The paradigm flip

Paradigm shifts are appealing but rarely well executed.

A paradigm is our mental model of the world. We’re surrounded by people who share a similar model, and as long as the model is working, we live our lives without thinking much about it. If you lived in a space station, the absence of gravity would be something you’d notice at all times… until one day, you didn’t.

Technology and culture conspire to change the rules. When that happens, there are huge opportunities for those bold enough to imagine a different system, a mental model that isn’t simply adjusted, but rebuilt.

Network TV was based on the paradigm of mass markets and the battle for the last few percentage points of share.

Cable TV shifted that (a bit) because niche networks could find plenty of viewers to make a profit, and suddenly, the smallest viable audience was a useful new way to build a media asset. MTV and ESPN couldn’t have worked in a three-channel world, but did fine in one with forty channels.

The real flip, though, comes from YouTube. Now, it’s not about trying hard to add a few channels. It’s about embracing the idea that there’s an infinite number of channels. That a scarcity of spectrum isn’t normal or useful. And no one from the world of network or cable TV understood this or did anything about it. They were focused on shifting, not flipping.

Many of my colleagues and friends in the traditional publishing business are still wrestling with the print version of this. They have assets, reputation and a bit of momentum, but instead of flipping to a new system, they’re inching around a shift.

In medicine, millions of lives have been saved by flipping paradigms. Germ theory, for example, and hand washing. Or more recently, beta-blockers for heart disease, or seeing the role of bacteria in ulcers. In this video, my friend Jonathan Sackner Bernstein talks about his breakthrough work in reconsidering how Parkinson’s actually works:

Not all paradigms flip. Often, humanity is stuck with a culturally-entrenched system that’s difficult to change. But when we see an opportunity to contribute, the hard work is being willing to walk away from our reliance on how things were instead of simply trying to make a small shift happen.