Think Like a Modeler Skill #2: Expand

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Effective modelers recognize that their mental models are limited by what they’ve been exposed to. Even if you’re a very observant person, if you haven’t immersed yourself in other cultures, lived as both wealthy and destitute, or experienced life as both a man and a woman just to name a few things, then your perspective cannot possibly be complete. You are trapped in one mind, one body, one physical place. To think like a modeler, you have to realize the immense depth and diversity that exists beyond your own experience, and then bridge that gap by seeking experiences and dialogue that challenge your views.

Most of us are humble enough to admit that we are not all-knowing. But we still have to make decisions and live out our lives, so we force ourselves to simplify the world to the best melange of what we know, and that becomes our working definition of reality. Over time, we get very comfortable with having limited information because we’ve made decisions all our lives based on incomplete data. Successful decision makers are always conscious of their limitations – therefore, they try to gather more information, or they do a better job factoring in the risk that they might be wrong into their decision process. But if you don’t consciously recognize your limitations, you may jump to inaccurate conclusions, some that never get challenged.

For instance, I lived at a yoga center in San Francisco for a few months where I often heard long-time residents say, “It seems like a lot of people are starting to seek yoga and spirituality”. Living at a yoga center in one of the most liberal cities in the country probably would give you that impression, but someone who lives a block away who has never tried yoga nor have friends who have pursued it would probably say the opposite. It’s easy to jump to conclusions based on our own very limited experience. Without an awareness of our limitations, the limitations themselves are all we have.

massive yoga gathering
Based on this yoga gathering in Central Park, obviously, most people are really into yoga and most people are not men.

Unfortunately, we tend to do exactly the opposite of what we need to do to combat the inherently self-centered experience of existence: We tend to seek confirmation rather than contradiction of our mental models. This cognitive bias is known as confirmation bias, where people selectively seek out, interpret, and remember information that confirms their pre-existing views.


For example, let’s say I believe that people are lonely and unhappy. I happen to have an uncle who is single, and I notice that he is often irritable, indeed, I used to be single and I myself felt lonely and sad. I start to label people as either single or in a relationship when I meet them, and I keep track of how happy I think they are, using singleness to explain unhappiness whenever I can. When single people tell me why they like to be single, I take pity on them for making excuses for why they can’t find somebody. I come to believe that these excuses and their miserable state are what keep them from finding somebody. Even if I recognize some benefits of being single, I write them off as less essential than self-delusion and unhappiness. If I were to go about trying to make sense of the rising number of single people in the United States, my reasoning would be tainted by these these views that I have confirmed over the years.

Practice this:

We can’t do much to change the fact that we will have limited models, but we can recognize this fact and seek ways to expand our views. We often take our own worldview for granted, making recognition of our limitations difficult. David Foster Wallace illustrates this point in his speech This is Water with a parable about two fish swimming along who are approached by a third fish who says, “Good morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish turn to each other and ask “What the hell is water?” The easiest way to learn what water is to go a place where there is none. Immerse yourself in environments that you have never been in before around people who you have not related to in the past, and without knowing what to expect, you will become aware of what you expected before.

Need ideas? Try dancing during the day, volunteering on an organic farm, listening to a Libertarian podcast, reading Quora’s “What is it like…” questions, or reading a book about Justice. Need more ideas? Try volunteering at a prison, teaching an after school class, spending 30 days living without money, listening to ideas that challenge our societal paradigms, and traveling the world. Bottom Line – there are an abundant number of ways to find activities that will guarantee you see the world differently. Pick something and stick to it for 30 days.

Just “experiencing” an environment that puts you out of your comfort zone can help you learn what you believe, but that’s not enough, you also need to understand what other people believe and recognize their worldview as one that is incomplete. People often become defensive when they encounter contradiction. Escape this trap try thinking and saying “Yes and…” while avoiding the words “no” and “but” at all costs. Improvisational artists use this technique to work together more productively. It helps them co-develop a reality rather than get in the way of each other, just as it can help you see the world from another perspective. This will help you develop a broader appreciation and awareness of the gamut of viewpoints that are possible.

Finally, involve people different from yourself in the process of problem solving. If you’re designing a product, involve the people who you think would use it. Invite the people who you think won’t use it. Try to understand the ways that each of their viewpoints might be limited and seek out the person that you think they should talk to as well. Modelers recognize the limited nature of themselves and others. They understand that each worldview, however incomplete or unappealing, is a decision-making tool for its owner, and therefore a living piece of reality that must be understood.

In This Series:

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