for twentieth century style conflict in the 21st were caught completely off-guard by the emergence of non-state networks of simple, yet robust terrorist organizations.

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.

Professionally, we should also learn about topics that at first blush have nothing to do with our job. In doing so, we start to draw inferences and see connections. Jonah Lehrer calls this, “conceptual blending.” It would perhaps never occur to an international relations professional to learn the intricacies of cognative psychology, yet by never exploring things like Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought, the practitioner would miss an important element in how Eastern minds differ from our own. This could have very real implications for how strategy is created, and how we respond to perceived provocations. 

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

This should be second nature for those conducting international policy, and usually is. Yet, the foreign services still keep many of their professionals at home. Just as language is perfected by being immersed in both direct contact with the culture and native speakers, so too is a better understanding of the world understood by frequent interactions in places not comfortable for us.

Travel exposes the participant to new opportunities, but also imparts a greater appreciation for the deficiencies, and 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, along with 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.

All too often our friends tend to be those within our professional silos. It’s easy to talk shop around the water cooler, or go out with the same groups of people over and over again. However, we miss opportunities for collaboration when we fail to engage with our peers having other talents.

One of Disruptive Thinkers’ goals is to bring people of wildly different professional backgrounds together to interact. There is no pure direction we mandate, and this freedom allows ad hoc partnerships to develop. As a pilot, I recently teamed up with an architect to imagine the “hangar of the future.” We also explored ways to take military skills and apply them to blighted American cities. We’ve seen business people team up with educational innovators and create a crowdsourced scholarship fundraising drive in conjunction with a Start-up weekend competition for at-risk high school students.

Collaboration and understanding the connections between disparate interests will define success in the Twenty First century. This is even more true in the international cooperation as our world becoming increasingly interconnected.

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 career 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 affect 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

Bureaucracies thrive 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.

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.

As mentioned at the outset, this is not a process that occurs overnight. 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.