The Current Crisis: A Once in a Generation Opportunity

Today’s crisis represents an opportunity to rethink everything. Don’t waste it.

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In his seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, Thomas Kuhn introduced us to the phenomenon of the paradigm. The nature of a paradigm, Kuhn explains, is that it is rarely seen. And largely because it is unseen, the paradigm constrains and shapes the actions available to those trapped within it. Primarily concerned with aspects of scientific inquiry, the book describes how new theories are not available to the scientist operating within the prevailing paradigm. It isn’t until the paradigm is exposed and begins to shift that new lines of inquiry and new theories are possible.

This has been true for all of the major scientific revolutions. The Ptolemaic geocentric model giving way to Copernican heliocentrism…Lavoisier’s oxygen theory replacing the phlogiston theory…Einstein’s theory of special relativity challenging the set of Newtonian rules that had explained force and motion for centuries. Here’s how Kuhn describes it.

When paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well. Of course, nothing of quite that sort does occur: there is no geographical transplantation; outside of the laboratory everyday affairs usually continue as before. Nevertheless, paradigm changes do cause scientists to see the world of their research-engagement differently. In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.

The experience of a paradigm shift applies not just to scientific revolutions, but to all of human activity. Indeed, you are living inside a paradigm right now – one that massively constrains and shapes how you make meaning of your circumstances, what you value and believe, and how you behave. And because you don’t truly see the paradigm, access to change and growth is limited. Hence the saying: the more things change, the more things seem to stay the same.

So, what allows for a paradigm to shift? A crisis. It is in a crisis that we begin to see the paradigm. We start to question the previously unquestionable. I believe we are now in such a crisis. We are asking new questions – ones we might have raised before, but only in the way someone does when he is daydreaming. In a crisis it’s different. The questions can’t be avoided. And they’re asked with the intensity and seriousness of someone intent on acting differently as a result of the inquiry.

We are asking questions at every level. Personally, we are reevaluating how we live life. How we work. What we value. Within our families, we are reassessing the choices we have made around our priorities. We are rethinking the importance of connection and time together. In our companies, we are being forced to experiment with fundamentally new ways of communicating and collaborating. Industries that were once 10-year promises, like telemedicine, are being launched at scale in a matter of weeks. Supply chains are being reconfigured. The big societal questions of income inequality, the environment, and the overall role of government, just to name a few, have taken on even greater importance and urgency.

As difficult as the current situation may be for you, it represents an incredible gift. It is an opportunity to see the paradigm within which you have been operating. I’m reminded of Jim Carrey’s character in the movie The Truman Show, who all along has an underlying sense that something isn’t quite right, only to discover he’s trapped in an artificial world. Ok, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But it’s not too far off. It doesn’t mean you have to change everything in your life (or for that matter anything). It does represent, however, an opening to ask questions and to ask them with a level of seriousness and gravity. How are you living and leading your life? How much of your life feels like it is being driven automatically? What are some new choices you could make about how you live, work, and relate to others? These are the questions that someone who is mastering life will ask, answer, and act upon. Don’t waste this crisis.
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