Back in the 1990s, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coined the phrase “disruptive innovation” to describe those huge shifts in the market that we’ve all come to accept as the new normal. We constantly scan the horizon, trying to avoid—or benefit from—the next big thing. But what if the best way to benefit from disruption is to disrupt yourself?
What do I mean by disrupting yourself? I mean venturing outside the confines of your current role and preparing yourself for the next step, even if you can’t predict where that next step, and the one after that, and the one after that, will lead you.
I mean embracing today’s and tomorrow’s reality. None of us can foresee the jobs that will be created and eliminated with AI and other new technologies, but they will change the way we all live and work. Taking the initiative to disrupt yourself professionally—even more than mastering any specific technology—is the way to stay relevant and marketable.
Think Beyond Your Current Role
I sometimes mentor young professionals looking to progress in their careers. When I ask how they’re investing in professional learning, they usually list skills and technologies that help them perform better in their current position.
While excelling on the job is great, resist the urge to stop there. Don’t limit your learning to skills that benefit your current employer but fail to prepare you for your next position. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unless you’re uniquely qualified, you’re replaceable. Keep your ear to the ground and always keep learning what will help you, not just your employer.
Tap into Your Superpower
Make a list of the top two or three things you do better than almost anyone else, even if you aren’t using those skills in your job. It’s important to realize that you need to be great, not just “good enough.” Invest in your superpowers and stay alert for opportunities and connections that allow you to unleash these, even if it’s for a lateral move or an after-hours volunteer position to start. It could be just the launch pad you need.
Embrace Non-Traditional Career Paths
The days are gone when your college major and the first job after graduation determined the rest of your working life. People who disrupt themselves aren’t afraid of veering from a linear and predictable career path.
I know a VP of a late-stage cybersecurity startup who began his career (after graduating with a B.A. in English) as a middle school Reading teacher and military reservist. He spent most weekends tinkering with his computers and cabling, learning the fundamentals of networking.
When a fellow Reservist complained about difficulty in finding someone to handle their company’s network security, he dove in and began a profitable career in tech.
We all know people like this, who seem to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills. Maybe you think they were unusually intelligent or ambitious. But what sets them apart is the drive to develop new skills, even if they’re not required to by their employer. It’s this approach that will allow you to move fast when opportunity arises.
Don’t Get Comfortable
There are still a few industries and positions where it’s reasonable to feel a certain degree of job security. But they’re becoming fewer and scarcer. The truth is that many white-collar jobs will be completely reinvented or eliminated in the coming decades, and companies are already shifting as much work as possible to freelancers, rather than employees.
So never rest on your laurels or be lulled into thinking that next year will be like this year, that tomorrow will be like today. Understand and truly accept that a market disruption, either human or technological, could make your job disappear.
Want to still be employable and relevant ten years from now? Don’t be afraid to evolve and reinvent. More than any skill or degree, disrupting yourself is the key to long-term career viability.