By Jeffrey Bowen
Popular magazines publish lists of the world’s most influential thinkers each year, but few of these people become true game changers. Yet once in a while it happens. Someone shatters our preconceptions and creates a very different way of looking at things. This has been called a paradigm shift, most often seen in science and technology.
“Tipping Point” author Malcolm Gladwell describes how a momentous change most likely is influenced by a combination of people in various roles. He calls them connectors, mavens and salesmen. Personally, I try to decide for myself whether to make a paradigm shift part of my quality world.
Our own choices define our “quality world,” according to reality therapist William Glasser. Our needs are met when those choices harmonize with our role models, possessions and systems of belief. The quality world is a place of personal ideals and perfection. No paradigm shift can find its way into our own hearts and minds unless it can be calibrated to fit our “personal picture album.”
Ask yourself what recent changes have affected your habits of thinking. Did they happen suddenly? Were opinion shapers involved? Are the changes gaining traction in your quality world? The answers can be self-revealing.
Let me share a couple of personal examples.
I am still proud that I won an elementary school high jump contest in 1955. Thirteen years later an American competitor named Dick Fosbury won the high jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics with a 7-foot-4 vault. I was awestruck. He was destined to revolutionize the sport and set the world standard in short order. Defying conventionality, he invented what became known as the Fosbury Flop.
A thick foam rubber landing pad helped Fosbury develop his skill early on. Invented in 1929, with enormous current implications, foam rubber has kept legions of high jumpers and pole vaulters from breaking their necks. But Fosbury was truly a game changer. The jumping events remain a very big deal in my personal quality world. I never miss watching the Olympics.
Paradigm shifts begin with a contention so universally accepted that no one really questions it. Pencils are still a perfect expression of technology, but lately a cascade of shifts has made them all but obsolete. When I was growing up, a phone was meant for taking and making calls. However, in a blink of time, they have been transformed from clunky wire-linked vehicles into wireless digital instruments that perform extraordinary tasks. Not the least of these is storing and sharing nearly all of the world’s recorded knowledge.
My game changers in this realm are Mark Zuckerberg and Steven Sasson. Zuckerburg and friends launched Facebook in 2004. Via this powerful social engine, I maintain contact with “friends” across the country. Moreover, I upload and share digital photos daily, thanks to Steven J. Sasson, an American electrical engineer who invented the first digital camera at Eastman Kodak in 1975.
Latent paradigm shifts are constantly percolating as technology races ahead. We gain perspective when we throw out old assumptions, keep nostalgia in check, and gauge usefulness. Shifts may be sudden, or take decades or centuries while struggling for release from prejudice or ignorance. When they fully activate, they quickly gain momentum and affect millions of people. Game changers rock the world, but personal choice determines whether that world is our own.