The Positive Power of Disrupting Yourself
For my mom’s special birthday, she decided we should all go ziplining. I should explain that this was a highly unusual suggestion from my mom. We are not the most adventurous sort in my family. Even after we signed up for it, I did not give it much thought until we were on the drive up the mountain. Then I started to panic a bit. Were we really going to go through with this?
As they walked us through the process, I realized stepping off the platform would be the hardest part. It was the willingness to let go. I had hoped perhaps the staff would push you off to make things easier, but they do not. You stand on the square platform, hanging on to the handlebars and then you physically release your legs in order to propel yourself forward.
When we let go of the things we fear, the way we have always done things, or the places we have been (even and especially if they were amazing), we can find joy.
Last summer I picked up Disrupt Yourself by Whitney Johnson for reading on our family’s annual beach trip. (Yes, I know; I truly enjoy reading leadership books.) I first came across Whitney in her HBR article about working moms and dual career couples, another topic meaningful to me, so was excited to read her book. The intention was to explore how I could innovate within my existing role and organization, which the book emphatically characterizes as disruptive innovation, too. Whitney says to think about “what you do well that most others can’t.” She calls these “your disruptive strengths.” She walks you through how to use these strengths, and other strategies, to move up the S-curve of your personal disruption.
I knew at 18 that I wanted to be a fundraiser and at 19 that I wanted to be director of major gifts. I have spent my career in higher education fundraising. Until last year. I had the privilege of working with a donor who funded Asperger’s research to create greater understanding of the science and genetics. This experience exposed me to the potential to transform science and medicine through philanthropy.
Shortly thereafter, the opportunity arose for a leadership position in the number one children’s hospital in the world. In my backyard. Where my husband has dedicated his professional efforts for the last eight years. And I still hesitated, at first.
I worried what people would think. I worried what I would think. Everything I have worked toward in my professional life has been in higher education fundraising. Moving into academic medicine fundraising is not what I was supposed to do.
It is hard to let go of everything that you have known. This is what is safe. This is what made you who you are.
The question now is: who are you to become?
This is the power of disrupting yourself. By moving toward something new, you build on everything you have learned into a place of discovery. Even knowing of the potential growth ahead may not be enough to motivate change. As Whitney says in the book, “For the risk averse who are trying to convince themselves to try something new, the trick is not to focus on what will be gained by venturing forth, but to instead focus on what might be lost by standing still.” This thought really stuck with me. It gave me strength when I considered what was ahead for me and I have shared it with many colleagues and friends who have come to me for advice about their own careers.
I have learned that you can love something with your whole heart, believe in it and dedicate much of your life to it - and also love something else. It does not diminish what you loved in the first place. If anything, it can amplify it.
I remain deeply grateful for the experiences I had in higher education fundraising, as well as fiercely proud of the institutions for which I worked. They, and the people who mentored and supported me, helped me learn to be me. Someone wise once told me, “Walk toward something; don’t run away from anything.” This is what I am doing. As I move into academic medicine and grateful patient fundraising, I am honored to support this mission. I am welcoming new learning. I am stepping off the platform.
On my mom’s birthday, I volunteered to go first on the zipline, even though my heart was pounding. I took several deep breaths, reflecting with gratitude on being able to be at this point. I heard the words of encouragement and I leapt. Tears sprang to the corners of my eyes as I released everything I had been carrying knowingly and unknowingly. I smiled the rest of the way.