1The other night at the dinner table, my three kids-ages 9, 6 and 4-took time out from their food fight to teach me about paradigm shifts, the limitations of linear thinking and how to refocus
2Here's how it happened: We were playing our own oral version of the Sesame Street game, "What Doesn't Belong?," where kids look at three pictures and choose the one that doesn't fit. I said, "OK, what doesn't belong, an orange, a tomato or a
3The oldest didn't take more than a second to deliver his smug answer: "Tomato because the other two are fruits." I agreed that this was the right answer despite the fact that some purists
insist a tomato is a fruit. To those of us forced as kids to eat
them in salads, tomatoes will always be vegetables. I was
about to think up another set of three when my 4-year-old said, "The right answer is strawberry because the other two are
round and a strawberry isn't." How could I argue with that?
4Then my 6-year old said, "It's the orange because the other two are red." Not to be outdone by his younger siblings, the 9-year old said, "It could also be the orange because the other two
grow on vines."
5The middle one took this as a direct challenge. "It could be the strawberry because it's the only one you put on ice cream."
6Something was definitely happening here. It was messier than
a food fight and much more important than whether a tomato is
a fruit or vegetable. My kids were doing what Copernicus did
when he placed the sun at the center of the universe,
readjusting the centuries-old paradigm of an Earth-centered
system. They were doing what Reuben Mattus did when he
renamed his Bronx ice cream Haagen-Dazs and raised the
price without changing the product. They were doing what
Edward Jenner did when he discovered a vaccination for
smallpox by abandoning his quest for a cure.
7Instead of studying people who were sick with smallpox, he began to study people who were exposed to it but never got sick. He found that they'd all contracted a similar but milder
disease, cow pox, which vaccinated them against the deadly smallpox.
82They were refocusing the parameters. They were redefining the problems. They were reframing the questions. In short, they were doing what every scientist who's ever made an important discovery throughout history has done, according to Thomas Kuhn, in his book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions":
They were shifting old paradigms.
9But if this had been a workbook exercise in school, every kid who didn't circle tomato would have been marked wrong. Every kid who framed the question differently than "Which is not a
fruit?" would have been wrong. Maybe that explains why so
many of the world's most brilliant scientists and inventors were failures in school, the most notable being Albert Einstein, who was perhaps this century's most potent paradigm-shifter.
104This is not meant to be a critique of schools. Lord knows, that's easy enough to do. This is, instead, a reminder that there are real limits to the value of information. I bring this up
because we seem to be at a point in the evolution of our society where everyone is clamoring for more technology, for instant access to ever-growing bodies of information.
11Students must be on-line. Your home must be digitally connected to the World Wide Web. Businesses must be able to download volumes of data instantaneously. But unless we shift our paradigms and refocus our parameters, the super
information highway will lead us nowhere.
12We are not now, nor have we recently been suffering from a lack of information. Think how much more information we have than Copernicus had four centuries ago. And he didn't do
anything less Earth-shattering (pun intended) than completely change the way the universe was viewed. He didn't do it by
uncovering more information --- he did it by looking differently at information everyone else already had looked at. Edward
Jenner didn't invent preventive medicine by accumulating
information; he did it by reframing the question.
13What we need as we begin to downshift onto the information highway is not more information but new ways of looking at it.
We need to discover, as my kids did, that there is more than one right answer, there is more than one right question and
there is more than one way to look at a body of information. We need to remember that when you have only a hammer, you
tend to see every problem as a nail.