Do you remember the film ‘Sliding Doors’? In the movie, the character, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, gets sacked from her job. As she leaves the office building, she drops an earring in the lift and a man picks it up for her. She rushes for her train on the London Underground and misses it. The plot then splits into two parallel universes; the other detailing what would have happened had she caught that train.
Although I first saw the film almost 20 years ago, I still think about it a lot. In our lives, we encounter so many crossroads, small, seemingly innocuous junctions when we either consciously decide, or, as in the film, we don’t get to decide, but our lives go off in a certain direction anyway.
Sometimes we arrive at a crossroads along with the rest of the population. Like when we have an election, or a referendum. At those times, we’re persuaded, badgered, implored, bribed even, to make a particular decision and take a similar path to our fellow citizens.
The same is often true in our professional lives, too. We may have recently left a job, or are considering a career change. And, there are plenty of people who will bombard us with ‘helpful’ material, e-mails from job sites, recruiters, specialist advisors, all there to push us to make a decision and take a particular road.
And in our personal lives? It may be beginning a serious relationship, or ending one. It could be a choice we need to make regarding a treatment for our health, a school for our kids or where we’re going to live.
At these times, what will really help us to go in the right direction? How can we raise the odds of our making the right decision?
In his outstanding book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, the late Dr. Stephen Covey explains the importance of having an internal roadmap, or a ‘paradigm’. The word ‘paradigm’ comes from a Greek word meaning a model or theory but, in the more general sense, it’s the way we ‘see’ the world, not in terms of our literal sight, but in terms of our perception or interpretation of the facts around us.
Each of us has many maps in our head, drawn up over years, based on our background, upbringing and experiences. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We rarely question their accuracy; we simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be.
Our attitudes and behaviours grow out of these assumptions. The way we see things is the source of the way we think and the way we act. Each of us tends to think we see things as they are, but this isn’t the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are-or, as we’ve been conditioned to see it.
As with literal roadmaps, or maybe nowadays, Sat Navs, it’s vital that we regularly update our internal maps. Otherwise, the world will continue to move, but we won’t. We all know people who remain ‘stuck in the past’ with their views and values, they never change as they have little self-awareness or motivation.
Consequently, when a big decision is to be made, the danger is they may be using a map that’s way out of date, in some cases, drawn up by their parents in the 1970s, or even further back.
So, how do we change our paradigms, our internal roadmap? First, we need to approach this with a deeper level of thinking. In his book, Stephen Covey proposes we adapt an ‘inside out’ approach, meaning the starting point is with our basic character and our motives.
For example, if we want to have more latitude or freedom in our jobs, then we begin by striving to be a more responsible, more helpful and more contributing employee. If we want to be trusted we have to be more trustworthy. If we want to be recognized for what we do, we must concentrate first on the authentic strength of our character.
But, the real key to ensuring our internal maps are as accurate as they can be is being alert to, and consciously striving to develop on a daily basis. In this environment many people experience what’s known as a ‘paradigm shift’, often referred to as an ‘Aha!’ moment, when a person really begins to see the world in another way.
I see this experience regularly when coaching, because in that environment, a person gets the opportunity to deeply reflect on their often long-held values and beliefs, their view of both themselves and the world about them. They’re then encouraged to challenge themselves and their reasoning and often emerge from the sessions with a deeper understanding and awareness of their world, moving forward with a renewed sense of direction and purpose.
By opening our minds to learning, testing our long-held beliefs and considering other ways of looking at things, we begin a continuous revision of our internal mapping system, thus ensuring that when we arrive at our own ‘Sliding Doors’, we’re properly equipped, irrespective of whether or not we stopped, like Gwyneth, to pick up that earring!