Susan Alexander | Good Disruptive Change

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Susan Alexander is the creator of a 4 part model you can use to enable and accelerate personal change. She blogs at You can follow her on Twitter at @SusanRPM4.

Whitney brilliantly encourages us to dream and then act on our dreams. We know from all she's said and written that acting on our dreams requires disrupting ourselves and that disruption is a discovery-driven process infused with uncertainty. Personal disruption is precisely what her much-watched TEDx talk is about. With so many of us contemplating it and taking it on, I think we need a working definition of personal disruption, as well as a solid strategy not just for enduring it, but for thriving in it. This post seeks to provide both.

Disruption, defined


The dictionary definition of disruption is very straightforward. It's simply altering the structure of something. To me, these words connote change by choice. So for a general, all-encompassing definition of personal disruption, I propose this: any change we actively choose for ourselves. Self-chosen change can take 3 basic forms. We can disrupt ourselves by: 1) stopping doing something we don't want to do anymore; or 2) starting doing something we want to do; or 3) iterating and improving at something we're already doing (and, pivoting when necessary). These basic forms of disruption, of course, can overlap and aggregate over time. On a personal level, disruption is often discussed in the context of entrepreneurship, meaning the process of breaking out of our professional comfort zone and executing on an innovative idea.This kind of personal disruption is prevalent, but there are countless ways to disrupt ourselves.

Disruption, the 3 mega forces

There are 3 mega forces we can use to turn disruption into order. Once we know what they are, we can start utilizing them to thrive when we disrupt ourselves. And when we see we can thrive in disruption, we can take on a more expansive view – we can see it as a catalyst for learning and growing, as well as finding happiness and contributing good things to those around us and the world. The 3 mega forces we can use to convert disruption to order are ordering consciousness, engaging in autotelic activities, and being in flow. Each of them is a skill we can learn and improve at with practice. These forces are key findings that emerged from the work of famed psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hy CHEEK-sent-me-hy-ee). Together, they can comprise our our mental skill set for thriving in disruption. Let's look at them individually.

I. Ordered consciousness


People who thrive in disruption are meticulous gatekeepers of their own consciousness. They actively choose what and what not to pay attention to, by actively sorting through the external stimuli around them, and the internal stimuli within them (thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, etc.). They limit what they allow into consciousness to what's necessary for what they're doing at that time. This learnable skill is paramount for disruption because it crushes anxiety and drives adaptability and productivity. Csikszentmihalyi explains: “what we pay attention to is no trivial matter; we are what we attend to ….

[it is] our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.” So when it comes to disruption, we can be very proactive in setting ourselves up to enjoy the process and thrive in it. Keeping an ordered consciousness is the first step.

II. Autotelic activities


People with ordered consciousness have something in common: they love the process of what they're doing. Whatever they do, they do it for intrinsic reasons, i.e. for the feeling they get from the activity itself, not for the extrinsic rewards (although such rewards may be possible). Csikszentmihalyi's term for an activity we do for the sake of it is autotelic. In autotelic activities, the reward comes from the doing, which gives us a sense of discovery, exploration, and problem solving, as well as the opportunity to explore the limits of our abilities and the chance to expand them. We can actively decide to take an autotelic approach to self-chosen disruption. How? By immersing ourselves in the process instead of distracting ourselves with the outcome (which is unknowable anyway). Taking this approach, we set ourselves up for experiencing precisely what's stated in the prior paragraph – a sense of discovery, exploration, and problem solving, as well as the opportunity to explore the limits of our abilities and the chance to expand them. Which is the best definition of thriving that I can think of.

III. Flow

Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work involving the mental state known as flow, in which we are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that we'll do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.


Ordering our consciousness enables us to engage in autotelic experiences, which in turn produce flow. The convergence of these forces lifts the quality of experience to a higher level – one of full engagement and focus on what we've chosen to do. Csikszentmihalyi encourages us to push more and more of our activities into the flow channel, especially those we struggle with. He writes: “… periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times in their lives …. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, [we become] increasingly extraordinary individual[s].”

What activities do you engage in that fit the definition of autotelic?

Have you ever experienced flow, in work or play?


Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: Flow at 4, 6, 31-33, 69, 92-93, 119, 209.

The Evolving Self at xii-xiv, 185-86, 212-13, 218.

Beyond Boredom and Anxiety at 22, 30.

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