Five Ways to Disrupt Yourself: The Fight for Relevance

disrupt yourself

By Mark Schaefer

One of the catalysts for writing my book Marketing Rebellion was an observation that most marketers are asleep … and they don’t even know they’re asleep.

This is probably a natural human state — homeostasis. We tend to want to maintain our habits and the status quo.

But if you’re a marketing professional, there is no status quo. To succeed today you have to be a change junkie and that means fighting hard for personal relevance. You have to disrupt yourself.

Sound strange? Perhaps. But embracing chaos is also an essential life strategy for a marketer today.

I think a key to my long-term success is that I have been in a constant state of professional reinvention. Here are five ways I’ve learned to disrupt myself.

1. Teaching

I’ve found that teaching a class — especially at the grad school level — is an energizing challenge and a mandate to stay relevant.

The students I interact with at Rutgers University, mostly mid-to-senior-level marketing leaders from large companies, are incredibly challenging. If it’s a current marketing topic, I am bound to have a question about it in class. There is a strong symbiotic relationship between teaching, content creation, and consulting that is keeping me at the top of my game.

You might think that teaching at a college level is unobtainable to you, but what about holding local classes and workshops? Hosting lunch and learns at your company? Staying in tune with the needs of people in the trenches will keep you fresh and tuned-in to trends in the field.

Think about how you would benefit and refresh your perspective if you had to prepare content to teach somebody else about an important marketing topic.

2. Networking

I spend a tremendous amount of time alone. I have a remote office literally out in the woods behind my home. It’s a superb place to think and write but my greatest inspiration comes from discussions with others — so I have to seek that out.

Any time I visit a city I urgently seek connection with others and outside views. When I visit New York, it’s not unusual for me to have four or five back-to-back meetings with friends and thought leaders to absorb new ideas.

I’ve also created a forward-looking retreat for marketing leaders called The Uprising. It’s going to be epic but it will also provide fuel for my own personal relevance as I bring smart marketing people together to envision our marketing future.

Smart conversations fuel personal disruption.

3. Constant Evaluation

I am in a constant state of self-evaluation — Am I “locked-in” to anything that is inhibiting my progress in the context of this changing world?

For example, I am currently evaluating:

  • Time spent on blogging versus podcasting or other content forms. I have been “locked in” to blogging for 10 years. How should this time be adjusted?
  • I have written seven substantial books. My last book was over 300 pages long. People seem to appreciate my books but is there a new way I can deliver content that would connect to my audience in different ways?
  • What happens to my speaking career in a recession? I can tell you exactly what happens. It dives. How do I adjust now?
  • What do I need to know about Fortnite? WeChat? TikTok? These are powerful new media forces.
  • I can’t possibly be generalist and survive. There is too much change. What are my specialties? What do those need to be in the future?

I am constantly thinking about “what’s next?” Normally over the quiet winter holiday period I spend a deep amount of time re-evaluating my direction. Disrupt yourself by routinely questioning everything.

4. Connecting to the new leaders

Where do I need to go next? Here’s one place to find the answers: People much younger than me.

Disrupting yourself requires a mindset of humility. I am part of the first generation in history who looks to the next generation for guidance and counsel, instead of the other way around.

I’m not a guru. I’m a student and my teachers are under 30 years old and often under 20 years old.

Look at what’s going on out there and get on board. What you’ll find isn’t weird. It’s the future.

5. Consuming the right content

I do a lot. I’m always on the move. So I have to be judicious about my time and the content I consume.

Facebook is a waste of time. Sitcoms are a waste of time. Superhero movies are a waste of time but I watch a lot of them any way. Just being honest.

In general, I am laser-focused on the type of content I consume to keep track of what’s coming next.

  • I rarely spend time reading an entire business book because 90 percent of them are one idea plus fluff. Once I get the idea, I move on.
  • When I speak at a conference, I look carefully at who else is speaking and make a point to attend as many interesting sessions as I can. Many people are shocked that one of the speakers is in the audience taking notes. Why wouldn’t I be there? I don’t have all the answers.
  • Blog posts and videos that are “tips and tricks” will not push you forward toward personal disruption. They will only get you through tomorrow. Look for content creators who are focused on NEXT.

Three examples of people I follow who push me to think about next include:

  1. Azeem Azhar and his Exponential View newsletter and podcast
  2. Ross Dawson
  3. Benedict Evans
  4. Kevin Kelly’s book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

Disrupt yourself by having the discipline to consume meaningful and relevant content.

Disrupt yourself by internalizing change

I want to conclude with an important piece of advice. Learning about change is not enough. You have to internalize it. That can be hard to do.

When I was writing my latest book, there was literally a moment when the implications of all this consumer research dawned on me. I literally sat back and thought “I don’t know what it means to be a marketer any more.” That was a moment of internalizing change.

I was able to write this book and help people because I didn’t resist the change or ignore it. The new realities of our world slowly became part of my professional DNA until I was disrupted for good.

To disrupt yourself, you can’t just read about the changes in the world, at some point, you have to become the change.

Make sense?

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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