It begins with a model

What’s the most important thing that you didn’t learn at school?

It’s 2017 – the first signs of spring are starting to show in the budding leaves of Johannesburg – and I sit pondering this question. At the time I was working with a small group of friends to create a short course for high school students – our aim was to share the most powerful lessons that we wish we’d learnt at school. There were many lessons, but one underpinned all the others: it turned out that mental modelling became the foundation for the entire course.

Fast forward three years – the lingering evening sun hinting that spring has come – and I sit before a bright computer screen in the dreaming town of Oxford, ready to embark on a writing project of humbling aspiration. Once again I’m struck by the same realisation: all of the insights and wonders I’m trying to convey are not truth claims. They’re theories, stories, hypotheses – in other words: models. There is something liberating, and honest, in trying to paint only a relative truth: it rightfully implies that all knowledge is ephemeral – our current best theory just waiting to be upended by new, inexplicable observations. And so unpacking what a model is has become the necessary starting point before exploring some interesting, useful and emerging models. The concept is a cornerstone in this cathedral of enquiry.

We will begin by likening models to maps, then explore why taking responsibility for one’s personal models is both necessary and empowering, and finally issue a warning about the inherent limitation of all models.

Maps and territories

A model is an abstraction that represents reality. This is a rather dry definition, and the students on our course demanded something more practical. We realised that it is easier to think of a model like a map: you have some real territory out in the world, with huge amounts of detail – trees, rivers, mountains and valleys – and you create a map to represent and simplify that territory so that it fits onto a page. In the same way, we make simplified models in our mind of what we experience out in the world.

Figure 1: Maps and territories

Growing up, my model of a cat was a soft, fluffy creature that meowed. My model for why things fell downwards was an invisible force called gravity. My model for success was to achieve distinctions at school, and then university, and then work performance reviews. My model for personal growth was a straight-line curve that went up and up and up. My model for happiness was to change things in my external environment until they produced the sought changes in my inner state.

Why does our brain create models?

Similar to maps, we use models to understand and navigate reality. The human body, the water cycle, family dynamics, electricity, national economies, natural ecosystems – these things are incredibly complex. So we build mental models of how they work so that we can comprehend and interact with them. The models are simple, practical shortcuts that represent a more complex reality.

Every decision we make is based on a mental model – what to eat for breakfast, why we go to school, which people to associate with, why the economy is going up or down, what makes a good life… But maps can be inaccurate – meaning that you might not understand what you’re looking at or find what you’re looking for. It can be treacherous to make decisions based on maps, especially if the decision is consequential or the map is flawed.

This brings us importantly to the first rule of models: “the map is not the territory”[i]. Keeping a clear distinction between a mental model and the reality it represents is critical, to avoid getting lost in our mental abstractions and to keep coming back to direct experience.


But why all this talk of mental models – shouldn’t we just be concerned with reality? The diagram[ii] below reminds us of the narrow spectrum of reality that our senses interpret and construct into our impression of the world around us – emphasising that reality and our mental model of reality will always be different things.

Figure 2: Reality ≠ working model of reality

Modelling is a fundamental aspect of our living experience: the better your models, the more likely you are to survive, and perhaps even thrive. Our models are tools – but they could be flawed, hindering our journeys through life. In the same way that you might update a map, you should keep updating your models based on what you find in your experience: making changes and discarding what doesn’t work.

This is the empowering insight at the heart of mental mapmaking: the highest value of a map is its use to the person navigating. A model needs to be useful, to you. You get to decide if a model is useful, and if it isn’t serving you, you have the freedom – and responsibility – to explore other models.

Our individual and collective models are evolving all the time as we discover more about the world we inhabit. Diet is one example: the almost seasonal change in what is considered healthy eating (fats are bad, fats are good, sugar is good, sugar is bad, high-carb, low-carb, etc.) has finally brought us to the understanding that no single diet suits everyone. The nutrition model has gone through numerous iterations and continues to develop.

We have been given models our entire lives – by our caregivers, our friends and our societies. Some of these models will be useful, and some of them will not. When we take responsibility for our perception of the world, we gift ourselves the ability to respond to it in new ways.

All of them are wrong

The second rule of models recognizes their inherent limitation: “all models are wrong, but some are useful”[iii]. We demonstrated this point to the students in our course. After handing each student an apple, piece of paper and pencil, we invited them to draw the fruit as best they could. After a few minutes, each student had a sketched apple and a real one before them. Walking from desk to desk, we asked them:

“Do you see how you could draw for a hundred years and your drawing would still only be a representation of the apple, no matter how closely it resembled it? That the drawing could never become the real thing? A model is (by definition) a simplified version of reality, and when you leave out dimensions of that reality you introduce inaccuracies.”

Figure 3: Reflections of reality

It is so important to remember that our ideas about the world are always relative, always incomplete, always contextual. Our mental models are hypotheses, waiting to be tested and begging to be adapted to new information. To make space to learn, we need to accept that our models will change with time.

The real trouble comes in when we mistakenly believe that we are our mental models. When we are identified with certain ideas (“I am an accountant”; “I am the victim of this situation”; “I am more important than other people”) and we encounter a situation that challenges those beliefs, the experience threatens our sense of self and triggers our survival instincts: fight or flight. When we trap ourselves in rigid beliefs we leave no space for the world, or our selves, to change.

If we treated our beliefs as malleable models we would be better able to adapt to our changing environments, replacing outdated models with new ones. We might even be more inclined to try and understand how other people navigate their experiences, particularly if those people are different from us. Imagine a world filled with this type of curiosity, with this invitation for empathy, with this emphasis on the transformative power of education… Wouldn’t that be something worth learning at school?

The art of becoming aware of and transforming our mental models is a lifelong journey. It begins the moment we accept that there are no right answers, for then we are finally free to test whether what we believe is helping or hindering our navigation of humanness.


[i] Alfred Korzybski

[ii] Adapted from a diagram by: Evans, J.F. (2019) Effective Thinking for a Connected World: The Eureka Feeling – Schema Mapping, Models Mapping, Meanings Values Goals Motivation & Neural Networks – The Biological Roots of the Tree of Knowledge, Amazon Fulfilment: Wroclaw, Poland

[iii] George E.P. Box

Categories: #cornerstones

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