Expand Your Mind With One Weird Trick

In some ways, the story of my career is taking stretch opportunities that require me to jump into the deep end of unfamiliar territory. At this point, one of my key skills is knowing how to navigate situations where I have a lot of unknowns. I want to share a technique I have developed, which has been immensely powerful for me. Let’s call it mental model rewriting.

Roll Safe meme picture: a guy tapping his head, looking smug, as though he's got secret knowledge

Going into a job in an unfamiliar space, I know that my first impressions of how things work are probably wrong. I’ll typically have some intuition of how things work, by making analogies to things I do know about. But I need to progress from novice to expert as quickly as possible.

For instance, since April, I have worked for an insurance company. I have no previous insurance industry experience. Immediately before this job, I worked for a mortgage company. Both are financial services. And in fact, it turns out the industries have a lot of similarities. But they are certainly not the same! I am still climbing the learning curve one, one step at a time. I have developed a technique for this.

First, I find someone with more expertise than myself, who is willing to take some time to school me. I’ll say something like, “I’m guessing I’ve got some parts of this wrong, but here’s how I think concept A works.” Sometimes they’ll say, “actually that is pretty much right”, but more often, it’s, “yeah, that’s close, but not quite right, because of reasons, X, Y, and Z”.

Once I’ve got the new explanation, I need to make what they just said to me make sense. This is the rewriting part. I must be willing and able to throw out all my working assumptions, in order to build and adopt a more accurate mental model.

This probably seems pretty basic. But I really think that applying this method has been a major success factor in my career, especially as I’ve taken on more leadership roles. And I think it’s worth considering why someone might not do this. To begin with, being wrong out loud requires humility and vulnerability. It’s very hard to say things that you know are likely to be incorrect if you’re worried about being perceived as ignorant. Getting comfortable with this has been a years-long process.

But I think the mental model rewriting process is actually the hardest part. This is hard to do once, but when I’m in an area of deep familiarity, I may need to do this many times before I start to get an intermediate understanding of a topic. Sometimes, I’m months in and rethinking my understanding of foundational pieces of knowledge. Doing this continually requires resisting the urge towards complacency.

Now, to be clear, I know I can never know everything. If I spend all my time trying to acquire knowledge, I’ll never actually do anything. I have to be comfortable operating under ambiguity. Maybe that will be a topic for another post. But understanding is power–especially conceptual understanding–and this method allows me to build it rapidly.

When I can overcome the hurdles that make me resist mental model rewriting, I find that applying this method repeatedly rapidly builds expertise. This results in me becoming better at integrating new information, better at teaching, better at communicating with subject matter experts, better at adapting to changes in context, and better at making strategic decisions.

Mental model rewriting is my secret weapon.

4 thoughts on “Expand Your Mind With One Weird Trick

  1. For me, the process of rewriting requires reading a lot of material. Blog posts can be good, but asking experts about book recommendations provides me much more context, which is super valuable when I must operate in intermediate waters.

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    1. Yeah, that’s a great point. Now that you mention it, that’s often how I approach it, too. One of my go-to moves is finding the best podcasts on the topic, and discussion with experts on those often leads to books and other resources. (Although, to be honest, I don’t actually finish that many books.) Conferences are also a great way to get immersed in a topic.

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  2. Thank you for the insight. This is something that I have been thinking about for a while because what I have found is that it is easy to get into the state of “just learning enough” (to get by). It is not satisfying and very limiting.

    Expertise and mastery are pursuits worth aiming for, but it is not always obvious how to get there in knowledge based fields, i.e. engineering (whereas it is more obvious in performance based fields).

    I recently read a book, “Learn like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything” by Barbara Oakley PhD and Olav Schewe. They talk about “recall” especially in the case for effective reading. This is aligned with what you describe here where you recall, put into your own words, what you’ve read without looking at the book in order to strengthen the connections in your long term memory.

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    1. Thanks for sharing! Yeah, I think what I’m describing is finding the balance between learning just enough to get by versus true mastery. I’ve found it really valuable to push into that intermediate space.
      I may check that book out if I find the time!

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