Modeling isn’t easy because thinking isn’t easy. Most people, however, make it easy by passively accepting their mental models, rarely exposing them to be challenged by others or even opening them up to internal questioning. These people form opinions based on the surface level behaviors they observe, they don’t seek out opportunities to have dialogue with those harboring opposing viewpoints, and they sometimes don’t separate their own assumptions from facts. While these steps help conserve the energy expended on thinking, they are also reasons why some people lack an understanding of events around them, and ultimately fail to learn.
We are all modelers by nature. In fact, we make all of our decisions based on these unstated assumptions of reality, rather than the real world itself. If our mental model of the real world is incorrect, then we may make the wrong conclusions about why we were fired, why the economy tanked, or why the prices of foods are rising.
We can challenge our limited mental models that are stored in our heads by writing them down on paper. And once a model, however simple, is drawn on paper, we now have a communication tool and can invite others to participate to challenge it. With more dialogue, information, and research, the model becomes more representative of reality. But as soon as the model gets too detailed or complex, the modeler may have trouble making any use of it. At this point a model loses it’s purpose, representing reality without improving understanding.
Thinking like a modeler is about finding that balance between constructing an accurate reality and creating something that is actually useful for decision making – too simple and we don’t fairly represent the world, but too complex and we don’t know how to use the model.
Finally, modeling is really about learning about the world. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or mathematical skills you’ve acquired, if you don’t approach a problem with an open mind, you’ve already shut off your opportunities to learn. Therefore, be curious and listen to what others have to say. Don’t be afraid of admitting that you don’t know a lot, and that the world is difficult to understand.
As you’re getting started making your own models, here are some skills you’ll need to hone if you want to become a better modeler: