Paradigm comes from the Greek root, paradigma. It basically means a pattern, a model, a representation, something that stands for something else. It comes from the mental image you have in your mind of the way things are ‘out there’. The images we carry in our heads of the way things are, of reality, come from our own backgrounds, our own experiences.

All of us think that we see the world as it is. In fact, we see the world as we are. We project onto the outside world, our environment, the people we associate with, including how we see ourselves. We project out of our own conditioning experiences, our own background, a certain representation, a certain model, a certain set of expectations, a certain assumption on that reality out there. We think that’s the way it is.

I might describe myself, or you, or a situation as if I am describing it as it is. In fact, I am describing myself, that is my perceptions, my frame of reference, my worldview, my value-system, my autobiography, and I’m projecting it upon the outside. Now let me get a very simply layman’s way of looking at a paradigm: it is a map, like a map of Portland.

What would you do if you went to Portland and you had no information at all about the city and you were given a map of Seattle, but on the top it said ‘Portland’? What would you do? You’ve never been to Portland, you have no other source of information. You would get lost. Let’s assume you call your buddy up on the phone and he knows that you’ve got that map and he says to you, ‘try harder, you’re tired.’

So now you double your speed. What’s going to happen? You call your friend back in a state of total despair and discouragement and say to him, ‘I have never been so confused and so lost in my life and I am following this map to the hilt. I have doubled my speed and I’m lost twice as fast.’ Your friend senses you’re discouraged, you’re really down, you’re almost ready to give up, it’s despairing. He says to you, ‘Think positively!’

He gets you just jazzed right out of your gourd. I mean he says, ‘You can do this thing! Rise to the occasion! Do it!’ Do you do it? Now you don’t even care that you’re lost right? That’s what a paradigm is. You see, a paradigm is the map that you have in your mind. Once you have an accurate map, then your behavior and your attitude matter.

What we call maps are usually assumptions, assumptions of the way things are. Assumptions of the way things are represent just that’s what reality is, you don’t question that. I remember I was giving a speech a little while back and there was someone on the front row just constantly talking to another person. My mother was two rows behind and she was so upset that here her precious son was being so ignored, so blatantly, so openly, constantly, and with no end. From the very moment I began, to the end of my speech, just constant talking. It totally discombobulated her own listening and she felt like taking her purse and reaching two rows ahead…

Anyway, she went up afterwards to the person who was running the conference and asked them, ‘Did you see that? Did you see what was happening? Can you believe that right there on the front row…

‘Yeah I know,’ the event organizer responded, ‘she’s Korean and that’s her translator.’

I was on a subway in a very large metropolitan city. It was Sunday morning, quiet, sedate. When a bunch of young kids came running into the subway car and their father followed. He sat near me and the kids went crazy on that subway, running up and down, turning people’s papers aside, just raucous and rude. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t believe this, their father does nothing!’ I look at my attitude, attitude to try to control, but look what I could see.

After a few minutes, attitude went into behavior, ‘Sir, do you think you could control your children a little? They are very upsetting to people.’

‘Oh yeah.’ He lifted his head as if to come to an awareness of what was happening. ‘Yeah, I don’t know. I just guess I should. We just left the hospital. Their mother died just about an hour ago and I guess they don’t know how to take it and frankly I don’t either.’

Imagine the paradigm shift that took place there. Imagine now what the attitude and the behavior would be based upon that paradigm. Can you see why paradigms are deeper than attitude or behavior? Even though we’re talking here in personal and interpersonal ways, the same thing takes place throughout our whole society.

Thomas Kuhn, in his brilliant book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, points out so powerfully and consistently: “All the significant breakthroughs were break-withs old ways on thinking.”

Einstein, who rewrote physics, he made this brilliant statement: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

It causes us to be reflective and introspective, to explore our own paradigms. Most people focus upon behavior and upon attitude and both of those are of course very important, but far more fundamental than either behavior or attitude, is a paradigm. 

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About the Author

Stephen R. Covey

Over his lifetime, Stephen inspired millions with the power of universal principles. As he traveled the globe many times over, his message was a simple one: for true success and meaning in life, we must be principle-centered in all areas of life. A teacher at heart, he often taught, "There are three constants in life: change, choice and principles." From the oval office, the board room, community halls and to the school house and family room, Stephen taught the mindset, skillset and toolset found in The 7 Habits of Highly effective people, his seminal work. His legacy is woven in The 7 habits, and, just as these habits are universal and timeless, so is Stephen R. Covey, who is admired around the world for his simple, yet powerful, universal, timeless teachings. Recognized as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, Stephen R. Covey was one of the world’s foremost leadership authorities, organizational experts, and thought leaders.

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