The Boulder of Sisyphus – the ideal metaphor for disruptions

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus tricked the gods and closed the portal to the Hades by captivating the god of death, Thanatos. After his liberation and other sacrilegious acts, Hermes finally sentenced him to roll up a boulder onto a mountain. Shortly before he reaches the summit, however, the boulder rolls back down into the valley again and again – and this for all times. Today one also speaks of Sisyphus work, if one has to carry out a heavy work without foreseeable end. It was Albert Camus, who gave the story a hopeful perspective – “La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux.“1 We are happy because the task fills us. The boulder of Sisyphus is nowadays visible in many small and large disruptions – every new version of a software destroys the rehearsed routine; the cultural techniques, such as reading, writing and arithmetic, are taken over by the always available smartphone; the Internet dissolves the business models of the fourth estate. Thus, the metaphor takes on an additional meaning with the disruptive rolling down of the rock.

In the past, this issue was named after the late Latin word for rolling back and turning back – revolution. The word disruption shifts attention to what ultimately leads to the profound transformation, the destructive change. Those affected find it difficult of let go the old and get used to the new, because they eventually find their work around for their routine after the last interruption.

  • Effort
    The uncertainty that makes the target group suffer comes from the need to put the current basic assumptions into question. At the beginning, the reference points are missing, which are used to practice the new procedure. Since such changes happen repeatedly in different areas, we are regularly exposed to the associated uncertainty – and the fact that at the beginning we often do not react appropriately. With this effort in mind it creates instinctive resistance among those affected and burdens the implementation. And this despite the fact that in the course of our lives we are lucky to overcome almost all disruptions.
  • Performance
    It is not sufficient, however, to embrace the new. We also want to deliver above-average performance. The further we move uphill from the bottom of the valley, the more routinely we control the burden. Some manage to compete with and constantly outdo themselves. The practice gained in this way will foreseeably call into question the next disruption. The half-life of school knowledge is twenty years, university knowledge 10 years, technology knowledge four years and IT knowledge after two years – after 10 years without constantly learning, the IT specialist no longer stands out from the layman. This decay is caused by the many small disruptions that we do not consciously notice. And this, although we all make a destructive contribution by creating improvements here and renewals there.
  • With the summit in sight
    I don’t remember, whether Sisyphus has the summit in sight and whether he always recognizes the same path. Probably his entire concentration is in moving the superhuman load. This would correspond to the growth fanatics, who believe that a mountain has no summit – which leads to the fallacy that the rock cannot roll back, since it never really approaches its climax that lies in infinity. As soon as viability is recognized as a purpose of life, one gets closer to the perspective of Camus and perceives rolling back as a progress on the way, which requires our infinite engagement. Although we always have one goal in mind that should be achieved in our daily live, the summit, the path becomes the goal due to the myth.
  • Rolling down
    The fact that the rock rolls down fits to our experience. Actually, we know that no mountain is infinitely high. In order to make the task of the eternal rolling up comprehensible, it requires the disturbance that transports the rock again into the valley. In addition to the endless path, rolling back causes compassionate frustration. After all the effort and practice, we lose control over the rock and it destroys the apparent progress. However, if we do not see the renewed extension of the path as a step backwards, but as a major hurdle on the way up, then this disturbance only ensures our task. The path remains infinite. Nevertheless, this moment also offers a rest.
  • Forever
    The special about such circles is the fact that there is no beginning and no end. Just as the year goes on and on, the day that replaces the night and so on, Sisyphus drags himself up the slope. The certainty of rolling down again provides his purpose that he must fulfill with all his energy. Also in the dealing with today’s disruptions, we can’t help but getting involved and making an effort – from the very first moment and knowing well that the next disruption are already on the way. The end is not foreseeable.

Bottom line: What would Sisyphus do, if the rock would remain stable on the top? Wouldn’t that be worse? He has the strength to make the necessary effort. We know that he can provide the required service. And obviously he also bears the frustration just before the summit when the rock breaks away from him and rolls down again – forever.
The most important trigger for disruptions is technical progress, which is already so fast that not all of its new features become implemented. Since development time is not accelerating quite as fast, we can consider that the next disruptions are already in preparation. At best we prepare for this and we see the advantages instead of complaining about the efforts. Thus the myth of Sisyphus becomes the ideal metaphor for disruptions.

1) Albert Camus, The myth of Sisyphus
“The battle to the summits itself is enough to fill the human heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.”