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Exploring the Intangibles: Discovering Mental Models that Can Dramatically Increase Your Success

Exploring the Intangibles: Discovering Mental Models that Can Dramatically Increase Your Success
Exploring the Intangibles: Discovering Mental Models that Can Dramatically Increase Your Success

Do you wish you were smarter?

Do you sometimes struggle to think differently when you are under pressure to make decisions?

Do you notice patterns of thinking that feel dysfunctional or unproductive, but you continue to use them anyway?

The most successful people know that the key to achieving their ambitious goals lies in changing the way they think. Developing a strategic mindset and adopting the right mental models can have an immense impact on your ability to succeed.

What is a mental model?

Mental models are frameworks of thought used by leaders, entrepreneurs, and high-achievers to break down complex issues into manageable chunks and make data-driven decisions with confidence. A mental model in psychology is an internal representation of external reality that plays a major role in cognition, reasoning, and decision-making. Kenneth Craik coined the term in 1943 and suggested that the mind constructs "small-scale models" of reality to anticipate events.

To illustrate this simply, a mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process. Our models are so basic to our understanding of the world that we are hardly conscious of them. They help to shape our behavior and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out tasks.

Avoiding wrong thinking and bad decisions

We all possess fascinating patterns of thinking and perception that have developed within our minds over many years. These mental models are shaped by your personal experiences and the experiences of others, exerting both subtle and subconscious influence over your attitudes and behaviors.

Interestingly, these mental models often arise from a singular perspective or a single narrative. Your mind can latch onto one viewpoint as if it is the sole truth, disregarding the fact that different perspectives may reveal alternative narratives that are also real and valid. This can lead you to think and make choices that are flawed because you assume that your beliefs are the truth and based on real data, even though they may be subjective and not obvious to others.

However, not all mental models are inherently negative. In fact, your brain relies heavily on pre-existing connections and frameworks. This is an invitation to explore the power of mental models and the impact they have on your interpretations and solutions. By being aware of our utilization of mental models in each situation, we can avoid flawed assumptions and enhance the critical reasoning necessary for optimal understanding and problem-solving.

You can't live your life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions. However, you can improve your thinking, decisions, and communications through reflection and by using a tool such as the Ladder of Inference.

Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is a powerful tool developed by former Harvard professor Chris Argyris that guides you in bridging gaps in your thinking and making decisions grounded in reality. It will also help you discover the art of challenging others' perspectives in a structured way, collectively arriving at better conclusions without unnecessary conflict. The ladder is often illustrated with rungs that represent the levels of thinking that emerge out of our mental models as we make meaning of a situation.

You can use this tool to:

  • Become more aware of your thinking and reasoning (reflection)

  • Make your thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy)

  • Inquire into others' thinking and reasoning (inquiry)

Modified version of the Ladder of Inference from The Fifth Discipline

I coach with a modified version of the ladder from Peter Senge's book, The Fifth Discipline. Starting at the ground level, the levels are:

  1. Taking in the surrounding reality and facts

  2. Noticing selected facts

  3. Interpreting facts, we are focused on

  4. Making assumptions and then having thoughts and feelings about those facts

  5. Drawing conclusions and anchoring to our beliefs

  6. Taking action(s)

(See the illustration.)

The power that mental models have in shaping our behavior and defining our approach to problem-solving cannot be underestimated. When faced with a complex challenge, mental models can help break down the problem into more manageable chunks so that we can arrive at more effective solutions with confidence. Through understanding and consciously applying mental models in your life, you can make smarter and more informed decisions.

Invest the time to engage in meaningful learning and acquire new mental models to build up your knowledge base – it will pay dividends in the long run. Join me this week for Deep Work Fast LIVE, Tuesday at 3:00pm PT, on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram, where we will unlock the power of mental models.


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