Category: Mental Models

How Description Leads to Understanding

Describing something with accuracy forces you to learn more about it. In this way, description can be a tool for learning.

Accurate description requires the following:

  1. Observation
  2. Curiosity about what you are witnessing
  3. Suspending assumptions about cause and effect

It can be difficult to stick with describing something completely and accurately. It’s hard to overcome the tendency to draw conclusions based on partial information or to leave assumptions unexplored.

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Some systems, like the ecosystem that is the ocean, are complex. They have many moving parts that have multiple dependencies and interact in complicated ways. Trying to figure them out is daunting, and it can seem more sane to not bother trying—except that complex systems are everywhere. We live our lives as part of many of them, and addressing any global challenges involves understanding their many dimensions.

One way to begin understanding complex systems is by describing them in detail: mapping out their parts, their multiple interactions, and how they change through time. Complex systems are often complicated—that is, they have many moving parts that can be hard to identify and define. But the overriding feature of complex systems is that they cannot be managed from the top down. Complex systems display emergent properties and unpredictable adaptations that we cannot identify in advance. But far from being inaccessible, we can learn a lot about such systems by describing what we observe.

For example, Jane Jacobs’s comprehensive description of the interactions along city sidewalks in The Death and Life of Great American Cities led to insight about how cities actually work. Her work also emphasized the multidimensionality of city systems by demonstrating via description that attempting to manage a city from the top down would stifle its adaptive capabilities and negatively impact the city itself.

Another book that uses description to illuminate complicated and intricate relationships is The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. In it she chronicles events in the oceans, from the cycles of plankton growth to the movement of waves, in accessible, evocative descriptions. It’s no trouble to conjure up vivid images based on her words. But as the book progresses, her descriptions of the parts coalesce into an appreciation for how multidimensional the sea system is.

Carson’s descriptions come through multiple lenses. She describes the sea through the behavior of animals and volcanoes. She explores the sea by describing its vertical integration from the surface to the depths and the bottom. She looks at the oceans through the lenses of their currents and relationships to wind. In total the book describes the same entity, the seas that cover the majority of the earth’s surface, through thirteen different descriptive lenses. Although the parts are broken down into their basics, the comprehensive view that Carson employs allows the reader to easily grasp how complicated the sea system is.

None of the lenses she uses impart complete information. Trying to appreciate how interconnected the parts of the system are by looking at just her description of tides or minerals is impossible. It’s only when the lenses are combined that a complete picture of the ecosystem emerges.

The book demonstrates the value in description, even if you cannot conclude causation in the specifics you’re describing.

One noticeable omission from the book is the role of plate tectonics in the movement of the ocean floor and associated phenomena like volcanoes. Plate tectonic theory is a scientific baby and was not yet widely accepted when Carson updated her original text in 1961. But not knowing plate tectonic theory doesn’t undermine her descriptions of life at the bottom of the oceans, or the impact of volcanoes, or the changing shape of the undersea shelves that attach to the continents. Although the reader is invited to contemplate the why behind what she is describing, we are also encouraged to be in the moment, observing the ocean through Carson’s words.

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The book is not an argument for a particular way of interacting with the sea. It doesn’t need to make one. Carson’s descriptions offer their own evidence of how trying to change or manage the sea system would be extremely difficult because they reveal the multitude of connections between various sea phenomena.

Describing the whole from so many different angles illuminates the complex. By chronicling microinteractions, such as those between areas of hot and cold water or high and low pressure, we can see how changes in one aspect produce cascading change. We also get a sense of the adaptability of the living organisms that live in the oceans, like being able to live in depths that have no light (and therefore no plants that rely on photosynthesis) and adjusting biochemistry to take advantage of seasonal variations in temperature that affect water weight and salt contents.

The reader walks away from the book appreciating the challenge in describing in detail something as complicated as the ocean ecosystem. The book is full of observations and short on judgments, an approach that encourages us to develop our own curiosity about the sea around us.

The Sea Around Us is the Farnam Street book club’s summer selection. Members get additional resource materials to help get the most out of this fascinating book. Learn more or join in.

The OODA Loop: How Fighter Pilots Make Fast and Accurate Decisions

The OODA Loop is a four-step process for making effective decisions in high-stakes situations. It involves collecting relevant information, recognizing potential biases, deciding, and acting, then repeating the process with new information. Read on to learn how to use the OODA Loop.

