when fundamental assumptions shift


“The big breakthroughs in the history of ideas have been caused by a shift in fundamental assumptions. What tends to follow these shifts is an avalanche of new ideas. This move to a new set of rules is called a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts are often as much about sub-cultures forming around the new assumptions as any abstract ‘truth’.”

John Grant


assumptions are sneaky


Assumptions are key to managing life. They range, metaphorically, from lily pads to concrete foundations. Regardless of your own definition they offer the basic abilities to craft some ‘certainties’ upon which everything rests. I would argue we are barely aware of most assumptions, but they craft the basis for some inevitability. This, of course, creates a tendency to forecast future events through approximations. For many people that ‘approximation’ steps onto the slippery slope of ‘prediction.’ These ‘predictions’ are premised upon certain spoken or unspoken assumptions which imply some sense of enduring continuation which, as a consequence, imply continuation expectations. If the assumptions get shaken, the expectations get shaken.

Which leads me to the unseen assumptions.

Assumptions as they change are often like tectonic shifts (without the earthquakes). Unseen, and unfelt, a paradigmatic shift creating a fundamental shift in the way that something is understood or approached. It is not simply an incremental change, but rather a change in the underlying assumptions or theories that form the basis of how we see, and believe, about things. These shifts have far-reaching implications to society and how we thrive, or struggle, within that society. Circling back to a prior point, if duration expectations are affected, the general sense to an individual is lack of control and chaos. That said. The majority of assumptions are found below water, not above, and 99% of the time what is above water gives very little indication of what is truly below the water. The majority of people will scan what is floating around and assess that way. The more thoughtful want to know at least something about the parts they cannot obviously see. And the most thoughtful are interested in everything they cannot see even if it takes a lot of time and it is less than simple. I could argue that in Life or in business what we actually do is spend a shitload of time focused solely on the assumptions we can see so we are often late to see the assumptions below changing.

Which leads me to experiences.

One of the most important consequences of fundamental shifts is shifts in experiences – outcomes of the shifts. While fundamental assumptions are tectonic shifts, they actually scramble the details of life and things. They scramble some of the intangibles that are equally important in shaping experience, the information we use and the organizational frameworks within which we live. In other words, they scramble the definitions of things. And once definitions are scrambled experiences become less definable beyond some fairly simplistic abstractions. Ideas that once were clear their outlines become a bit vaguer. A shift in assumption leads to a shift n details which leads to a shift in definitions. Oh. And some people shift slower to new definitions than others.  This is a fairly important point because “experience” is actually a mechanism for the consumption of emotions.

Two apparently contrasting images of the future grip the popular imagination today. Most people to the extent that they bother to think about the future at all … assume the world they know will last indefinitely. They find it difficult to imagine a truly different way of life for themselves, let alone a totally new civilization. Of course they recognize that things are changing. But they assume today’s changes will somehow pass them by and that nothing will shake the familiar economic framework and political structure. They confidently expect the future to continue the present. This straight-line thinking comes in various packages. At one level it appears as an unexamined assumption lying behind the decisions of businessmen, teachers, parents, and politicians. At a more sophisticated level it comes dressed up hi statistics, computerized data, and forecasters jargon.

Either way it adds up to a vision of a future world that is essentially “more of the same.”

Alvin Toffler

Which leads me to emotional reclassification.

I don’t care if you read this as thinking shifts, belief shifts, attitude shifts or even mindset shifts, there is always a cost involved in reclassifying assumptions-to-experiences. Some people will lead the way and some will lag along the way in this reclassification design. New systems will be created for the ‘new’ even while the old systems remain in place for the ‘laggards.’ And while we talk a lot about the limits, or unlimits, of people’s ability to re-educate themselves, maybe we should talk a bit more about what limits systems have. I say that because if laggards lag too far and builders build too far, the systems gets split in an ugly tug of war in which no one wins and the system becomes to fail on its most basic duties. Emotionally, and experientially, we begin to feel the repercussions of the fact fundamental assumptions have shifted – and we haven’t.

To be clear, everything I have shared can be viewed from an individual level, a group/business level and a society level. Why? Because fundamental assumptions are the stepping stones of Life. So, when they shift, everything in the world tilts a bit. Ponder.

Written by Bruce