Personal Paradigms, The Good, The Bad & The Impact

They say that goldfish have a memory that’s about 10 seconds long, no doubt a gross exaggeration but for argument’s sake, let’s say that’s true. With a memory that short, they would be forever rediscovering the world around them. They would have no operating principle to help them navigate. Without personal paradigms we’d be very much like that goldfish.  Though his bowl of water is small he is forever shouting, “Hey, there’s a castle! Hey, there’s a castle!”

How Personal Paradigms Serve Us: Paradigms help us to interpret, define and engage in the world around us. Without our paradigms we would constantly be struggling to determine and define what we see, what we hear and what we should do about it. Our paradigms help us to move through our lives seamlessly.

When I was in college, I made a friend who often shared stories about her family and their activities. She spoke of the antiques her mother collected and the beautiful old apartment they lived in. She shared stories of their travels and generally painted an amazing picture of her life.  As I got to know her better it became clear her stories didn’t quite reflect reality. There were no antiques, no beautiful apartment and certainly no travels.

Young or old?

Young or old?

Flash forward a few years and I’m on Parliament Hill and the office across the hall has brought in a summer student. One day the student tells us about her adventures. She has met Sting, spent a few weeks on the streets for a research project, her grandmother has left all her money to her cats and she has written for a popular soap opera. As you can imagine, because of my history, my paradigm would not allow me to believe the stories she told unless I had evidence. It was simple, when people start telling fantastical stories about their lives you need to look more carefully.

Later, I quietly mentioned to my colleague that I had some suspicions about the truth of the stories shared. Well my colleague’s paradigm was different from mine, so she got more than a little annoyed at my suspicions and few uncomfortable days followed. After a short period, the summer student… disappeared from the office across the way. It eventually came out that she had made up all of her stories, including her skills. People were shocked and angry, but not me. My paradigm had stepped in and said, this is bull. Once that happened, all I could see were flaws and inconsistencies. Our paradigms save us a lot of grief and can generally help us to interpret the world.

How Personal Paradigms Make Us Blind to the World: So your thinking, so what? You’ve heard all this stuff before. But what if despite knowing this, the most experienced and in some cases the most powerful people in our respective worlds persisted in behaving as if their paradigm was the only paradigm?

Is the black diamond the top or bottom of the square?

Is the black diamond the top or bottom of the square?

People get used to power and after a while they can start to think that no matter what they do or say, they are somehow removed from consequences. They can build a personal paradigm around themselves that is so airtight that they become incapable of seeing pitfalls. They lose the ability to judge good from bad. They can divorce themselves from seeing the errors in  their own behavior.

Consider American President, Donald Trump,  celebrity chef Paula Deen or former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, all could lay claim to huge popularity and all had difficulty seeing problems with their own behaviour.

When our paradigms blind us, they don’t just make us blind to opportunity, they make us blind to threats, blind to ethical considerations, blind to the harm we are doing.

Whatever Your Perspective, Understand That You Have One: Although you may have heard it countless times, don’t forget that your truth is not necessarily THE  truth.  Your version of reality may not even be based in reality. If  this was an easy thing to remember, then the examples above would be a lot harder to find.

Has your paradigm ever helped or hindered you? Have you ever seen someone else struggle because they just couldn’t see the “truth” of a situation?

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44 responses to “Personal Paradigms, The Good, The Bad & The Impact

  • This is a fascinating subject. I haven’t really given it much thought previously. I do know that my truth is not the same as someone else’s and that in itself is just mind blowing.

  • It seems that the older I get the more my own paradigms come into play. It used to be that I was exceptionally open-minded, believing almost anything, although sometimes with a critical eye. Somewhere down my path of life, I’ve pulled in the reigns of the open-minded approach. This could be because I’ve been fooled one too many times, and am narrowing my perception out of self-preservation.

    • I don’t know if I would describe you as getting more closed-minded. It sounds like you have become less naive or less gullible. To me that’s a situation where your paradigm is working for you.

  • I’m sure I’ve got personal paradigms that stand in my way, just like everyone else, but the first thing I can think of is George Lucas. He made the original Star Wars trilogy and other really cool movies in the ’70s and early ’80s. While he wasn’t producing on the same level, he continued to rack up major money from licensing characters from those early films.
    Then he decided to do the Star Wars prequels. He was a legend among fantasy story tellers, and a gabillionaire on top of that. Because of his status no one around him was able or allowed to tell him “no”. And because he had no restrictions, he threw in everything he wanted and we ended up with three crappy George Lucas movies.
    Sometimes “no” is just what we need to hear.

  • Wow, this is so true. I know I am guilty of thinking that my way of seeing things is the ONLY way. Thanks for the gentle reminder that we ALL see the world through our own filters and that we are not necessarily right in every situation!

