When the online information-sharing community Reddit debuted in 2005, users immediately recognized its value. Unregulated and totally democratic, it was a space where they got to decide which stories mattered most, dictating news of note by posting, sharing, and voting stories up to greater prominence or down to less exposure. In creating the community, Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman “disrupted” the traditional media landscape. And in fact, Ohanian reveals in his new book, Without Their Permission, he’s always relished bending the rules to create cool new things. Here, Ohanian identifies his favorite disrupters from history, literature and his own life and explains why we should all try to be more like them.
Not every disruption will lead to obvious or immediate success. As we all know, life isn’t just about winning: It’s full of failures and setbacks, too. The trick is learning from them. Here are my seven favorite disrupters from history and literature—innovators, authors and literary characters whose outside-the-box thinking changed the world for good.
1. Charlotte and Emily Brontë: Go incognito
Whenever people start criticizing the practice of taking a pseudonym online, I’m surprised at how quickly they forget the many positive ways pseudonyms have helped people communicate without fear of consequence. I’m always reminded of the Brontë sisters, who, before becoming famous for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, used male pseudonyms to get their poetry and novels published. Sadly, this was the common practice for female writers at the time. Still, it allowed women like the Brontës to be judged based on the merit of their work rather than their gender. In their case, not using their real names was a pretty awesome disruption.
2. Thomas Paine: Fight the power
Before the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine, the original “T. Paine,” used anonymous pamphlets as a means of spreading ideas that were still considered treasonous within the 13 colonies. His Common Sense, which advocated for the colonies’ separation from Great Britain, was the ultimate “disruption.” A bestselling book in America (that was widely pirated, by the way—another disruptive behavior), Paine’s anonymous tract helped fuel our fight against the British. As far as disruptions go, this one worked well: It helped give birth to our nation.
3. Winston and Julia from 1984: Think independently
It doesn’t end well for Winston and Julia in George Orwell’s 1984 (spoiler alert if you haven’t read it), but before their capture, the two make a valiant effort to break free of their dystopian surroundings. Ultimately they’re apprehended, tortured and “re-educated,” leaving the reader with a grim finale—and the undercurrent message that we should do all we can to avoid dangerous group-thinking. For the sake of all the Winstons and Julias in the world, in other words, we should pursue individualism and think on our own.
4. D-503 from We: Cross borders
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, pre-dates 1984 and is set in a similar dystopian future, only one modeled after what Zamyatin experienced during and following the Russian revolution of 1917. The protagonist, D-503 (everyone is merely a number in this dystopia) breaks the rules and goes behind a giant green wall meant to “protect” citizens from the outside world. He’s ultimately captured and “re-educated—but by then, the green wall is broken, nature takes over and citizens begin openly rebelling. The message, again, is to shake things up and inspire others to stir change. Another disrupter-loving fact? We earned the privilege of being the first book banned by the Soviet censorship bureau in 1921.
5. Nate Silver: Know the numbers
FiveThirtyEight.com creator Nate Silver is a one-man disruption: Since his perfect prediction of the 2012 election, he’s become the foremost political forecaster in America. His book The Signal And The Noise nails everything that’s wrong about predicting today, from the forecasting-focused discussions on your favorite political pundit television shows to your local meteorologist’s weather reports. Silver is living the ethos of Without Their Permission and has riled up quite a few people along the way: Before last year’s presidential election, amid accusations that his predictions were unfairly biased in favor of Obama, at least one pundit called Silver’s predictions “a joke.” Silver didn’t back down, and lo and behold, Obama won. Disruption isn’t always pretty, but it leads to progress.
6. Dr. Seuss: Stand for something
One of my favorite books is the Dr. Seuss classic, The Lorax. It’s not always easy to be the one voice of dissent, especially in a discussion about “progress.” The Lorax reminds us how important it is to be willing to take a stand when you believe in something, even when the people around you disagree. If you don’t succeed, that’s okay: Hopefully others will be inspired by your integrity and fighting spirit.
7. John Wood: Take a leap
When former Microsoft executive John Wood saw an opportunity to promote global literacy after a life-changing visit to Nepal, he didn’t wait. In 1999, Wood left his comfy office job to found Room to Read, a nonprofit based in San Francisco dedicated to instill a love of reading in children—particularly girls—worldwide. One school at a time, Wood and his team have helped millions of children in the developing world. He could’ve stayed in his old job, but he disrupted by jumping into uncharted territory—and thanks to that bold choice, has improved millions of lives all over the world.
This piece was updated on September 22, 2014.