When was the last time you asked why? Challenged the status quo or broke one of the norms in your life or work?
If you said today, congratulations! You have successfully revisited your early childhood. As a recent study shows, preschoolers explore and learn more than adults, thanks to insatiable curiosity and a low level of risk aversion.
In other words, young kids tend to dive headfirst into new situations without worrying about the consequences. Adverse outcomes are just part of the deal. Scientific evidence shows that kids between the ages of two and five ask around 40,000 questions.
Of course, this can lead to something called a “learning trap.” As the study’s authors explain: “Exploitation — maximizing immediate reward and avoiding costs — may lead the learner to draw incorrect conclusions, while exploration may lead to better learning but be more costly.”
This is something children realize as they get older. By the time they’re 11, they almost completely stop asking questions for reasons related to nature (neurological, cognitive) and nurture (i.e., how traditional public schools “teach to the test”). By sixth grade, kids begin to understand things in a more adult way. When we try something new and get a result we don’t like, we decide we won’t do that thing again. That’s a sensible and mature response, right?
The downside is we stop exploring. And we gravitate toward narrowing our world down into comfortable, secure patterns. This leads to habituated responses like avoiding confrontation, deferring to others, and sticking with predictable patterns no matter how broken or dated they may be.
That said, quitting isn’t the only way to find happiness in life and work. Often, that learning trap is real, and taking a big risk only provides more proof that the grass isn’t any greener on the other side. I’d add a caveat: it’s especially true if you don’t shift and evolve your mental models. Going blindly into something new just because others are doing it is flat-out lemming behavior.
Then there are those who never give up on curiosity, creativity, and imagination. You know, legendary creators or category-defying inventors over the ages, from Leonardo Da Vinci and Johannes Gutenberg to Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, and Oprah, among others, who changed the world for the better.
So how do you break out of the pack (and the pattern)? Lose your fear of disruption and risk-taking to explore and exploit? How can you reignite curiosity and creativity — what we’re born with — and allow it to spark?
The Upside of Disruption
The word “disruption” can be seen negatively and positively. For example, the pandemic’s disruption of daily life has had both negative and positive consequences. On the downside, there are increased mental health challenges, supply chain issues, economic setbacks, and, of course, a mind-boggling loss of life. And on the flip side, people are actively pursuing avenues to lead happier, healthier, and more balanced lives. Plus, innovation to support seismic shifts across industries worldwide has soared.
However, this is a very binary way of framing disruption. Let’s look at Covid-19 another way: for the most part, we have never thought about spreading germs to one another and the consequences of getting each other sick — at least not when your symptoms are mild. Think about how many times a co-worker came into the office, coughing their head off and sneezing up a storm… and you had to sit next to this person in a meeting. Chances are you might have been annoyed but didn’t bother to do anything, as chancing getting a cold vs. getting important work done was a no-brainer.
That is until this particular strain of the coronavirus (COVID-19) emerged. Now we know the risks outweigh the benefits and have become more mindful of our choices. A co-worker hacking up a lung wouldn’t dare come to the office, or if they did, they’d be sent home immediately.
As I always say, change is the only constant.
This means patterns are continuously disrupted. Some people focus on the disruption itself and yearn to return to “normal.” Others notice the broken pattern and instinctively start focusing on new possible connections. And still others see the status quo, question it, and decide to break the pattern themselves.
I think what’s powerful about the world today is patterns that we never thought about are being broken. And so those three main camps are emerging stronger than ever before:
- Those who feel the pain of a problem and would like solutions (aka consumers)
- Those who are inspired by change and use it to make something new (aka creatives)
- Those who take it to the next level, abandon notions of safety and security and forge a new path (aka entrepreneurs).
Of course, these three groups can cross over, but for the sake of this article, let’s look at how pattern disruption can be a boon for all of us.
The Power of Patterns
There is no doubt that disruption can truly suck. This is something I know firsthand: in the last year, I became a father for the first time, and, more recently, my wife and I are grappling with a health scare she’s facing. So many uncertainties and curveballs.
So much pattern disruption.
Now, I could spend my time wishing that everything was how it was before. But as Jung pointed out, what you resist persists. Forward motion is the only way, and frankly, I’m finding so much value and joy in it.
