The Tradition Trap

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Who doesn’t enjoy tradition? Photo by Public Domain Pictures on

Tradition is everywhere. It surrounds us. We hear about it all the time from media pundits and politicians. Tradition is generally lauded as a good thing in our families and communities. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

I think the answer to the question is – it depends.

Tradition is an important aspect of defining who we are as people, as places, and as cultures. These shared meanings help form our sense of place and place attachment. They help us form the shared meaning around which locally oriented actions occurs, allowing community itself to emerge.

But tradition has another side, a darker side, which is the focal point for this blog entry.

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a good amount of time examining the concept of tradition from a number of different standpoints. I spent a week in Detroit learning about innovative thinking and idea generation. I spent two days in Omaha learning about using one’s talents to build businesses, programs, and organizations. Both of these courses force participants out of the comfort zone of tradition when thinking about approaches to problems.

To top it off I’ve spent two weeks working my schedule around two county fairs – bastions of tradition!

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While not a trap, The Tradition Trap acts like one by locking us into an unquestioned course of action. Photo by Pixabay on

I’ve come to realize the dark side of tradition – The Tradition Trap – comes when we mindlessly accept a tradition is correct. We accept a tradition started with a foundation in real need or necessity. Our automatic response accepts something ‘because it’s always been done that way’. Tradition can fuel our negative perspectives – our scarcity mentality – rather than cultivate a mentality of abundance.

I like to challenge notions of how things should be done (one of the reasons why I started this blog). Partly this knack is due to my fascination with concepts and ideas and how they fit together (I’ve learned that this is characteristic of people who have Ideation as a Gallup Strength). Part of my interest in challenging tradition is driven by something ingrained in me during my time with Shell, something called ‘chronic unease’.

It’s not a bad as it sounds. Chronic unease is a counter to contemplation – the feeling of regularity occurring when we become familiar with something. When we become complacent, we ignore warning signs and let things go to the point where they become a problem.

In the oil and gas industry, as in many other industries, complacency kills.

Chronic unease is situational awareness where one look for and challenges things that aren’t right, that don’t make sense, or that are unsafe. In other words, it forces us to not accept complacency as the everyday standard.

While many traditions don’t involve life-or-death consequences, I still think we need to institute a healthy dose of chronic unease into our communities, institutions, and businesses.

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Motivation driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo (a variety of tradition) is an important part of innovative thinking. Photo by Pixabay on

Asking questions about why things are the way they are is a good thing, it’s a source of motivation to be innovative and helps us toward an abundance mentality. Questions force us to unpack our deeply held understandings about how things work. It helps to identify the blind spots in tradition which cause us to become stuck in neutral or not accomplish what we set out to do. It also introduces an element of chronic unease because it forces people to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it – something they either haven’t been asked to do or have, in some instances, been trained not to do.

The Tradition Trap ultimately becomes expensive, especially as multiple parts of a system fall into the trap. It becomes far too easy to spend money or invest staff time in the pursuit of some tradition, which, when really analyzed, really has no bearing on the impact our output of something or is being out-competed by others.

I see this play out a lot in my work within Extension and Academia. New and upcoming Educators are branded as ‘rogues’ for thinking outside the box and challenging traditional roles and engagement practices. They are often counseled by their peers to get back in line or simply castigated and set aside.

That’s really unfortunate, because by and large, those rogue Educators have chronic unease. They see the bigger picture. They act and think the way they do because they’ve identified a problem and are trying to fix it. They try to incorporate new and emergent trends in keeping with customers’ demands, rather than fall back on practices that have changed little since the early 1900s.

The same thing plays out in communities. People who are new or think differently are often closed out of the community structures because their thinking deemed counter to prevalent ‘traditions’. Youth and young adults who are creative and think differently about what could be are forced out of their communities. Increasingly, especially in rural areas, this exacerbates the loss of talent because these new ideas are often based on new trends or ideas that can help reinvigorate those rural towns, making them more attractive for potential residents and businesses – the key to stemming the outflow of talent and loss of entrepreneurs.

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Questions lead to answers, and answers can lead us to better decisions. Photo by Pixabay on

How do we do break The Tradition Trap? Ask questions. Lots of questions. When you see something that doesn’t make sense, ask ‘why?’ And keep asking it. Eventually, you’ll reach the root cause (usually around five whys into your questions). Sometimes tradition makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. But unless the questions are asked, one never knows!

We should also institute chronic unease into our work and communities. Everyone should always be looking for opportunities for change and improvement. We shouldn’t fall back on clichés like “it’s always been done that way” or convenient excuses and explanations about why we think things are done a certain way. The way of the past often isn’t the way to the future.

Breaking the trap involves us thinking like a business – what are the inputs and outputs? Question expenditures and think about more effective ways to do things without losing quality or engagement. Think about real needs vs. wants/desires. Think about the broader needs of the community, not just a segment. It’s a rare tradition that addresses any of these, all too often it’s just business as usual.

Battling The Tradition Trap is not for the faint of heart. People are very protective of traditions (even the bad ones) and it takes time and effort (and a thick skin) to try to effect change. Sometimes you simply have to plant the seed and let time and chronic unease work their wonders.

Whether you’re developing an innovative, ‘outside the box’ program, developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, or trying to lead a group toward breaking through The Tradition Trap is often a critical first step toward sustainable development. Recognizing the signs of tradition-based complacency can help you start asking the right questions toward solving the problem. And instituting an adaptive monitoring and management system – chronic unease – can keep tradition from sending a community/program/business/organization down a path of waste and stagnation.

We all need to rethink how we approach tradition and find ways to avoid and break down The Tradition Trap. What are you going to do to break the cycle?

One thought on “The Tradition Trap

  1. I think the way is to search for the silences while we live amid the noise. And to cling to simplicity, even though others may judge us for it and find us lacking. To stop playing the game when the end doesn’t appeal. I really love this post!


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