The first block to personal mastery—and one of the biggest—is our unquestioned mental models. These are our fixed ideas of how the world works and how things should or shouldn’t be done. We accept these models so completely that we live our lives according to them. Everyone has mental models, but we call them by other names, like “the truth” or “reality” or “the facts.” We believe them absolutely. We have different mental models for different situations—for work, for love, for our families. We have dozens of them that we use, and some of them may actually be in direct conflict with others and we may not even know it. Much of the stress in our lives arises from this lack of awareness. But that doesn’t stop us from believing that everything our mental models tell us is true.
Your life is a jumble of mental models. You use them for everything. You have one model that tells you whom to fall in love with, another that evaluates how you are doing in your job, a third that lets you know if your child is growing well, a fourth that spurs you into getting a divorce, a fifth that picks your friends and so on. You have constructed dozens of these structures over the years and, collectively, they rule your life.
I now further suggest that many of your old mental models do not serve you well. They, and especially the ones that are at odds with each other, are the cause of the angst in your life. But not all mental models are unhelpful. Indeed, I am going to present you with some new ones now that are radically different from anything you have encountered before.
Do not pause and look too critically at the mental models that will be presented to you. Your natural tendency when you come across something that contradicts what you know to be “reality” is to back off and ask, “Is this true?” When you do that, it will not take long for you to come up with hypothetical situations where the model cannot apply, and rather than risk change, you will feel more comfortable rejecting it, heaving a sigh of relief and reverting to your tried-and-true old models—even though they are the source of your misery.
Don’t do this! Let me make it easier for you by admitting right now that the new models I present to you are not “true” either. If you push hard enough, if you penetrate deeply enough, all these models will crumple. But then, so will the ones you are currently using—the ones that you have not subjected to the same scrutiny.
When confronted with a new model, a better question to ask yourself is: “Does this new model work better for me than the one I am using now?” If the answer is yes, or even maybe, then try it on for size. You can tailor it, tweak it, modify it and make it your own. If after trying a new mental model for a while you decide it isn’t working well for you, then drop it. Find another. You use only what works for you in your life.
Exercise: My mental models
Before you do this first exercise, I urge you to think of yourself as a scientist. The laboratory and the object of the study are both yourself. Do this practice as objectively as you can. If you really apply yourself, here is what will happen: Some of the ideas that come out of the exercise will create a rush in your mind. You will feel thrilled as you recognize that you have come face to face with something new.
Now it’s time to start. Take out your journal. On the top of the page, write four headings for columns: family, work, love and self. For the next 10 minutes, your pen is not to leave the page, you are not to cross anything out or rewrite or pretty anything up. Just start at the first column and write down the first thing about your family you can think of—something like “My father always criticizes my accomplishments.” See where it takes you.
When 10 minutes are up, put the journal away. Give yourself credit for having identified some of the more important mental models in your life. You will discover which ones are not working and which are causing you endless grief. You will discard many and modify some. You will adopt new mental models after you have tried them out and are convinced they are right for you.
Through exercises like this one, you will create the change in your life. Not me. Not the accounts of others who have done it. Both of the latter may help, but only if you accept it. So when you are tempted not to do an exercise, resist the urge! You only get out what you put in.
Excerpted from Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and in Life by Srikumar Rao. Copyright © 2006 Srikumar Rao. Published by Hyperion. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
This article was published in August 2009 and has been updated. Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock