Learn to Adapt More Flexibly to Developing Situations [Mental Models]

Learn to Adapt More Flexibly to Developing Situations

As humans, we are each a product of our habits. Much of our behavior is automated. This behavior—often reflexive and natural—is usually shaped by our mental models. These models or “behavioral scripts” that are ingrained in our minds influence how we process stimuli and act. As a result, our mental models influence not only our actions but also how we perceive and interpret various situations.

Mental models are very convenient: they simplify our comprehension of the world around us, streamline decision-making and help us get things done efficiently. At the same time, our reliance on these scripts comes at a cost: we tend to generalize into the future what has worked in the past. This dependence can compel us to overlook important information from the current environment. In addition, our biases often prevent us from considering factors that contradict these models. Mental models sometimes lead us to cling stubbornly to the “this is how I have always done it” mindset, which overlooks the realities of a new situation. We make mistakes when we rely on a model that doesn’t account for real-world situations.

Those mental models and behavioral scripts that we’ve grown so dependent on are the antithesis of adaptability: the characteristic of being adaptable, of being flexible under the influence of rapidly changing external conditions.

Idea for Impact: Learn to sharpen your ‘social antennae.’ Make every effort to read the circumstances and adapt more flexibly to a developing situation.

Parable: “Don’t Become Somebody”

Occasionally, it pays to feign ignorance, as exemplified by the following parable.

Once upon a time, there was a master and his pupil. The master was renowned for his esoteric teaching style. As part of a discussion regarding the self and ego development, the master advised, “Never become somebody.”

The master and pupil set out on a pilgrimage. After an exhausting trek, they stumbled upon a wilderness camp. There were no occupants or attendants around. The master and disciple assumed they could rest there. The master entered one of the cottages and immediately went to sleep. The pupil, emulating his teacher, stepped into an adjacent cottage and fell asleep.

After some time, a royal entourage returned to the camp fatigued from a hunting expedition. The monarch was furious when he glimpsed two strangers sleeping peacefully in his cottages. He dashed to the pupil, roused him and demanded, “Who are you? How dare you rest in my camp?” The pupil rose and noticed the king’s fuming countenance. Bowing respectfully, the pupil exclaimed, “I am a hermetic monk!” Incensed, the monarch ordered that the pupil be beaten up and thrown out.

Next the monarch approached the master, demanding his identity. The master quickly realized he had mistakenly helped himself to the royal cottage. Reading the monarch’s fury, the master did not answer. He feigned cluelessness, babbling, “Hmmmm.” The monarch was livid: “Can’t you understand? I want to know. Who are you?” Yet again, the master did not speak and babbled, “Hmmmm.” The monarch concluded, “He is clearly a dimwit. Take him out of here.”

Soon thereafter, the master and pupil reunited. The pupil was groaning in pain and lamented his stay in the royal camp. The master reiterated, “I told you, don’t become somebody. You ignored my advice, became somebody and suffered for it. You became a monk in that royal lodge and were punished. I did not become anybody and escaped unscathed.”

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