    • We are all guilty of it, it’s the way we’re built. I keep trying to figure out if there’s a trick to reducing it but then again, our paradigms are handy. 🙂

  • Arleen says:
    July 10, 2013 @ 08:10 pm

    We all see things differently, and no one person see the things the same way. We perceive our own reality as being right. I do agility trials with my dog. My husband video tapes me so I can review it later. When I see the video, boy it was not what I remembered, or what people actually told me what happened while I was running. I have others review the video and I have no idea where they come up with what they saw. To be honest with you when someone is positive that they saw a crime being committed and all the details, I find it hard to believe. After just watching my videos and I think I remembered what I did, but the video showed me I was wrong, it proves each person has a different paradigm. All have a different perspective of reality

    • Isn’t it amazing what video shows? I took cross country ski lessons about a year ago. The instructor filmed us, it was amazing. What felt like speed to me was soooooooo slow. What felt like glide was stiff and jerky. There is little opinion in a video camera’s perspective so it’s hard to argue.

  • I teach writing from the subjectivist view that reality is filtered though our perceptions. In essence, there is no such thing as an objective reality. And yet, try getting that across to people who are raised to view the world in terms of wrong vs. right, black vs. white. Advocating dialectical thinking can do much to help others understand how they view change and what biases they may have, but such approaches to critical thinking are actually challenged by parents from time to time as conflicting with values taught at home and fostered by religious affiliation.

    I once tried a classroom activity with my mostly white students to get them to see how their world was colored white (We were reading To Kill a Mockingbird). Many of them challenged that notion, informing me that was not possible. Their implicit membership in the majority made them blind to how that membership shapes their worldview. The ability to step back from one’s paradigm only comes with much effort.

    • Jeri I know you didn’t care for it (or least the bureaucracy that came with it), but you must have been brilliant as a teacher. The best thing we can teach our children is critical thinking. If they can at least approach an argument from a logical perspective they have some hope of really understanding the world around them. We can’t always shake our paradigm, but we’re completely loss if we can’t even acknowledge that we have one.

  • Hi debra, So true. I have only come to fully appreciate this idea late in life. “what is that guy doing? !!!” oh hang on, he doesn’t see the issue from his point of view. Sometimes we need to step back, not be angry and try to see the other’s point of view – even when it is sooooo hard sometimes. But the skepticism I can understand, I have met many story tellers in my time!! amazing what they are thinking.

    • Although I know that what I “think” is going on isn’t always what’s going on. I have to constantly remind myself to step back and ask questions. One of the things I do is manage organizational relationships. The more antagonistic the relations, the closer I want to get to the combatants. If I represent a particular organization, then I go to the location of the group we are not getting along with. I want to see what they see and I want them to be comfortable. It allows me to understand why they are so angry/annoyed/disengaged. It’s never what I think it’s going to be and I generally understand and sometimes even agree with why they are angry. It’s easy to get along when you can see each other’s point of view.

  • Stephen Covey told a great story in his book the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The story goes along the lines of a man on the subway with his children running rampant. He is viewed as a man who can’t control his children. When asked about it all he tells the person questioning him that he lost his wife that very day. The children were still in shock of their Mother’s death.

    It can be amazing what you see when your paradigm changes.

    • Excellent example John. A few words and we move from anger to compassion. Wouldn’t life be great if we could always take the time to ask rather than just assuming we know the answer?

  • valerieremymilora says:
    July 9, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

    We are definitely influenced by our experiences in the way that we perceive reality. And our reality is a personal one that no two individuals share. This became so obvious to me in a recent conversation I had with my younger sister. She and I heard the same things but what we “heard” was often very different because of influences outside our home and our own individual personalities. I’m amazed at the examples you share though! wow!

    • I didn’t grow up with any siblings and so I have to admit, I’ve always been fascinated with their interactions. The fact that they grow up in the identical environment, but develop such completely and often contradictory perspectives on the world around them is amazing to me. It also speaks to the incredible power of our minds to mold reality.

  • Interesting you should write about paradigms because I belong to a peer group and our name is — Paradigm. We do all live within our own reality. The value of a peer group is for members to be willing to help someone understand that the paradigm they’ve built for themselves isn’t always based on reality — like I’m retired so I’m not good for anything anymore. Politicians are the worst. They build a paradigm of invincibility. They can do anything because they make up the rules. Then they learn they can’t.

    • I love the idea of your peer group. It’s like a reality check. What a wonderful idea. I’ve been working with a career and productivity coach (Ann Max) here in Ottawa to develop a program called LEAP. The intention is to create a several peer groups focused on development and support and no doubt if it’s to work, the reality check. 🙂

      • Good luck with your peer groups. Ours has been going once a month for about 5 years. Most peer groups are formed with a special purpose in mind, i.e., sharing career tips, book clubs, etc. We could never find a focus for our group and I think, surprisingly, that’s why we bonded. When someone was stuck we worked on her issue. Many peer groups have rules, and I have a friend who runs another peer group and she uses a stop watch so no one runs over her allotted time. Maybe that works for that group. But it seems pretty rigid to me. Most of all we laugh. We have fun.

        • We talked a lot about groups of this nature when Ann was first developing the idea of LEAP. We had personally sat through so many groups that felt stiff and uncomfortable that we didn’t want to create the same thing. I think you’ve hit the secret recipe, the members get out of the group what they need, not what the group dictates.

