Are Paradigms Important?

First, we must understand the word paradigm. A paradigm is a set of rules or a model or an example. That’s all well and good, but what does it mean to us? In this discussion when I use the word paradigm, I am referring to the set of rules and models our minds use to filter information. Here’s a little story I heard once which demonstrates a paradigm.

Bob was traveling down a winding country road. All of a sudden some jerk came swerving wildly around a corner in Bob’s lane. As this jerk sped by he yelled out the window, “PIG!” Bob could not believe this guy had the nerve to call him a pig. As Bob turned the corner, he crashed into the pig that was crossing the road.

In this story, Bob’s mind interpreted the jerk’s yell as an insult because that is what he is used to hearing on the road. His mind had a rule that said if someone yells at you while on the road, they are insulting you. Here’s another little story and this one is true.

The Swiss had been making precision watches for a long time. Then one day a man invented the quartz watch. He presented it to many Swiss companies, but they laughed at him. They believed no one would ever want an electric watch. He eventually took his idea to a small company called Timex, and history was made.

Whenever we look back at history we can find examples of the trouble paradigms have caused. Is the world flat? Is the telephone a viable device? When the telephone was first invented it was not believed it would affect anyone’s life. Can a company guarantee overnight delivery? Federal Express started out as a term paper idea and the instructor told the student (and future founder of FedEx) that the company would never be able to keep its promise. Is it possible for man to fly to the moon? Is it possible to fit a computer into a single room? Is 640K enough? Back in the early days of the PC Bill Gates said 640K ought to be enough for everyone and that caused a nightmare because MS-DOS and the IBM PC ended up with built in 640K limits on RAM.

If I walked up to you on the street and said, “in less than 40 years there will be tourists in space,” would you believe me? Many people would say there is no way that statement is possible. It is an economic impossibility they would claim. The Artemis Society plans to have their first manned lunar landing in 2007 and have visiting tourists in the year 2013. Shimizu Corporation, the world’s fourth largest construction firm, has plans to build a 50 story orbiting hotel by the year 2020 (2010 by some reports). There is a rumor that NASA plans to have rooms in the International Space Station available to rich tourists by 2012. Barbara Morgan (Christa McAuliffe’s backup in 1986) and Senator John Glenn will be going into space soon in one of the Space Shuttles. Barbara Morgan and John Glenn are not tourists, but they are civilians and that helps pave the way. There are many different commercial, private, and government space programs being developed right now. I do not know if any of these programs will succeed, but it is possible.

With paradigms we miss out on many great things because they do not fit our paradigm and our mind will not accept them. However, without paradigms, our minds would constantly suffer from sensory overload. Our minds use paradigms to filter all sensory input. Have you ever sat in a crowded room and talked to someone? How did you separate their voice from the noise around you? Your mind used a paradigm, a set of rules, to filter out the noise and process only the voice of your friend.

What can we do about our paradigms? That’s a tough question. The trick is realizing that you are basing your decisions on a paradigm and then find a way to see around it. If you make a decision based on instinct or feeling without examining the evidence, you probably based that decision on a paradigm. Any snap decision is based on a paradigm. When your decision goes against the evidence at hand you are basing it on a paradigm. That is not to say these choices are wrong or bad. They may be absolutely correct. If our paradigms always led us astray we would have become extinct a long time ago.

There is no sure way to see around your paradigms. I certainly can’t tell you how. You will need to figure that out yourself. However, I can give you a tip. Whenever you think you may be basing your decision on a paradigm try playing “devils advocate” with yourself. Just for the moment assume you are wrong and try to prove that you are wrong. By doing so you may strengthen your original decision or you may decide to reverse it, but at least you will make an enlightened choice with an open mind.


About Carl

I'm just a guy who enjoys living life and hopes to inspires others to do so as well. I'm a father of two, husband, and software engineer.

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