On the topic of paradigm shifts

Transcending the paradigms under which the majority of us train, race, (and generally develop our athleticism) is the most effective way to generate results that wildly outmatch any of our previous expectations of our athletic potential.

Paradigms are our constructed realities: they are the rules by which we are governed. Our paradigms outline which questions are acceptable, and which ones are not. They tell us which sources of information are valid, and which are not, and how we should go about interpreting the information we collect.

Systems thinking scholars suggest that transcending a paradigm—creating a “paradigm shift”—is the most effective way to change the behavior of a system (such as the human body) because it challenges the most basic questions and assumptions on which it is predicated. Necessarily, a new way of viewing the world will lead to the use of new types of information, new strategies, and new outcomes of the behavior of the system, which could have not possibly been foreseen or predicted under the previous paradigm.

Donella Meadows, a leading scholar in systems thinking, outlines, in her book12 different “leverage points” into any system—12 different ways in which we can intervene and change the behavior of the system, each more effective than the last.

Although they’re all very important, and very legitimate ways of changing the behavior of a system (such as our bodies), I’m mainly interested in number one, the most effective:

The power to transcend paradigms.

(I’ll discuss the others in future posts; they’re highly relevant, especially as we cultivate the smaller details of our athleticism).

A great example of a paradigm at play is that of a child who is not yet allowed to cross the road:

“Daddy? Why can’t I cross the road?”

You just can’t, it’s too dangerous.”

This answer illustrates the information that is off-limits to the child. The “pre-road-crossing” paradigm places the child into an existence where the prospect of crossing the road, and the theoretical and practical exploration necessary to do so, is disallowed. That question is not acceptable. Cars and traffic signs are not yet valid sources of information. We should interpret this information only through a mediator: daddy.

Then, one day, something happens: the paradigm becomes transcended. Daddy says:

“Look at the cars: where are they now?”

It became acceptable to ask that question. Cars are now valid sources of information. This information is now interpretable. The previous paradigm is no longer in play: it has been transcended.

For those who don’t know me personally, this—skipping all the leverage points to focus on the coolest one (and without even mentioning the rest)—is classic Ivan behavior. Let me explain:

The last two posts, on athletic expression and on our athletic horizons, proposed paradigm shifts.

The idea of athletic expression as opposed to propulsion opens up new methods and avenues of inquiry for the athlete: previously, speed was a measure of muscular output and it was muscular output that was trained. By focusing on expression, the body becomes integrated with itself and with the environment. We develop integration: our implicit and explicit knowledge of how to play with more and more variables leads to increased internal and external efficiency, which leads to increased muscular output, which leads to far, far greater speed.

Similarly, the idea that we are not good judges of our athletic potential leads us to entertain the idea that the development of our athletic potential is based on broader and deeper knowledge, and not greater intensity of training. We begin to ask entirely different questions. When we become challenged, instead of assuming that we are not powerful enough—(at first blush it seems to be more power that will get us past the 3-hour marathon “barrier”)—we realize that we are not knowledgeable enough. We realize that it is not the power of our physiology that is challenged, but our implicit and explicit knowledge of the sport.

I am all about paradigm shifts: Ultimately, it is the paradigms under which we develop our athletic potential that will mark and determine our reach.

For those who know me (or have read this blog long enough), you will know that my very favorite athlete is Bruce Lee. His skill, speed, and power far outclassed that of any other martial artist of his time. Why?

It was because of the philosophy under which he trained.

Bruce Lee wasn’t the best because of his training regimen. Otherwise, anyone who follows it will end up another Bruce Lee. (Here, cue the people that say it was “genetics,” “genius,” or whatever). I don’t think that was the case. The web of ideas under which he trained—his paradigm—led him to discover and lay out a particular training regimen, and to approach it in a particular way, and with a particular vision.

The paradigm of this athlete was unlike that of any other. He said this, regarding practitioners of his martial art, Jeet Kune Do:

A Jeet Kune Do man is not a Jeet Kune Do man.

This is a warning against the pitfalls of identity—and a lesson in deconstruction. Because Jeet Kune Do is the “way of no way,” formless by definition, you cannot approach it as a “way”—as a particular discipline. By practicing its tenets you are de facto veering away from them.

This paradox is brutal to the dilettante and frustrating to the practitioner. It seems to be designed to draw you into an aggressive, unrelenting frenzy of discovery and rediscovery. What is the way? What can the way be, if when I think to have found it, I know I am wrong.

I believe that this frenzy necessitated the development of such a unique training regimen. In my opinion, Bruce Lee’s speed was not due to his training per se. It was due to the fact that his training was born of a mindset that was hostile to stagnation.

It is the same for us. Our assumptions about the questions that pose, which are valid, and in which ways it is acceptable to go about answering them, shape our awareness and understanding of the world—and therefore the limits of our athletic development. A paradigm built around expression, instead of propulsion, is hostile to limits, as is one built on the increase of knowledge, instead of the increase of power. I propose we begin the process of transcending our athletic paradigms. Let’s not play the game as it stands. Let’s flip over the board. The world is not a square of checkered black and white. Neither is it a wood-floored, white-walled cube. The world is certainly something, and while its reality may forever elude us, let us adopt a lifestyle that thrives on deconstructing our latest model of how it works.

All of our freedoms arise from the deconstruction, and subsequent transcendence, of our paradigms: social, political, epistemological, biological, kinesthetic, spatio-temporal (referring to space and time), etc. Transcending more and more of them will bring the runner to a training philosophy (and subsequently, a training regimen) that will ceaselessly develop their athletic attributes.

This blog deals with all the leverage points, but most of all with paradigm shifts.

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