  • We all have our own frame of reference (paradigm). We use to make decisions, or pass judgment on a situation or person. Sometimes they become our immovable fact when n fact we are way off base.

    I remember how I wouldn’t eat spaghetti because they looked like worms and I just knew that it would taste just as gross. I would not eat at the table when my parents made spaghetti. One night my dad decided it was time I get over the misperception. He made me set at the table. I wasn’t allowed to eat anything else in its place, not even the brownies that were waiting. He had one request. Just taste a forkful and I could then have a brownie. I stared at the spaghetti as if it were alive. It was getting colder by the minute and the brownie wasn’t far off. I finally made a decision to just put it in my mount all a once and swallow really fast. I did that and much to very great surprise the spaghetti was really good. I have love pasta of all kinds ever since. Oh, and yes I did get a brownie, two in fact because my dad was so pleased. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. This could make for a fun post, don’t you think?

    • That would make for a fun post Susan! That’s so funny that you thought the spaghetti looked like worms! Shows what a vivid imagination you’ve always had 🙂

    • Susan I burst out laughing when I read your comment. I went through a similar period of spaghetti avoidance. There must have been a movie or television show that planted that idea in our minds because I know we aren’t the only ones who had that aversion. Talk about having to get past your paradigm. I’d love to see a video of that story.

  • All human beings have a different perspective on reality. A good example is when there is an accident and 10 different versions of what happened.

    The almost perfect example of someone blinded by his paradigms is Robert Mugabe. He used to be a freedom fighter who did a lot of good for people in Zimbabwe. But then he lost perspective, got addicted to power and glory and became a dictator of the worst kind. Sad, since he is a highly intelligent man. Apparently he was fine as long as his first wife was alive. But after she passed away and he married his secretary things got out of hand.

    • I quite like the car accident example, it’s a great illustration of how different we all see the world.

      It’s so disturbing what too much power can do. Mugabe is a boogey man of the worst kind, both on social and political fronts. How do you go from freedom fighter to a complete oppressor and not notice that you have become worst than the thing you used to despise?

      • According to other African heads of states part of the reason was the woman he married:-)

        • Given her former position it’s possible that she got into the habit subordinates often develop of agreeing with him on everything, if so, he’s lost his reality check. I don’t know how strong a character she has or if she’s even politically astute, but if he’s used to treating his wife as his sounding board and confidant and all she does is agree….YIKES.

  • Great article! Your thoughts become your reality. What one really needs to examine is if your thoughts, belief systems and paradigms are hindering you or helping you? Usually if something works for me on several occasions I start to believe it and tend to share it with others. Took me years to figure out that most people had their own unshakeable beliefs or paradigms that I couldn’t get through…

    • Thank you. So very true about thoughts becoming reality and the need to always assess whether your thoughts are hindering you. Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book called, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There” and in it he explores the dichotomy that can develop between what you think you are doing, and what you are being perceived as doing. It’s interesting and in some cases funny, the very thing we do to please, help or impress can be perceived as annoying, obstructive or foolish.

  • It’s funny that you use the word reality in the first segment about your friend you met in college. Because, in all actuality, can’t those lies become her reality? Maybe not in the actual world, but to some people who lie like that, their lies become their reality. It’s sad. I have met several people like this and I completely agree that the more you see people behave in this matter, the more your paradigm puts up a defense against believing it. I’ve thought a lot about this before but I’ve never put it in to words and full perspective. I appreciate the post for this reason. It is an excellent discussion of how our truths can be or not be real. After all, there are three sides to every story. Yours, Mine and what really happened.

    • Great point Mary. You’re absolutely right. When someone has a compulsive need like that, it isn’t about choice. It is, for all intents and purposes, their reality. Although I know that there is something deeper, an emotional or social need for acceptance or admiration operating there, I think I let my annoyance at feeling manipulated step in. I guess my paradigm got in the way. 🙂

  • My paradigm prevents me from trusting any politician. Someone is always unearthing skeletons in politicians’ closets. They’re always blowing you smoke on the campaign trail, rarely living up to their promises. I’m almost at the point that I don’t want to vote anymore….like we’re screwed no matter who’s elected into office.

    • Cassi sometimes (when I’m at my most cynical) I think that political leaders foster that indifference. You’re certainly not alone in having it. I know that the more we don’t care, the more we paint them all with the same negative brush, the more likely we are to end up with a government who also doesn’t care about us.

      Fortunately for me, I spent 8 years on Parliament Hill getting to know politicians, their families and staff from different parties. They are as diverse in their values, ethics and opinions as the rest of us. There are some pretty amazing and dedicated people working ridiculous hours away from their families because they believe so strongly in civic duty. Pity their stories are too boring for the public and media to cover.

  • I have had altered perceptions of the world. Of course, I was doing drugs at the time!

    (I have been “clean” for years.)

    I also wanted to say that I see the black diamond from both perspectives – the top and the bottom of the cube!

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