See Things for What They Are

There is nothing more important than understanding how reality works and how to deal with it.

Ray Dalio, Principles

Whatever you want to do in life it’s bounded by reality. You can challenge what’s thought to be impossible and reach for the stars, but ultimately, dreams and ideals are only as good as they are rooted in solid ground. Unfortunately, seeing things for what they are is not as simple as it sounds. Reality is often too complex for us to comprehend and we need a sound process to understand it better.

How to see more clearly by removing blind spots

We use mental models to make sense of the world. Mental models are simplified representations of reality that provide us with useful perspectives and insights about how things work. A mental model is only as good as it represents reality and helps us think clearly and make sound decisions. To throw out the bad models we need to continuously test them and update the ones that are not working. This again isn’t as easy as it might sound.

The process is hindered by three factors according to Shane Parrish, author of the book The Great Mental Models:

Our failures to update from interacting with reality spring primarily from three things: not having the right perspective or vantage point, ego-induced denial, and distance from the consequences of our decisions.

Flaw of perspective

Our perspective is always limited. It’s hard to see a system accurately of which you’re part. Our conditioning and our emotions color our perception. The results are distortions and blind spots.

Here’s Shane:

In life and business, the person with the fewest blind spots wins. Removing blind spots means we see, interact with, and move closer to understanding reality. We think better. And thinking better is about finding simple processes that help us work through problems from multiple dimensions and perspectives, allowing us to better choose solutions that fit what matters to us. The skill for finding the right solutions for the right problems is one form of wisdom.

We can only overcome our blind spots by getting constructive feedback and different perspectives from people who don’t have the same blind spot. That’s why good teams make fewer mistakes than individuals and why it often makes sense to ask a friend for advice on a personal issue you’re too deeply involved in.

Flaw of ego

But getting different perspectives and feedback is not enough. There is another flaw hindering us from seeing clearly: our overly inflated (or deflated) opinion of ourselves that makes us discard or overly consider the feedback we get.

Furthermore, our ego protects our defining beliefs with all its might. Often we don’t even put our work and ideas out there because we’re too afraid of the criticism they might get. The first reflex is always to avoid negative feedback, the second is to discard it. We become emotionally invested and might say “this person doesn’t know what she’s talking about”.

We need to get through both these reactions to successfully update our models and become smarter. There’s a place for ego and it can’t be (nor should be) discharged. However, the key point to overcome this flaw is to let one’s ego be invested in the outcomes we achieve rather than who we are at the moment.

Flaw of distance

The best type of feedback is the consequences of our decisions. It’s harder to deny and people usually have to resort to concepts like fate, luck, and karma to ignore it. But consequences are not always immediate and the further the distance of our action and its result, the harder it is for us to adjust our models and our behavior accordingly. Often we change the story after the fact and rationalize our past decision-making. One simple way to circumvent this is by writing down your reasoning behind a decision before you make it. Write down your assumptions, beliefs, and models that guide you, and then look back when the results are in: What assumptions were wrong? What model needs updating?

Seeing things for what they are is a principle that should lie at the core of everything. Getting better at this is a difficult, long, and taxing journey. Since everything you want out of life depends on it, I think it’s well worth it.