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.
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.