7 Ways to Disrupt Your Career and Your Life

UPDATED: February 7, 2020
PUBLISHED: July 13, 2015

Not every broken system can be fixed. That’s what maverick entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg know, and that’s why instead of trying to make incremental changes to their monolithic industries, they disrupted them with groundbreaking companies like Tesla Motors and Facebook.

You, too, can make your own rules, disrupt your career and life course, and smash the status quo in a positive way. Here are seven tips from seven people who did just that and succeeded big time:

1. Bend but don’t break.

Travis Kalanick, co-founder and CEO of the car service Uber, has gotten hostile reactions to his company since he unveiled it.

Just four months after announcing Uber with co-founder Garrett Camp, he got his first cease-and-desist letter. As Uber spread around the country and then the world, those protests even turned violent. In Paris, for example, taxi drivers, upset because they could be put out of business, slashed Uber cars’ tires and smashed their windshields.

But Kalanick stood his ground by using a tactic he called principled confrontation to get taxi drivers to explain their reactions. Some called his strategy ruthless, and only now that Uber is a global phenomenon is Kalanick ready to make a few concessions.

“We need to invest in internal growth and change,” he says. “Acknowledging mistakes and learning from them are the first steps.”

2. Have a mission.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of the health-tech company Theranos, grew up around charitable causes.

Her father worked in disaster relief, which inspired Holmes while she was still in college to come up with a novel blood-testing device to help people in need. She dropped out of Stanford and founded her startup at only 19.

“You’ve got to have a mission,” she says. And she believes access to health information is a basic human right. “There’s got to be a reason that you’re doing it; that no matter how hard it is, you want to keep doing it over and over and over again. … I really believe that building a business is a vehicle for making a change in the world.”

Fun fact: Holmes isAmerica’s youngest female billionaire.

3. Go nontraditional.

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, was an artist, not a businessman, when he came up with the model for his rent-a-room company.

He even mapped out Airbnb’s user experience on storyboards à la Walt Disney. It was creative to be sure, but not everyone was a fan. “[Venture capitalists] didn’t think a designer could build and run a company,” he says. “They were straight up about it.” One even walked out on his pitch meeting.

But Chesky stayed true to himself, never resorting to traditional cutthroat tactics. “For us to win, people don’t have to lose,” he says.

And win he did: Due to his nontraditional approach to the sharing economy, Airbnb now has nearly 1 million accommodation listings, and Chesky has a $1.9 billion net worth.

4. Stay fresh.

Ted Waitt, co-founder of the computer hardware company Gateway, says it’s easy to be passionate when you’re starting out. But when you hit those inevitable roadblocks, discouragement can set in.

He recommends actively working to keep your energy high even when you’re feeling drained from running a company. “Physically, emotionally, spiritually, it taxed me on every level,” Waitt said recently at a tech summit. “Just to keep that energy up is really important. You’ve got to stay healthy, stay focused, and you just can’t give up.

“And at the end of the day, you can’t take things too seriously because you have to bring life into the organization. Don’t be afraid to take a mini break every now and then to keep yourself fresh.”

5. Do it — or stop talking about it.

Ben Silbermann, co-founder of the social network Pinterest, had worked on various startups around the country when he got the itch to make his own product.

But he had a full-time job and knew he couldn’t build it on the side. “I thought it was a really exciting thing to do, but it always stalled,” he said at a recent speech at Stanford. “I always had an excuse for why it stalled: It wasn’t the right market, I needed to learn more, and it wasn’t the right timing. But actually the dependent variable was just me. I never actually committed and put myself in a situation where I had to make it work.”

His girlfriend gave him the wake-up call he needed. At dinner one night, she told him that he should just do it or stop talking about it. “It was a little bit harsh,” he says. “But honestly it was the best thing someone could have told me.”

Silbermann quit his job at Google in 2008 and co-founded Pinterest two years later. Today the company is valued at more than $11 billion.

6. Maintain your wonder.

Nanxi Liu founded Nanoly Bioscience, which is creating a way to store vaccines without refrigeration, and is CEO of Enplug, a digital signage company.

“Most [successful entrepreneurs] don’t start out as 5-year-olds who say ‘I’m starting a business that’s going to disrupt,’” she says. “A lot of us have a personality where we say we’re just going to do it, and we may fail, but that’s OK. It’s almost like an innocence of not worrying what are the consequences of what happens after.”

Liu was not a biotech expert when she started her biotech company —although she found a co-founder who was. She also wasn’t a software expert when she became CEO of a tech company. “What’s different [about disrupters] is that we’re not afraid to take that risk,” she says.

7. Use your doubts for fuel.

Tony Fadell, founder and CEO of home automation company Nest, says that a little doubt is healthy.

“You can get this emotional momentum spun up, and everyone is rah-rah,” he says. “But you have to have a little bit of doubt inside because that means that you’re really pushing the edge.”

Fadell’s company has reinvented home devices that no one ever thought needed to be reinvented, like thermostats and smoke detectors.

“If it’s all so easy, it’s like wait a second, what am I not looking at?” he says. “What risks are unforeseen that I have to dig deeper on?”

They came. They saw. They started a revolution. Who? The founders of Uber, Airbnb and Theranos, who are all featured on the August 2015 cover of SUCCESS magazine, on newsstands July 14.

Alyson Sheppard is a writer and editor based in Dallas. Her work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Mental Floss, Maxim, National Geographic Adventure and more.