When we want to learn how to make rational decisions under pressure, it can be helpful to look at the techniques people use in extreme situations. If they work in the most drastic scenarios, they have a good chance of being effective in more typical ones.

Because they’re developed and tested in the relentless laboratory of conflict, military mental models have practical applications far beyond their original context. If they didn’t work, they would be quickly replaced by alternatives. Military leaders and strategists invest a great deal of time and resources into developing decision-making processes.

One such military mental model is the OODA Loop. Developed by strategist and U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the OODA Loop is a practical concept designed to function as the foundation of rational thinking in confusing or chaotic situations. “OODA” stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.”

What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” —John Boyd

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The four parts of the OODA Loop

Let’s break down the four parts of the OODA Loop and see how they fit together.

Don’t forget the “Loop” part. The process is intended to be repeated again and again until a conflict finishes. Each repetition provides more information to inform the next one, making it a feedback loop.

1: Observe

Step one is to observe the situation with the aim of building the most accurate and comprehensive picture of it possible.

For example, a fighter pilot might consider the following factors in a broad, fluid way:

  • What is immediately affecting me?
  • What is affecting my opponent?
  • What could affect either of us later on?
  • Can I make any predictions?
  • How accurate were my prior predictions?

Information alone is insufficient. The observation stage requires converting information into an overall picture with overarching meaning that places it in context. A particularly vital skill is the capacity to identify which information is just noise and irrelevant for the current decision.

If you want to make good decisions, you need to master the art of observing your environment. For a fighter pilot, that involves factors like the weather conditions and what their opponent is doing. In your workplace, that might include factors like regulations, available resources, relationships with other people, and your current state of mind.

To give an example, consider a doctor meeting with a patient in the emergency room for the first time to identify how to treat them. Their first priority is figuring out what information they need to collect, then collecting it. They might check the patient’s records, ask other staff about the admission, ask the patient questions, check vital signs such as blood pressure, and order particular diagnostic tests. Doctors learn to pick up on subtle cues that can be telling of particular conditions, such as a patient’s speech patterns, body language, what they’ve brought with them to the hospital, and even their smell. In some cases, the absence (rather than presence) of certain cues is also important. At the same time, a doctor needs to discard irrelevant information, then put all the pieces together before they can treat the patient.

2: Orient

Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.” —John Boyd

The second stage of the OODA Loop, orient, is less intuitive than the other steps. However, it’s worth taking the effort to understand it rather than skipping it. Boyd referred to it as the schwerpunkt, meaning “the main emphasis” in German.

To orient yourself is to recognize any barriers that might interfere with the other parts of the OODA Loop.

Orientation means connecting yourself with reality and seeing the world as it really is, as free as possible from the influence of cognitive biases and shortcuts. You can give yourself an edge over the competition by making sure you always orient before making a decision, instead of just jumping in.

Boyd maintained that properly orienting yourself can be enough to overcome an initial disadvantage, such as fewer resources or less information, to outsmart an opponent. He identified the following four main barriers that impede our view of objective information:

  1. Our cultural traditions – we don’t realize how much of what we consider universal behavior is actually culturally prescribed
  2. Our genetic heritage – we all have certain constraints
  3. Our ability to analyze and synthesize – if we haven’t practiced and developed our thinking skills, we tend to fall back on old habits
  4. The influx of new information – it is hard to make sense of observations when the situation keeps changing

Prior to Charlie Munger’s popularization of the concept of building a toolbox of mental models, Boyd advocated a similar approach for pilots to help them better navigate the orient stage of the OODA Loop. He recommended a process of “deductive destruction”: paying attention to your own assumptions and biases, then finding fundamental mental models to replace them.

Similar to using a decision journal, deductive destruction ensures you always learn from past mistakes and don’t keep on repeating them. In one talk, Boyd employed a brilliant metaphor for developing a latticework of mental models. He compared it to building a snowmobile, a vehicle comprising elements of several different devices, such as the caterpillar treads of a tank, skis, the outboard motor of a boat, and the handlebars of a bike.

Individually, each of these items isn’t enough to move you around. But combined they create a functional vehicle. As Boyd put it:

A loser is someone (individual or group) who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change; whereas a winner is someone (individual or group) who can build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.

