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Challenging the Conventional Paradigms

Broadening our definition of innovation

One of my favorite historical subjects is the study of how technology has changed the daily lives of average people over time, especially over the past two centuries or so. How the average person in an industrial society works, socializes, plays, shops, and travels has been transformed in a relatively short period of time (in historical terms), and the pace of change seems to accelerate year by year. Compared to someone like Benjamin Franklin (or even Abraham Lincoln), we are now living in a world of science fiction.

Almost as fascinating is the study of how many things do not change in spite of all this technological advancement. Holidays are an excellent example of this. Sure, some American holidays are relatively new, but most of these new ones are just excuses to have three-day weekends. Most of the big ones - Christmas, Easter, Halloween - have very ancient roots. While the big three just mentioned have some Christian roots either in terms of their meanings and/or their placements on the Calendar, they also have pagan roots that go back even further. And most modern Americans who observe these holidays rarely ask themselves why they are putting up Christmas trees, hiding Easter eggs, or dressing up in costumes and making jack-o-lanterns. It’s just what you are supposed to do.

These more religious oriented holidays are excellent examples of how religious traditions seem to change far more slowly than other aspects of modern life. The overwhelming majority of the global population, if they adhere to any religious belief system at all, are believers in traditions that go back a very long time: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, etc. Yes, a wide assortment of sects and offshoots has developed as time has passed, with many arguably being attempts to adapt these theological systems to a changing world, but the general paradigms of these major religious traditions have remained largely intact. And when people reject these paradigms, they often define themselves more by what they reject than by any new theological/spiritual systems that have taken their place.

Many humans can also get stuck on “traditional” ways of thinking when it comes to their relationships, whether we are talking about romance or family. There is an assumption in the United States that the “normal” thing to do is to settle down eventually, get married, and have kids. The “normal” marriage consists of two “soulmates” living in the same place, sharing all their finances, doing most things together, and (perhaps most importantly) never having sex with (and ideally never having any romantic interest in) someone other than their spouse. And in the modern United States, these happy couples are also expected to handle parenting largely on their own as nuclear families. Given such unrealistic expectations for what marriage and parenting is supposed to look like, it’s no wonder that many of us end up feeling like failures at both.

The fact that most exclusive long-term relationships fail - and end with the two people not wanting to have anything to do with each other ever again - does not stop people from thinking that this is the ideal or norm. (I’m not just talking about divorce here. Most of these relationships never even get to marriage, and we’ve all met couples who have been married for decades but should have gotten divorced a long time ago.) And the fact that many parents are exhausted and overwhelmed by parenting does not lead most of us to wonder if the paradigm of the nuclear family is flawed rather than the “failing” parents.

Some people in the United States and in other industrial nations are challenging these “traditional” norms. Polyamory and ethical non-monogamy are becoming a bit more mainstream, some couples choose to not live together and keep many aspects of their lives separate, and some people have created their own extended families through communal arrangements in which groups of parents share responsibility for taking care of one another’s kids. (Of course, in many societies throughout the world, extended families never really stopped being the norm to the same extent as in the United States.) But instead of being seen as innovators doing what they can to care for their kids and/or to keep loving relationships from dying, people living these “unorthodox” lifestyles are seen as oddballs and as potential threats to “normal” relationships and families.

I’m not arguing that all conventional and traditional ways of thinking need to be thrown into the trash. Traditions that last for centuries stick around because they work well for many people, and there seem to be plenty of happy people out there following very old religious traditions and in monogamous marriages raising children largely on their own. But not everyone is happy with these more traditional beliefs and arrangements. Some realize that you do not necessarily have to choose between the stereotypical categories (and labels) of married or single, believer or atheist, friend or lover, friend or family, heterosexual or homosexual, and hookup partner or lifelong monogamous spouse. In fact, the most happy places for many people to be may be in the gray areas between these apparent (extreme) options.

If no one was ever willing to challenge conventional modes of thinking and behaving, we would be living in a world where slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, abuse, and religious persecution were even bigger problems than they are still today. Change sometimes is a good thing, and there is more to innovation than just new technology


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.