HOW RIGID IS YOUR PARADIGM?
A month or so ago, the manager at my local branch of Waitrose was promoted.
I was happy for him but sad, in a way, to see him go. He was an interesting
man to talk to and took an interest in his customers. Since Waitrose is
part of the John Lewis Partnership, it has a policy of distributing its
profits among the workforce and for that reason, if no other, I continued
to do my grocery shopping there.
Some time afterwards, I went to Waitrose, only to discover that someone
had moved the tinned fruit! Of all the nerve! Everyone knows that tinned
fruit goes with ice cream and that is where the old manager had put the
stocks. Now, where were they? Eventually I found them . . . next to the
fresh fruit! Next to the fresh fruit, I ask you, wheres the logic
in that? Of course, since this lunatic had moved the tinned fruit, the
rest of the store was in chaos (to my eyes at least): and so, where now
were the eggs? Not opposite the tinned fruit, and so on. Events like this
shake up the normal pattern of our life and make life unbearable.
At the time of the tinned fruit outrage, another event occurred in my
life: it was at about then that the word paradigm was pushed into my conscious
again. Do you ever have thoughts and words which you dont understand
and which seem to come back to haunt you at unexpected times in your life?
This word "paradigm" was one for me. Even though Id managed
to discover how to pronounce it (para-dime), Id long
known that I didnt understand what it meant.
The event that pushed the word back into my conscious was a telephone
conversation with a friend in Canada. All too often, I guess, we jump
to instant conclusions on the basis of limited information and that telephone
conversation seemed to explain the word to me.
The word paradigm was invented by an American, Thomas Kuhn,
to explain how scientists think. He suggested that groups of scientists
makes sense of observations from their experiments by, collectively, coming
up with a set of theories and models which, to them, explain their findings.
For example, Newtons laws of gravity were based on his observations
of the real world, perhaps including the famous falling apple story, and
then he invented his set of equations. For two or three hundred years,
these equations and Newtons Theories were used by physicists and
others to predict all sorts of events and to explain the workings of the
universe: we could call this collection of theories, equations, models
and ideas, the Newtonian Paradigm. Eventually his set of theories
(his paradigm) were found to not fit all of the observations made by other
scientists and, in the course of time, we ended up with Einsteins
theory of relativity: the paradigm, the working model used by physicists,
had moved on.
So whats this got to do with tinned fruit? It struck me that, as
we grow up, we all develop our own Personal Paradigm. By this
I mean the set of models and ideas which we use to make sense of the confusing
world around us. Take red traffic lights as an example. A new born baby
would have no concept of its reaction to a red traffic light but virtually
every member of the adult world knows to stop at a red traffic light.
In other words, an observation - seeing the red traffic light - elicits
in each of us a response: to stop. We do this almost unconsciously. But
Two recent news reports made me smile. In the first, Jacques Chirac, the
new President of France, decided as one of his first actions, to instruct
his driver to stop at all red lights: apparently previous Presidents
motorcades had driven straight through all red lights. At the same time,
there was a report of an American driver in the mid-west who had sat in
his car for nearly four hours in the middle of the night waiting for a
red traffic light to change: apparently it had jammed on and he just sat
and waited, and waited, and waited.
Can you see why I smiled? Sometimes our Personal Paradigm gets stuck:
sometimes it isnt appropriate, or true, and sometimes, it gets us
to follow, uncritically, conventions which we ought to question. It is
the case that our view of the way in which the world works - our Personal
Paradigm - needs to be continually updated. There are certain truths
that serve us well for the whole of our lifetimes. There are certain scientific
truths, which serve us well for centuries, but we need to continually
to ask ourselves whether or not we need to alter our Personal Paradigms.
Tom Peters tells us that we need to continuously ask ourselves two questions.
Is what I am doing getting me closer to my desired goal? and
Is my desired goal really where I want to be? A wonderfully
funny movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels starring Michael Caine
and Steve Martin drives this point home. If youve already seen the
movie, youll know what I mean. If not, Ill not spoil it for
you. The problem with this stuff is that it is very uncomfortable. Painful
Just spend some time, for example, trying to convince some-one that the
political or religious part of their paradigm is wrong: it takes time
for them to consider that they ought to reflect on their paradigm and
then time for them to believe that a change might be appropriate. We often
speak of people who are closed to new ideas: this is a way
of saying that their paradigms are too rigid. It seems almost too painful
for them to accept change.
Take a familiar example: the loss of your marital partner. People who
have been either bereaved or divorced suffer a similar sense of loss:
their personal paradigms involve worlds which work in conjunction with
another person. The loss of that person results in a mental loss that
seems to be similar to a physical loss which people often experience after
the amputation of a limb. Such amputees often say that they can feel
impulses from the missing limb: a tickle or an itch for example, and yet
they know that that limb is missing. The same seems true for a psychological
loss, such as the loss of a partner.
Mental activity is a very energy intensive process and we often speak
of thinking hard, which results in people claiming, half humorously,
that this makes my head hurt. It seems that the pain associated
with changing our paradigm may often be too great to face, either at all,
or at present. The adage Time is a great healer seems appropriate:
it often takes time for people to rejig their paradigms. People often
remark that the young are more responsive to new ideas: perhaps greater
flexibility in their brains chemistry gives them this advantage.
That may or may not be so (Im not sure if I can fit the inevitable
consequences of physical aging and my mortality into my own paradigm yet!),
but my thoughts to take away from this essay are the following. Firstly,
how rigid is your paradigm? Can you find the time to cast away those parts
of your paradigm that are inappropriate? Can you identify those parts
of your paradigm that you must keep at all costs? Can you keep the rest
of your Personal Paradigm flexible and fluid enough to enable you to take
change on board?
Like physical healing, changing ones paradigm takes time. In an
age when we admire those people who can respond in an instant with a perfect
answer (top class sportsmen and women for example) we expect everything
to be instant and perfect, but most of us are not that capable. Nor do
I think we should be. It is far better, surely, to work towards a better
world (both personally and globally) by being active rather than passive:
to change our paradigms incrementally and not attempt change in great
leaps and bounds.
The despondency about our inability to change the world for the better,
which is particularly endemic at present, is a case in point, which serves
no one well. It is a truism that the greatest journeys all start with
a single step, and I believe that the best way to make a good decision
is to make lots of imperfect ones.
To quote Adam Engst: The best way to predict the future is to invent
And, yes, I have now learnt where the tinned peaches are.
John Courtneidge June 1995
13 North Road, Hertford, Herts.