Shift Your Paradigm, Change Your Behavior—Steps to a Better You

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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At the root of your beliefs and actions are a collection of paradigms. To Stephen Covey, paradigms are lenses through which you see the world.

You must start with your paradigms in order to truly implement the 7 Habits and make lasting, significant improvements to your life. But what exactly is a paradigm, and can you learn how to use it to change your behavior?

What is a Paradigm?

Your paradigms shape how you interpret the world, and your interpretation governs how you behave; thus, changing the lens we use in deciding how to change your behavior. Paradigms are also incredible important because you can recognize paradigm shifts in history.

At the root of your beliefs and behaviors are a collection of paradigms, which are influenced by your family, education, work, religion, friends, and culture. A paradigm is essentially the lens through which you see the world. In order to change how you act, you should first learn how to change your character.

Think of a paradigm as a map: A map is not the place itself, it is simply a representation of it. Some maps highlight topographical features, others show streets and landmarks, while others display population and demographic information — they’re all representing the same place through different lenses. 

Having an ineffective paradigm is like trying to use a map of Detroit to navigate Chicago. No matter how hard you work at it, you’ll still be lost. You will only start to make real progress when you correct your paradigm and are working with the right map. Only then will you know how to change your behavior. The 7 Habits paradigms show you how to get there.

We all have many paradigms that influence how we interpret the world. (For example, Character Ethic and Personality Ethic are examples of social paradigms.) There are two types of paradigms: Paradigms that help us interpret the way things should be shape our values, while paradigms that help us interpret the way things are shape our realities. 

Each person’s experiences creates different paradigms, so two people with different paradigms can look at the same facts, interpret them completely differently, and both be right. So when you think about how to change your behavior based on changing paradigms, you also need to think about different paradigms other than your own.

For example, there is a well-known optical illusion titled “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law.” It is a drawing that can be viewed as the face of a young woman looking away or as the profile of an old woman’s face. Say you first see the young woman, and then someone points out the older woman; if you avert your eyes and then look back, you are likely to still see the young woman first because your initial impression conditioned how you see the drawing. “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” shows how hard it is to change the way to see something, how to change your character, or shift your paradigm.

Paradigms also work this way: A lifetime of conditioning frames your perceptions and behaviors, and only with persistent, deliberate effort can you shift your paradigms. But first, you have to recognize that you have these paradigms and understand how they’re affecting your behavior. 

We are so accustomed to our paradigms that we seldom even realize we have them, let alone question their accuracy. If you spent your whole life with nearsighted vision and never put on glasses to correct it, would you realize anything was wrong? How would you know how to change your behavior?

Rather than question our own views, when other people’s paradigms cause them to interpret something differently than we do, we typically assume they’re wrong. When you become aware of your paradigms, you can begin to examine and question them, and acknowledge that other people’s beliefs and behaviors are shaped by their own paradigms. Evaluating your paradigms helps you become more open-minded to others’ perceptions, and ultimately expand your own view of the world. 

Despite how your personal paradigms cause you to interpret the world, there are indisputable principles that are part of reality — including fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, potential, growth, and patience. Put simply, your paradigms determine your values and behavior, which you can control, but principles determine the consequences of your behavior, which are beyond your control.

Why Do Paradigms Shift?

Principles are universally recognized, across cultures and languages and generations. You can tell that a principle is fundamental and self-evident because the prospect of following its opposite (e.g. living dishonestly or without dignity) seems ridiculous. 

Sometimes we run up against these unalterable principles, and that forces your paradigm to shift. To illustrate this, consider the story of a battleship that was passing through patchy fog as night fell. A crew member was looking out for ships and other objects when he saw a light approaching. He alerted the captain, who told the crew member to signal that the source of the light, presumably another ship, change course to avoid collision. A signal came back advising the battleship to change course; again, the captain insisted the other side change course. This went back and forth as the captain got increasingly frustrated, until the battleship received a signal that the source of the light was a lighthouse. Chagrined, the battleship crew had to change its course. Think about how this compares to paradigm shifts in history. Can people and events influence behavior to the point where it creates significant change?

Principles are different from practices; a principle is a fundamental truth while a practice is an action that is applicable to specific situations. However, principles can be dictate deeply held habits — like a habit of being fair, honest, or patient — and those habits can determine the practices you use to approach different situations. The more your paradigms, habits, and practices align with principles, the more smoothly and effectively you can move through life. Plus, the more you’ll be able to understand how to change your behavior.

Changing your paradigm brings powerful, dramatic change because it introduces a whole new way of thinking. This inevitably leads to a change in attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. Think about the drawing “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” again and how hard you had to work to see the different image. Practicing Habits can become difficult, but your habits become character.

Thomas Kuhn introduced the term “paradigm shift” to describe major scientific breakthroughs in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Think about how these paradigm shifts in history, and how they hav shaped all areas of life.

  • Copernicus’s claim that the planets revolved around the sun was a paradigm shift from the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. 
  • Before scientists developed the germ theory, large numbers of women and babies were dying during childbirth and more soldiers died from infections in minor wounds than major battlefield traumas. But the concept that germs existed — a paradigm shift — led to drastic improvements in medical outcomes.
  • The creation of democracy was a paradigm shift from the long-held tradition of monarchies. This radical change created an entirely different way of forming and regulating government. 

A paradigm shift doesn’t always change things for the better; for example, the progression from Character Ethic to Personality Ethic was a paradigm shift that moved to emphasize quick fixes over foundational improvements. 

How Changing Paradigms Can Change Your Behavior

Paradigms can change quickly — through life-altering experiences — or gradually. And since your habits become character, it’s important to recognize when paradigms change.

For example of Stephen Covey’s paradigm shifts, Covey was on a New York City subway one Sunday morning, and all the passengers in the train car were quiet and calm until a man and his children boarded. The loud and unruly children irritated passengers and changed the atmosphere in the car, while the man sat and did nothing. Covey eventually asked the man to try to control his children, and the man replied that they were coming from the hospital where the children’s mother had just died; the man said he was at a loss, and the children didn’t know how to handle grief either. That insight caused Stephen Covey’s paradigm to shift instantly, whose irritation was replaced with sympathy. Because he was able to quickly shift his paradigm, Covey realized just as quickly that his behavior wasn’t helping. It is a great example of how to change your behavior.

On the other hand, Covey tells the story of when he and his wife were concerned about their son, who was struggling academically, socially, and athletically. They encouraged him to keep trying, reinforced his successes, and assured him that things would get better — but things weren’t getting better. 

Eventually Covey and his wife realized that behind all their encouragement, they saw their son as inadequate: They were comparing him to social and cultural standards, which caused them to view his actions as shortcomings, rather than accepting and celebrating him for his unique talents and assets. Trying to encourage their son in these ways and attempting to protect him from feeling failure and social ridicule was actually sending the message that who he was wasn’t good enough. 

To correct their course, Covey and his wife began to give their son more space to face challenges but also to get through them on his own, to step into his own identity, to develop self-worth and gain confidence. Soon their son began to excel where he had previously struggled: academically, socially, and athletically. Covey and his wife made a slow and deliberate paradigm shift, which also shifted how their son saw himself. They speculate that their son’s newfound successes stemmed from his improved self-image and self-confidence. In figuring out how to help, they also shifted their paradigm and their son’s. It’s a good example of how to change your character and a 7 Habits paradigm shift.

When you’re discovering how to change your behavior, your paradigm is the first step in the process. Changing your paradigm is one of the hardest parts of proceeding with the 7 Habits paradigms, but remember that habits become character, so the more you practice the more you can work on shifting your paradigm and following through on figuring our how to change your behavior.

Shift Your Paradigm, Change Your Behavior—Steps to a Better You

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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