Take my 11-month-old son, for example. He has the ultimate beginner’s mind — to him, it’s all brand new. I could (and do) spend hours watching him take things apart and put them back together. The greatest moment is when he cracks the code of how to do something.
There are a couple of ways you could look at what my kid is doing: he’s either learning how to become complacent (once he figures something out, he’s done) or disruptive (he’s going to take the knowledge and apply it elsewhere or keep exploring to see if there’s more than one way to solve the same problem). Currently, either way is all good because he’s learning something invaluable: how to recognize patterns.
As I mentioned earlier, for children, curiosity and creativity are natural states of being. As adults, often, we ditch the energy of creation for the relative stability of comfort, routine, and security. When it all changes, as it inevitably does, we tend to resist, which makes things painful AND wastes opportunities. This, for the record, is a 5,000-year-old spiritual lesson from the Bhagavad-gītā: we constantly cycle from creation (Brahma) to maintenance (Vishnu) and destruction (Shiva). If you spend too long clinging to the maintenance mode, aka the status quo, and you’re just wasting time.
In modern times, we are trained to cling to the known and avoid the disruption of the unknown starting at a young age. Our conventional (broken) educational systems push canned linear pathways. As curiosity dwindles, children stop asking “why” questions, which unlock root causes and reveal patterns.
In some ways, this is a good thing. The natural order of things includes leaders and followers — no judgment. Both are essential. Entrepreneurs need an audience that would like things to be easier/better/smoother but aren’t interested in creating that improvement. They’re content to buy into it.
But if you’re into being creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial, it’s critical that you continuously hone your pattern recognition skills by exposing yourself to lots of things. Travel, pick up new hobbies and shake up your routines. You’ll see the patterns more clearly in contrast — just as we all can from our pre-pandemic world to today.
Because here’s the rub: once you can recognize patterns, you can change them.
“No, Because” vs. “What If?”
Most of what we do, we do unconsciously. And then, every once and a while, a disruption is life-changing, stopping us in our tracks and forcing us to consider a new direction.
Again, another parenthood story. Someone I recently met just became a new parent, and to put it mildly, their life has been rocked by this little person. All of a sudden, his priorities and passions have shifted. He now seems to have way less patience for things that take up his time. The challenging days are more taxing than ever before, making him question if what he’s doing for his day job is worth it. After all, he’s talented and could easily change jobs or chase greener pastures.
However, the place where he is doesn’t ask for blind fidelity. In fact, when I inquired with him about it he shared that his employer encourages him to take risks, innovate, and shake things up.
When I spoke with him and asked a few probing questions about what he was thinking, I found myself instinctively brainstorming. What if…? I asked.
At first, I was met with a lot of “no… because” responses. His perception of the pattern and flow of how things are today was coloring his ability to reimagine his job so it provides him with more meaning, purpose, possibility, and financial upside. Once we moved into what if/why not, everything shifted — for good.
One of the greatest design thinking exercises is the Five Whys. I constantly use it to get to the root cause of problems and challenges.
But I think we could use a variation on this exercise: the Five Why Nots. That’s one of my favorite questions to ask myself (and others) when feeling stuck — Why not? And relatedly, what if?
I’ll give you an example: I recently interviewed entrepreneur Alisa Bowens-Mercado for my Forward Obsessed podcast. She started her career helping run her family’s construction business. As a woman of color, she was an anomaly in her industry. The SBA often had her fly to far-flung places and speak at large conferences to inspire and encourage other minority business owners.
On one such trip to Puerto Rico, Alisa saw people dancing salsa in the hotel bar and fell in love with the dance on the spot. She came home obsessed, determined to learn salsa. Alisa quickly noticed that although she could find an instructor, there were no salsa dance studios.
Why not? Alisa asked herself, and then she dove into researching why other dance forms, like ballroom, had studios (i.e., Arthur Murray), but salsa didn’t.
What if? Alisa wondered as she considered her own patterns. A healthy, prosperous family business = financial security. Following her passion = peace of mind. At 30-years-old, breaking the pattern and forging a new path as a salsa dance teacher and dance studio owner at Alisa’s House of Salsa was not a no-brainer — in fact, she put a lot of research and soul searching into making the leap — but it was the entrepreneurial path that she decided to take.
