I think therefore I am?

I think therefore I am?

How mental models influence your experience of life

How set in your ways are you? Given that you’re reading this article I’m guessing you’re likely keen on personal development, have a pretty good sense of self-awareness, and see yourself as open to new ideas and approaches. Me too. Or so I thought, until I started learning more about a thing called ‘mental models’ and realising how my habitual patterns of thought may in fact be biasing my reactions to people and situations.

Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are

Does not compute

Imagine for a moment that your ways of thinking are akin to a computer operating system. When first booted up, your operating system is working to address the needs it has in the environment in which it is working. Think here of the beliefs created in childhood that kept you safe and helped you understand this exciting and sometimes confusing new world – your system is optimal; it serves your immediate needs. Then we go through life, installing new apps (read: thoughts and beliefs) that address our changing requirements. And we keep adding and adding, but not necessarily deleting the old tools and apps, the former thinking patterns or beliefs that once served us so well but are now outdated and no longer fit for purpose. Holding on to old ways of thinking has the result of us running sub-optimally, making assumptions (often without knowing it), and missing vital pieces of data. We may need to upgrade to a new operating system.

Mental models

These ways of thinking are called your mental models. According to Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, mental models are…

…your own particular set of deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, beliefs and values.

They are formed over time, based on your past experiences, and are there to help you understand and operate in the world. They are typically automatic, running in the background. We are often not even aware of them. They are not permanent, but rather can be reframed and updated.

Shaping your thoughts

Kofman identifies four factors that shape our mental models: biology, language, culture and personal circumstances. Our biology defines the range of what we can experience and therefore act upon. How well can we see, hear, feel, for example? Shared language allows us to share experiences and align with others, but an accountant will have a different set of language than, say, an artist. Values and norms vary from one culture to the next, what is encouraged in one culture may be frowned upon in another. Our personal circumstances are a blend of race, gender, religion, nationality and family, that is unique to each one of us.

Language-wise, take, for example, the expression ‘let’s table the issue’. In the USA to ‘table’ usually means to postpone or suspend consideration to a later date, to park it. In the rest of the English-speaking world, however, it means to begin consideration of a proposal, to put it on the table for discussion now. When we lead with our own language-based mental model and aren’t aware that there could be another mental model at play, we can run into miscommunications and misunderstandings.

A cultural example of a mental model comes to mind for me having lived in both the UK and the Netherlands. In the UK there’s a long working hours culture where, in some organisations, it’s a badge of honour to be the last to leave the (virtual) office of an evening (and no-one wants to be the first to leave!). In the Netherlands, however, there’s a belief that if you need to work late it must mean you’re lacking in competency or aren’t particularly efficient with your tasks.

Consider how your own unique experience has shaped your mental models in these four areas of biology, language, culture and personal circumstances.

Not the only truth

A particular set of mental models is not right or wrong, but rather may be considered as incomplete, or not the only ‘truth’. In conversations with others, for example, when someone says something, it’s your mental models that create images, memories and emotions that help you to understand what he or she is saying. So, it’s an interpretation of what is being shared, that someone else might interpret differently. By understanding how our background (biology, language, culture and personal circumstances) has influenced our thinking, we can begin to identify which thoughts or beliefs may no longer be valid or where we may be missing something crucial.

Challenge yourself

How do your thoughts, beliefs and values influence your experience of life – your performance at work, your interactions with others, the choices you make? Where might it be helpful to challenge your assumptions and shine a light on your automatic thinking patterns, so you can build a clearer picture of that which serves you, and that which may be limiting you?

By increasing your self-awareness of your mental models, you give yourself the opportunity to be more objective, more present and more effective in the world.

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