Thinking differently – why so tough?

By Marianne Renner: Leadership Coach, Speaker, Author

By now, most people are familiar with the picture of the old lady in Stephen Covey’s highly acclaimed book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Or wait, is it the young lady? The answer, as is often the case in life, is it depends.

It depends upon where you place your focus. Do you focus on the black lines, or do you focus on the white space in between. If you haven’t seen it, Google it.

Probably the number one thing I talk about with my coaching clients more than anything else is the power of shifting paradigms, or ways of thinking. The specifics differ in each case: someone wants to plan their next career move, or find more fulfillment through work, or someone is trying to figure out how to stop feeling overwhelmed in the workplace.

But the common denominator is that there is a problem to solve, and they haven’t found a way to solve it. The solution usually presents itself only after a new way of looking at the problem emerges.

Have you ever played scrabble and struggled to figure out how find your next triple-point word? You search and scour every inch of the board, but there’s just no way to play your letters. Then, you turn the board a quarter to the right and suddenly, there it is: xylophone!

What changed? The circumstances didn’t change. The opportunity didn’t change. You just saw the game from a whole new perspective.

We all have developed paradigms, a basic way of seeing the world and circumstances around us. Once we develop these paradigms, they can be difficult to change on our own.

When we see the old lady in the Stephen Covey diagram, we need someone to point out that there is a young lady. Sometimes, we need someone to take their finger and show us until the young lady emerges before our eyes.

Paradigms are our brain’s way of filing information to keep us from becoming overloaded and overwhelmed. We are simply not capable of stopping to process every piece of information that comes before us. So the brain files familiar stimuli and we go into autopilot when we need to access that information. When we come across a familiar experience, we don’t have to spend time and energy processing new information. We skip right to a conclusion without effort. Therefore, we are able to take in more and more information.

Let’s take, for example, our use of computers. Much of what we do is automatic. We don’t even question which icons to click or where to find our favorite search engine.

Ever stop to think about what it actually means to “cut and paste?” Why do we use those words when we remove typed words and put them somewhere else in a document? I mean, you’re not using a scissors, you’re not using glue, right? When I started out in the newspaper industry many years ago, we would layout the newspaper by printing out the type on glossy paper and run it through a wax machine so it was sticky on the back. Then we would use a scissors to cut out paragraphs and words and paste them on a template. We would peel them up, cut them shorter, put them in different columns or on different pages. We would paste them around so they all fit like a jig saw puzzle – we literally would cut and paste.

But of course, we don’t stop to ask these questions. We simply create a paradigm that cut and paste is just part of how we work on the computer – no questions asked. We just don’t have the capacity to stop and process every piece of information.

So, in this sense, paradigms actually work to our benefit, allowing us to skip ahead when we can so we can think about other things. But paradigms also can be tricksters and sometimes detrimental in other aspects of our lives.

For example, if we’re job hunting long enough and get enough rejections, we begin to develop a paradigm that it’s impossible to find the job we want. That’s our experience, and we mentally settle in to this negative paradigm.

If we experience something enough times, we develop a paradigm and stop processing information. This can crush our chances of success, because we don’t see the opportunity that is right before us. We see the lines of the old lady, but we don’t see the blank space between the lines that shows us the young lady.

The next time you find yourself in a dilemma, or telling yourself that “this is the way it is, and that’s that,” stop for a moment. Question your paradigms. Give the proverbial scrabble board one-quarter turn clockwise. There is always another way of seeing things, which will open up possibilities beyond your imagination.


Limiting beliefs may be holding you back from thinking differently. Get my free worksheet to create empowering beliefs that will result in tremendous success.

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