More than two decades later, Alisa’s at it again, this time selling lager beer from her new venture, Rhythm Brewing Company. In 2018, she was at a beer festival in Cape Cod and noticed there were almost no lagers, very few women, and no people of color. Three patterns ripe for questioning and, ultimately, breaking.
Cheers to not being afraid to ask why not? and what if?
A Constellation of Connection
So, how do you get better at noticing patterns? My top tip is to take a step back and scan what you see. Be open to receiving information from a ton of sources. Then question how one thing might relate to another. I call this connected curiosity.
My go-to technique to spot patterns involves using a mash-up of mind and concept mapping. As a designer, I continuously look for ways to break down complex ideas and find inspiration in chaotic messes. Jon Kolko beautifully articulates the process I use (along with many other design-centric thinkers) in his seminal article, “Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis”:
“Designers may follow a user-centered discovery process to immerse themselves in a particular subject or discipline, and then go “incubate” that material. After a period of reflection, they will produce a tangible artifact as a visual representation of the reflection.”
This leads me to another favorite quote from Charles Eames: “Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.”
Here’s an approximation of how I map things out, notice patterns, and find abundant — and lucrative — opportunities to disrupt the status quo and move things (business goals, life goals) forward.
And here’s an example of how I put mapping into action.
Designing District: Disrupting the Doubters and Connecting a Community
Ideas interconnected with human behaviors become insights. This is why I hold onto notebooks: I sketch and scribble concepts in inspired moments, then go back to those unfinished ideas or fragments to see how they evolve.
Years before coworking had become a thing, my co-founder and I had an idea for a studio collective where we could bring photographers, engineers, designers, and storytellers under one roof. We were constantly searching for new creative partners and places to create content and had a vision for a creative Mecca 🕋 where we could all connect. It would be a shared space for solopreneurs to gather and trade, much like the trading markets internationally that we had seen in movies and on our travels.
Without wisdom, the final piece of the pattern detection pie to create this creative Mecca was missing. So, for a long time, District was merely an idea fragment sitting in a Moleskine notebook.
But after years of consulting for clients all over the world and investing in startups, we picked up lots more data, insights, and wisdom.
Several years after that first kernel of an idea, my co-founder and I saw the pattern emerge. The world was changing; remote work and the creator economy were on the rise. Back in 2010, only 9.5% of the population telecommuted; by 2018, 52% of US workers telecommuted at least once a week. Today, around 75% of the American workforce works remotely at least part-time.
We started to dig deeper (information) into ways to see how human and economic behaviors were shifting. That information, coupled with our knack for business trends (knowledge), led to our decision to take a real step towards realizing our dream. Our curiosity, creativity, and full embrace of pattern disruption helped us lock in a deal with the city of New Haven to create the 25-million-dollar tech campus District, which opened in 2018.
So, while the devil might be in the data, the delight is in the design. That’s where pattern detection and disruption help entrepreneurs win.
We often can’t choose the direction a disruption sends us, but we can decide how we make novel connections and forge the path to create new patterns. And we can rely on our beliefs and principles, mindsets and methods, creativity and curiosity to guide us through.
For example, I come from an abundance perspective, not scarcity. While it took me until my 30s to truly believe in the power of vulnerability, it has undoubtedly transformed how I exist in the world. It’s why I’m open about my personal life in the articles I write. And it’s how I am in business, too. A growth mindset demands an open mind and a willingness to learn and unlearn behaviors and beliefs in pursuit of progress.
This is why I can help colleagues at crossroads broaden their horizons and create bigger, brighter, more lucrative opportunities for themselves — and their collaborators.
Alisa said something brilliant to me:
“If it’s (a new direction) in your path, and it’s the right path, the dots are going to connect.”
This is, in a sense, experience design. There are the pattern makers and the pattern breakers. Both are in the same constellation. All you have to do is make the connection.
I would love to hear patterns you’ve disrupted to find success in business and as an entrepreneur, so give me a shout here or on Twitter — DMs are open @petesena.