Creative destruction

by Jack on July 2010

The concept of “creative destruction”, commonly associated with the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, describes the process of upheaval and change in society and the economy that arises due to innovation in products, services, processes, or business models. Companies that stick to the old ways may find themselves with fewer and fewer customers, and may ultimately go out of business if they don’t adapt. All their business processes and practices are based on assumptions that no longer hold true. For example, when Wal-Mart cut their costs over time by reinventing many aspects of the general retail store business, many local, independent stores and other chain stores couldn’t compete and ultimately closed their doors.

There’s a similar process that takes place within our own lives as we grow and change. When major changes happen, old assumptions that we depended on no longer apply, and the landscapes of our lives shift, sometimes radically. In these situations, it’s often necessary to destroy certain aspects of our “old life”, and then to rebuild them differently in order to adapt to our new reality.

What kinds of things undergo creative destruction in our personal lives as we grow and improve? Here are some examples:

Beliefs. Letting go of old, incorrect beliefs and replacing them with more accurate beliefs about the nature of reality is an important part of the process of growth and positive change.

Habits. Growth and improvement tends to go hand in hand with destroying old habits. For example, many smokers wish that they had never started, and seek to eliminate this habit from their lives.

Physical objects. When intimate relationships or close friendships end, people often choose to deal with the transition by physically destroying mementoes of the relationship such as photographs and letters, or selling objects that anchor significant memories. These objects are no longer congruent with their new reality, and may hinder them from moving on from that relationship. Something similar happens when people reach prosperity after a long struggle – their shabby old possessions remind them of their former poverty, and they want to replace them with shiny, new ones. (This is fine, as long as they avoid the hedonic treadmill and the temptation of more stuff! :) )

Social connections. People eliminate social connections for a wide range of reasons – sometimes to cause a life change, and sometimes in response to one; sometimes deliberately and sometimes not. A former heroin addict may consciously break his connections to his former social circle because the temptation to relapse is too great when he is among them. High school friends sometimes drift apart when they live in different cities or no longer have things in common.

Identity. Transitioning from one role to another means that we may have to let go of aspects our old identity in order to be successful in the new role. A college graduate is unlikely to be successful in a new job unless they transform their identity into “new professional” and stop clinging to their old identity. Adapting to new responsibilities and new challenges make this transformation necessary.

Resistance to change when change is inevitable is counterproductive to happiness in peoples lives. Change can – and usually will – be uncomfortable. The process of creative destruction in our lives is an absolutely necessary part of growing and changing in a positive direction.

Recommendations for applying creative destruction in life

So we’ve illustrated the analogy between creative destruction in business, and creative destruction in personal growth. What are some ways that we can actually put this idea into practice?

Release some clutter. Very few of us live a simple enough lifestyle that we could not stand to get rid of a few material objects. We’re all affected by our physical environments, and when we live in a crowded, cluttered space, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Serious decluttering often means making hard choices about which things stay and which ones go. Fortunately, donating, selling, or throwing away even a small number of unwanted things always creates a great feeling of lightness and release that makes the process worthwhile. Trust me, after the recent flood in my basement when I was away for several days learning vipassana meditation, I know this one quite well – and from experience. :)

Kill a bad habit. What do you do regularly that you wish you didn’t? Make a list of habits that you have that you would prefer not to have, pick one, and do some research on how to quit it.

Let go of a bad relationship. This is a tough one, but sometimes it’s necessary. Most of us have encountered people who make things difficult, drag others down, and bring negative energy wherever they go. All of us have low moods at times, and I absolutely don’t recommend avoiding or rejecting people in your life just because they would benefit from some cheering up. However, when a friend, acquaintance, client, or associate is a reliable and unending source of pain and frustration, over a long period of time, it’s worth asking whether your life would be better with or without them.

Start over as a beginner, or take something familiar to the next level. Being a beginner delivers an important lesson in humility and is a good experience for an “healthy” ego. Taking an introductory class in something you know nothing about, or a more advanced class in something that you already know well, is a great way to create this experience for yourself. For maximum growth, work at your edge. Destroy the feeling that you have it all figured out. Even as an expert, work with a beginner’s mind!

Rethink a belief. If you think you’re open minded, try out a different belief or set of beliefs for a time, and see how viewing the world from a different perspective feels. If you’re an atheist, read the Bible and test out some of the more unusual beliefs promoted in the book (I don’t recommend sacrificing a ram, however.). If you’re a life-long political conservative, try believing some of the liberal tenets that you have criticized in the past. You can always set a new belief aside if you find that it isn’t working for you. It’s important to make this a good faith effort, and not an attempt to prove others wrong. If you go in with the attitude of “I’m just trying this to see how the idiots on the wrong side think”, it won’t lead to much growth or learning, just reinforcement of your pre-existing attitudes.

As I described in my article on attention, when you pay attention to something or someone, you literally make them the most important thing in your life – at least for that moment. The process of creative destruction helps you withdraw your attention from things that no longer play a valuable part in your life, and frees up energy, mental space, and yes, attention, that you can redirect to focus on your highest priorities.

Growth is painful because going through the process of creative destruction can be painful. Just remember, if you’re growing, you’re uncomfortable [1]. Staying in your comfort zone is a great way to feel safe, at least for a time, but that’s about all it’s good for. By constantly working to expand your comfort zone, and growing comfortable with the process of change – paradoxically, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable – you make yourself far more able to cope and thrive in the face of inevitable change.

[1] However, the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Don’t assume that just because you’re uncomfortable, you’re growing! ;)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Li August 2, 2010 at 09:41

Wow, Im going through this exact same thing right now. It’s funny, just seeing that other people are going through the same thing really helps you cope better.

I recently decided to stop smoking (cannibus) and as a result, I lost my social circle. Granted it wasn’t a big one but it was all revolved around smoking. The minute I decided to quit, it was almost like I wasn’t good enough to hang out anymore there fore they all stopped talking to me.

This is just the article I needed to read to get my past this. And your dead right, im going to have to start over from the beginning. I’ve been making some many different changes in my life this past month for the better, it ‘s almost like my logical mind cannot keep up with trying to predict and “secure” future. Yes my head is spinning, but I know what im doing is the right thing. Thanks again jack for your insights

Mike Li

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Jack August 2, 2010 at 11:08

@Mike – Thanks for your feedback! Glad that this article was helpful. The key is that there’s no right or wrong answer – it’s all about what consequences or outcomes you’re looking for and how you plan to reach them. Keeping different things as part of your life leads to different consequences…

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Aaron M. September 3, 2011 at 19:07

Jack, you are a wise person. It is about consequences. I am a firm believer that relationships are to be realized by actions and words or the lack thereof. By introducing novelty of action or non-action, progress in one direction is bound to happen. How might it be possible for toxic relationships to heal?

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