Nick Ang

Go wherever you lack a mental model of

Humans have mental models of everything. How is that birthday party going to be like? How does it feel to be entering a new stage in life? What are some challenges I’ll likely face when I’m in it?

Mental models are useful. They are stored deep in our memory and get called whenever we need an inkling of something to come. Neil’s birthday next week is probably going to involve a cake, some songs and a lot of talking with friends, just like Joanna’s and Nick’s and Billy’s.

Once an event has passed, be it trivial as drinking a cup of coffee at a particular kind of cafe or something more eventful like celebrating a spouse’s promotion, our brain makes a note of how it went and commits it to the library. The next time we need a reference to get an inkling of what something similar in the future is likely going to be like, we pull these out like vials of memory, and speed off into the future our minds, in its intoxicated state, produces.

While we can go at lengths to argue how incomplete our imagination of the future can be as Daniel Gilbert does with skill in Stumbling on Happiness, I think we can agree on one thing: spotty as it may be, this unique ability of ours has helped us navigate the challenges in our life.

Getting on stage and giving a speech in front of 40 people was daunting for the first time, but much easier when we do it again because we can rely on our mental model from earlier to sort of know what to expect. The same thing applies to saying something on camera, having 4 cups of coffee in a day, and interviewing for a new job.

Whenever we are for some weird reason able to conjure a mental image of what something looks like and might feel like, it’s likely that the librarian-chemist living in our brain has unleashed a vial or two from the past.

In a world with infinite possible experiences, I think it’s a worthy goal to pursue the ones whose essence we haven’t captured in little test tubes for our minds. Favour new jobs, drinks, skills, topics of interest, places to travel. Favour the new, seek them out and do them. Build a spectacular mental apothecary of experiences!

The late physicist, lock picker, bongo player and prankster Richard Feynman perhaps embodied this philosophy the best. You can work on the cutting edge of computing and physics to co-invent an atomic bomb while picking safes and cracking jokes. Now that’s a hard earned mental model!

Go wherever you don’t have a mental model of. That’s when you’re guaranteed to be the most frightened, delighted and alive. Because there aren’t crutches to fall back on, it’s also most likely going to be your best work/drink/discovery/trip/etc yet. Go there.

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