In her now-classic list of 12 places to intervene in a system, Donella Meadows elegantly prioritizes the most effective “leverage points” for getting more of what we really want in our families, organizations, communities, nations, and global community.
Of these 12 leverage points, it’s the highest level that is the most challenging to actually put into practice. That’s the point which Meadows named simply “the power to transcend paradigms.” It’s the point that we access, she observes, only when we learn to detach ourselves from specific paradigms and realize that no one paradigm is true, even the ones that most define us.
The power of this intervention point can’t be overstated. According to Meadows, this is the place where “people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, or bring down empires.” If you really want to move the world, this point holds the one lever that’s long enough.
It’s also a dangerous place to operate because, simply put, other people don’t like it when you assert your own values over their own. And the unintended consequence of pressing on people’s deepest-held values is often to only further entrench them.
Unfortunately, given our intensely increasing interdependencies, we can no longer afford individual transcendence. We must discover ways to transcend paradigms together.
How do we do that? In part by recognizing that each and every value we hold is really only half a value.
To truly realize freedom, we must also commit to mutual accountability, and vice versa. If I thrive on change, then I must eventually acknowledge the need for stability as well. When I call for greater accountability, others will also demand the need for greater support. Or, if I tend to focus on the short term, then the need to focus on the long term will inevitably assert itself. In each of these values pairs—and literally hundreds more—one value complements the other, and to reject one half of the pair over time is to make a false, often harmful, choice.
It’s those false choices—the rejection of values that actually complement and reinforce our own—that blind us to our true interdependency with others. And that blindness quickly turns to ignorance, rejection, and hate. If I deeply value individual freedom, then others’ commitment to mutual accountability seems to me like social control. If I deeply value reason, then others’ commitment to faith seems, well, unreasonable. But what about those times where reason ends and I need faith to move forward, or I find that I need to rely on others despite my best efforts at making it on my own?
For every value we hold, or anyone else holds, there is a hidden value, and we in fact hold the secret to one another’s transcendence. When we learn how to work with others to see the true interdependence of each of our closely held values, only then can we transcend paradigms together.