[This post is part of a series on “Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours.” If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]
Though this series covers models and their importance, one of their most important properties is that they inherently have flaws and inconsistencies. Flawed as they are, we can’t avoid using models — we can’t avoid believing things beyond what our experience allows. The universe is larger and more complex than we can observe or comprehend so we have to make do with flawed and inconsistent simplifications. You might say you can never be completely right about anything — not you nor anybody else.
As depressing as these properties may sound to the uninitiated, they are incredibly liberating. They free you from the stricture of having to be right, since you can’t be, nor can anyone else. (This paragraph alone may dramatically reduce the number of arguments you get into.)
You don’t have to feel you’re resigning yourself to flawed and inconsistent understandings of your world. Whatever your consider your purpose in life, it’s not to observe and comprehend everything in a universe that stretches billions of light years in every direction into which you can usually see only a few meters.
You probably prefer to live a happy life, leave the world better than you found it, or something relatively modest like that. As we’ve seen, mental models do the job for that, especially if you recognize them as models, not reality themselves.
A model that all models are flawed but inevitable.
Think of someone you’ve known a long time. Do you think you know them well?
Consider this: that person is as complex as you. Their brain and personality are as complex as yours. To know them as well as you know yourself, you’d need another brain, which you don’t have. What we think of as knowing someone else usually amounts to simplifying all the complexity of a human into five or ten adjectives. “Bob? He’s a great guy. Great sense of humor and always ready to help a friend. A bit of a temper, but down-to-earth.”
Needless to say, with simplifications like that, our models of others don’t do them justice. And there are billions of other people. Plus the rest of the universe. The models we hold in our minds contain a negligible fraction of the information in the universe.
On top of that, everything in the universe interacts, however indirectly, with everything else. No matter how well you think you know something or how isolated you consider it, other things connect with it. Everything else connects with it. Whatever your understanding, something you didn’t think about affects it. You’ll find your model wrong in ways you can never predict.
Your simplifications throw out information and introduce biases. Your models will always differ from everyone else’s. Your models not only don’t represent reality accurately, they differ from everybody else’s, and even your own at different times.
All your models, as well as everyone else’s, are wrong in some sense. Even this one.
Yet we do just fine.
Yet we do just fine. Again, our life goals are to live a life we want. We evolved to continue living, not to comprehend everything, something people can lose track of in trying to make their models perfect.
How to use models
The combination that all models are flawed and that people live happily anyway is incredibly liberating. Instead of worrying about accuracy, you can focus on living the life you want. Instead of arguing who is right, you can accept and celebrate different perspectives, knowing the inevitability of differences between everyone.
Models are valuable for how well they help you live your life. I recommend only evaluating models by that measure and never for its accuracy or internal consistency, except in serving that measure.
If you ever find yourself scrutinizing someone else’s models to try to prove it or the person wrong (as you may be doing with this one now), recognize that similar scrutiny will prove yours wrong too. Doing so means you misunderstand models. Anytime you find yourself arguing against a belief held by people happier or living a more rewarding life than you, you might benefit from remembering you could argue down your models too, then ask yourself if adopting their model might improve your life too. If so, you can try it out — yes, that means believe something you first disbelieve. If not, no need to argue them down.
Next, since your environment changes constantly, as well as your understanding of it, I recommend valuing flexibility in how you model things to reflect that change. When you find a better model than what you’re using, feel free to improve your life by switching.
When I use this belief
I use this belief when evaluating models or when I catch myself thinking a belief should perfectly represent reality.
What this belief replaces
This belief replaces believing the model in my mind should or even can represent what it’s modeling.
Where this belief leads
This belief leads to greater flexibility choosing models and more understanding, acceptance, and celebration of others’ beliefs.
It creates freedom in how you see the world, leading to freedom in how you think and behave.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book