To orient yourself, you have to build a metaphorical snowmobile by combining practical concepts from different disciplines. (For more on mental models, we literally wrote the book on them.) Although Boyd is regarded as a military strategist, he didn’t confine himself to any particular discipline. His theories encompass ideas drawn from various disciplines, including mathematical logic, biology, psychology, thermodynamics, game theory, anthropology, and physics. Boyd described his approach as a “scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another.”

3: Decide

There are no surprises here. The previous two steps provide the groundwork you need to make an informed decision. If there are multiple options at hand, you need to use your observation and orientation to select one.

Boyd cautioned against first-conclusion bias, explaining that we cannot keep making the same decision again and again. This part of the loop needs to be flexible and open to Bayesian updating. In some of his notes, Boyd described this step as the hypothesis stage. The implication is that we should test the decisions we make at this point in the loop, spotting their flaws and including any issues in future observation stages

4: Act

There’s a difference between making decisions and enacting decisions. Once you make up your mind, it’s time to take action.

By taking action, you test your decision out. The results will hopefully indicate whether it was a good one or not, providing information for when you cycle back to the first part of the OODA Loop and begin observing anew.

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Why the OODA Loop works

The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold the adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep up with what is going on. He will become disoriented and confused.” —John Boyd

We’ve identified three key benefits of using the OODA Loop.

1: Deliberate speed

As we’ve established, fighter pilots have to make many decisions in fast succession. They don’t have time to list pros and cons or to consider every available avenue. Once the OODA Loop becomes part of their mental toolboxes, they should be able to cycle through it in a matter of seconds.

Speed is a crucial element of military decision-making. Using the OODA Loop in everyday life, we probably have a little more time than a fighter pilot would. But Boyd emphasized the value of being decisive, taking initiative, and staying autonomous. These are universal assets and apply to many situations.

2: Comfort with uncertainty

There’s no such thing as total certainty. If you’re making a decision at all, it’s because something is uncertain. But uncertainty does not always have to equate to risk.

A fighter pilot is in a precarious situation, one in which where there will be gaps in their knowledge. They cannot read the mind of the opponent and might have incomplete information about the weather conditions and surrounding environment. They can, however, take into account key factors such as the opponent’s type of airplane and what their maneuvers reveal about their intentions and level of training. If the opponent uses an unexpected strategy, is equipped with a new type of weapon or airplane, or behaves in an irrational way, the pilot must accept the accompanying uncertainty. However, Boyd belabored the point that uncertainty is irrelevant if we have the right filters in place.

If we can’t cope with uncertainty, we end up stuck in the observation stage. This sometimes happens when we know we need to make a decision, but we’re scared of getting it wrong. So we keep on reading books and articles, asking people for advice, listening to podcasts, and so on.

Acting under uncertainty is unavoidable. If we do have the right filters, we can factor uncertainty into the observation stage. We can leave a margin of error. We can recognize the elements that are within our control and those that are not.

In presentations, Boyd referred to three key principles to support his ideas: Gödel’s theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Of course, we’re using these principles in a different way from their initial purpose and in a simplified, non-literal form.

Gödel’s theorems indicate any mental model we have of reality will omit certain information and that Bayesian updating must be used to bring it in line with reality. For fighter pilots, their understanding of what is going on during a battle will always have gaps. Identifying this fundamental uncertainty gives it less power over us.

The second concept Boyd referred to is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In its simplest form, this principle describes the limit of the precision with which pairs of physical properties can be understood. We cannot know the position and the velocity of a body at the same time. We can know either its location or its speed, but not both.

Boyd moved the concept of the Uncertainty Principle from particles to planes. If a pilot focuses too hard on where an enemy plane is, they will lose track of where it is going and vice versa. Trying harder to track the two variables will actually lead to more inaccuracy!

Finally, Boyd made use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a closed system, entropy always increases and everything moves towards chaos. Energy spreads out and becomes disorganized.

Although Boyd’s notes do not specify the exact applications, his inference appears to be that a fighter pilot must be an open system or they will fail. They must draw “energy” (information) from outside themselves or the situation will become chaotic. They should also aim to cut their opponent off, forcing them to become a closed system.

3: Unpredictability

When you act fast enough, other people view you as unpredictable. They can’t figure out the logic behind your decisions.

Boyd recommended making unpredictable changes in speed and direction, writing, “We should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries or inside our adversaries[’] time scales.…Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (non predictable) [and] thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries.” He even helped design planes that were better equipped to make those unpredictable changes.

For the same reason that you can’t run the same play seventy times in a football game, rigid military strategies often become useless after a few uses, or even one iteration, as opponents learn to recognize and counter them. The OODA Loop can be endlessly used because it is a formless strategy, unconnected to any particular maneuvers.

We know that Boyd was influenced by Sun Tzu (he owned seven thoroughly annotated copies of The Art of War) and drew many ideas from the ancient strategist. Sun Tzu depicts war as a game of deception where the best strategy is that which an opponent cannot preempt.

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Forty Second Boyd

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” —Sun Tzu

Boyd was no armchair strategist. He developed his ideas through extensive experience as a fighter pilot. His nickname “Forty Second Boyd” speaks to his expertise: Boyd could win any aerial battle in less than forty seconds.

In a tribute written after Boyd’s death, General C.C. Krulak described him as “a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war. Indeed, he was one of the central architects of the reform of military thought.…From John Boyd we learned about competitive decision-making on the battlefield—compressing time, using time as an ally.

Reflecting Robert Greene’s maxim that everything is material, Boyd spent his career observing people and organizations. How do they adapt to changeable environments in conflicts, business, and other situations?

Over time, he deduced that these situations are characterized by uncertainty. Dogmatic, rigid theories are unsuitable for chaotic situations. Rather than trying to rise through the military ranks, Boyd focused on using his position as a colonel to compose a theory of the universal logic of war.

Boyd was known to ask his mentees the poignant question, “Do you want to be someone, or do you want to do something?” In his own life, he certainly focused on the latter path and, as a result, left us ideas with tangible value. The OODA Loop is just one of many.

Boyd developed the OODA Loop with fighter pilots in mind, but like all good mental models, it works in other fields beyond combat. It’s used in intelligence agencies. It’s used by lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, politicians, law enforcement, marketers, athletes, coaches, and more.

If you have to work fast, you might want to learn a thing or two from fighter pilots. For them, a split-second of hesitation can cost them their lives. As anyone who has ever watched Top Gun knows, pilots have a lot of decisions and processes to juggle when they’re in dogfights (close-range aerial battles). Pilots move at high speeds and need to avoid enemies while tracking them and keeping a contextual knowledge of objectives, terrains, fuel, and other key variables.

And as any pilot who has been in one will tell you, dogfights are nasty. No one wants them to last longer than necessary because every second increases the risk of something going wrong. Pilots have to rely on their decision-making skills—they can’t just follow a schedule or to-do list to know what to do.

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Applying the OODA Loop

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.” —John Boyd

In sports, there is an adage that carries over to business quite well: “Speed kills.” If you are able to be nimble, assess the ever-changing environment, and adapt quickly, you’ll always carry the advantage over any opponents.

Start applying the OODA Loop to your day-to-day decisions and watch what happens. You’ll start to notice things that you would have been oblivious to before. Before jumping to your first conclusion, you’ll pause to consider your biases, take in additional information, and be more thoughtful of consequences.

As with anything you practice, if you do it right, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’ll start making better decisions to your full potential. You’ll see more rapid progress. And as John Boyd would prescribe, you’ll start to do something in your life, and not just be somebody.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed our three week exploration of perspectives on decision making. We think there is value in juxtaposing different ideas to help us learn. Stay tuned for more topic specific series in the future.

Our Favorite Farnam Street Posts From 2020

At the end of each year, the FS team takes time to reflect on the work we did and what we learned from it. Here’s a selection of our favorite articles from 2020 – and why we think they’re worth a second read.

Much of what we do at FS is about reflection. Learning requires reflection; time to sit, think, and process. There is no doubt that 2020 was tumultuous and challenged us in unexpected ways. What we anticipated and planned for on January 1 was not what we faced the rest of the year. Many of us were busy adjusting and thus might not have had the opportunity to digest and reflect on ideas as much as in the past.

At FS, we know it’s hard to find a signal in all the noise we experience on a daily basis.

To close out the year on the blog, we have decided to look back and share our favorite posts, as well as why we connected with them or how they helped us. Here are each team member’s choices from our 2020 posts.

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Adam

In no way do I consider myself to be an athlete, but I do expect great results when it comes to my work. The article The Inner Game: Why Trying Too Hard can be Counterproductive brought to light some of the internal struggles I deal with when trying to achieve my goals. There are days when I can achieve a “flow-state” in my work, whether it’s shooting or editing video or something else. Other days it’s a battle with self-doubt and self-sabotage despite all the external obstacles I’ve overcome. Finding harmony between the two is on-going, and despite me not being an athlete I plan on winning the inner game.

‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’ – Jean-Luc Godard

As someone whose job requires creativity I constantly struggle with “Not Invented Here Syndrome.” Trying to come up with an original idea, a different angle, some never before seen concept was just how I assumed all the world-renowned doers and thinkers thought. I never really considered the concept of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants and drawing on our experiences and the raw materials around us to create something. Reflecting on my body of work, it seems obvious now that most of my productions draw from people who I admire, who have taught me, or inspirations sparked by someone else’s creation. Going forward I want to continue to create and who knows, maybe one day I can provide a shoulder to stand on. After all, I’m 6’4”, so I’ve got the giant part down.

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Vicky

One of my favorite articles from this year is Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy. For me, this article tells a tale of what I try to embrace in my day to day life. Getting caught up in what we think will make us happy can lead us to bypass what truly will. Sometimes we can base decisions and choices on the immediate pleasure we get or expect without looking at the bigger picture or long-term effects. The experience can put things into a perspective we can grasp, while an appearance can just be an illusion.

How do you “win the game of life”? By deciding how you’ll play. In Finite and Infinite Games: Two Ways to Play the Game of Life, I love the perspective shift I feel when I think about how you can play this game. What truly measures success? Does the game end there? By setting new goals and thinking that life can be infinite, we can win by playing, instead of playing to win. For me, this brings on a great perspective of acquiring experience and knowledge over wealth and possessions so I can keep playing.

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Rosie

Daniel Kahneman has said that the main lesson we should learn from surprising events is that the world is surprising. Yet when disasters happen, we often focus on particulars and miss that wider lesson. In the article Stop Preparing For The Last Disaster, we discussed how we can respond to unexpected events by becoming more resilient in general. History may well repeat itself, but we never know which rerun we’re watching until after the matter.

One theme we explored on the blog throughout this year was community and the connections we form with other people. We looked at what brings us together and what drives us apart – as well as what that costs us, how we can make peace with solitude, and how we can rebuild connections.

Muscular Bonding: How Dance Made Us Human is a personal favorite article from 2020. In it, we looked at William H. McNeill’s theory that dancing together to music creates powerful bonds between people, leading to social cohesion and cooperative behavior. I liked this article because McNeill’s ideas suggest a simple, free, universally useful way to overcome disconnection.

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Rhiannon

This year we started to write about more concrete examples of using mental models in common life situations. We so often hear from readers that they love the idea of mental models but have challenges in understanding how to apply them. Our first effort at exploring a situation through the lens of different mental models, how to use them in charged situations, was an exciting step in the evolution of the FS blog.

Like most people, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a backdrop to my year. The challenges were incredible, and the speed of the changes they required were sometimes overwhelming. It felt like so much uncharted territory. One of the reasons I enjoyed the article Why We Feel at Home in a Crisis, was the context it provided for tumultuous times. Reading about the Blitz, a period of history I have always found fascinating, as well as appreciating the good that can come from a crisis, was the perfect solution to the disorientation I experienced at the beginning of the pandemic.

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Shane

As much as this year was about responding to crisis, it was also a test of our resilience. It’s less about what happens to you and more about how you respond. At FS, I frequently thought about how well we’d built our margin of safety, and planned for a wide range of outcomes. 2020 reinforced how important it is to preserve optionality. In a crisis, the more options you have, the greater your chance of survival. Options are the most important resource you can store up.

As many of you know, one of our goals at FS is to master the best of what other people have already figured out. I drew inspiration from how others have kept their teams performing during challenges, including from this post on leadership lessons from Jean Renoir.

From the whole team at FS, thank you to all of our readers for your support and engagement! We know it’s been a busy year for everyone, and we don’t take a minute of the time you’ve spent with us for granted. It was amazing to know that, even in these times of uncertainty, you were on the journey with us to learn and grow. To become better people and live a more meaningful life.

Mental Models for Career Changes

Career changes are some of the biggest moves we will ever make, but they don’t have to be daunting. Using mental models to make decisions we determine where we want to go and how to get there. The result is a change that aligns with the person we are, as well as the person we want to be.

We’ve all been there: you’re at a job, and you know it’s not for you anymore. You come in drained, you’re not excited on a Monday morning, and you feel like you could be using your time so much better. It’s not the people, and it’s not the organization. It’s the work. It’s become boring, unfulfilling, or redundant, and you know you want to do something different. But what?

Just deciding to change careers doesn’t get you very far because there are more areas to work in than you know about. A big change often involves some retraining. A career shift will impact your personal life. At the end of it all, you want to be happier but know there are no guarantees. How do you find a clear path forward?

No matter how ready you think you are to make a move, career changes are daunting. The stress of leaving what you’re comfortable with to venture into foreign territory stops many people from taking the first step toward something new.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Using mental models can help you clarify the direction you want to go and plan for how to get there. They are tools that will give you more control over your career and more confidence in your decisions. When you do the work up front by examining your situation through the lens of a few mental models, you set yourself up for fewer regrets and more satisfaction down the road.

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Get in touch with yourself

Before you can decide which change to make, you need to get in touch with yourself. No change will be the right one if it doesn’t align with what you want to get out of life.

First, do you know where you want to go? Are you moving with direction or just moving? As a mental model, velocity reminds us there is a difference between speed and direction. It’s easy to move fast without getting anywhere. We can stay busy all day without achieving our goals. Without considering our velocity, we run a huge risk of getting sidetracked by things that make us move faster (more money, a title on a business card) without that movement actually leading us where we want to end up.

As the old saying goes, we want to run to something, not from something. When you start articulating your desired direction, you give yourself clear purpose in your career. It will be easier to play the long game because you know that everything you are doing is leading somewhere you want to be.

When it comes to changing careers, there are a lot of options. Using the mental model of velocity will help you focus on and identify the best opportunities.

Once you know where you want to end up, it’s often useful to work backward to where you are now. This is known as inversion. Start at the end and carefully consider the events that get you there in reverse order.

For example, it could be something as simple as waking up happy and excited to work every day. What needs to be true in order for that to be a reality? Are you working from home, having a quiet cup of coffee as you prepare to do some creative work? Are you working on projects aligned with your values? Are you contributing to making the world a better place? Are you in an intense, collaborative team environment?

Doing an inversion exercise helps you identify the elements needed for you to achieve success. Once you identify your requirements, you can use that list to evaluate opportunities that come up.

Inversion will help you recognize critical factors, like finances or the support of your family, that will be necessary to get to where you want to go. If your dream direction requires you to learn a new skill or work at a junior level while you ramp up on the knowledge you’ll need, you might need to live off some savings in the short term. Inversion, combined with velocity, will help you create the foundation you need now to take action when the right time comes.

Finally, the last step before you start evaluating the career environment is taking stock of the skills you already have. Why do you need to do this? So you know what you can repurpose. Here, you’re using the concept of exaptation, which is part of the broader adaptation model in biology. Exaptation refers to traits that evolved for one purpose and then, through natural selection, were used for completely unrelated capabilities. For instance, feathers probably evolved for insulation. It was only much later that they turned out to be useful for flying.

History is littered with examples of technologies or tools invented for one purpose that later became the foundation for something completely different. Did you know that Play-Doh was originally created to clean coal soot off walls? And bubble wrap was originally envisioned as material for shower curtains.

Using this model is partly about getting out of the “functional fixedness” mindset. You want to look at your skills, talents, and knowledge and ask of each one: what else could this be used for?

Too often we fail to realize just how versatile the experience we’ve built up over the years is. We’re great at using forks to eat, but they can also be used to brush hair, dig in a garden, and pin things to walls. Being great at presenting the monthly status update doesn’t mean you’re good at presenting monthly status updates. Rather, it means you can articulate yourself well, parse information for a diverse audience, and build networks to get the right information. Now, what else can those skills be used for?

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Evaluate the environment

Looking at different careers, we’re usually in a situation where the “map is not the territory.” It’s hard to know how great (or terrible) a job is until you actually do it. We often have two types of maps for the careers we wish we had: maps of the highlights, success stories, and opinions of people who love the work and maps based on how much we love the field or discipline ourselves.

The territory of the day-to-day work of these careers, however, is very different from what those two maps tell us.

In order to determine if a particular career will work for us, we need better maps. For example, the reality of being an actor isn’t just the movies and programs you see them in. It’s audition after audition, with more rejections than roles. It’s intense competition and job insecurity. Being a research scientist at a university isn’t just immersing yourself in a subject you love. It’s grant applications and teaching and navigating the bureaucracy of academia.

In order to build a more comprehensive map of your dream job, do your research on as large a sample size as possible. Talk to people doing the job you want. Talk to people who work in the organization. Talk to the ones that enjoy it. Talk to the ones who quit. Try to get an accurate picture of what the day-to-day is like.

Very few jobs are one-dimensional. They involve things like administrative tasks, networking, project management, and accountability. How much of your day will be spent doing paperwork or updating your coworkers? How much of a connection do you need to maintain with people outside the organization? How many people will you be dependent on? What are they like? And who will you be working for?

It’s not a good idea to become a writer just because you want to tell stories, open a restaurant just because you like to cook, or become a landscape designer just because you enjoy being outside. Those motivations are good places to start—because it’s equally terrible to become a lawyer just because your parents wanted you to. But you can’t stop with what you like. There isn’t a job in the world that’s pleasurable and fulfilling 100% of the time.

You give yourself a much higher chance of being satisfied with your career change if you take the time to learn as much as you can about the territory beforehand.

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Elements of planning

You know which direction you’re heading in, and you’ve identified a great new career possibility. Now what?

Planning for change is a crucial component of switching careers. Two models, global and local maxima and activation energy, can help us identify what we need to plan.

Global and local maxima refers to the high values in a mathematical function. On a graph, it’s a wavy curve with peaks and valleys. The highest peak in a section is a local maximum. The highest peak across the entire graph is the global maximum. Activation energy comes from chemistry, and is the amount of energy needed to see a reaction through to its conclusion.

One of the things global and local maxima teaches us is that sometimes you have to go down a hill in order to climb up a new one. To move from a local maximum to a higher peak you have to go through a local minimum, a valley. Too often we just want to go higher right away, or at the very least we want to make a lateral move. We perceive going down as taking a step backward.

A common problem is when we tie our self-worth to our salary and therefore reject any opportunities that won’t pay us as much as we’re currently making. The same goes for job titles; no one wants to be a junior anything in their mid-forties. But it’s impossible to get to the next peak if we won’t walk through the valley.

If you look at your career change through the lens of global and local maxima, you will see that steps down can also be steps forward.

Activation energy is another great model to use in the planning phase because it requires you to think about the real effort required for sustained change. You need to plan not just for making a change but also for seeing it through until the new thing has time to take hold.

Do you have enough in the bank to support yourself if you need to retrain or take a pay cut? Do you have the emotional support to help you through the challenges of taking on a brand-new career?

Just like fires don’t start with one match and a giant log, you have to plan for what you need between now and your desired result. What do you need to keep that reaction going so the flame from the match leads to the log catching fire? The same kind of thinking needs to inform your planning. After you’ve taken the first step, what will you need to keep you moving in the direction you want to go?

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After you’ve done all the work

After getting in touch with yourself, doing all your research, identifying possible paths, and planning for what you need to do to walk them to the end, it can still be hard to make a decision. You’ve uncovered so many nuances and encountered so many ideas that you feel overwhelmed. The reality is, when it comes to career change, there often is no perfect decision. You likely have more than one option, and whatever you choose, there’s going to be a lot of work involved.

One final model you can use is probabilistic thinking. In this particular situation, it can be helpful to use a Bayesian casino.

A Bayesian casino is a thought experiment where you imagine walking up to a casino game, like roulette, and quantifying how much you would bet on any particular outcome.

Let’s say when investigating your career change, you’ve narrowed it down to two options. Which one would you bet on for being the better choice one year later? And how much would you part with? If you’d bet ten dollars on black, then you probably need to take a fresh look at the research you’ve done. Maybe go talk to more people, or broaden your thinking. If you’re willing to put down thousands of dollars on red, that’s very likely the right decision for you.

It’s important in this thought experiment to fully imagine yourself making the bet. Imagine the money in your bank account. Imagine withdrawing it and physically putting it down on the table. How much you’re willing to part with regarding a particular career choice says a lot about how good that choice is likely to be for you.

Probabilistic thinking isn’t a predictor of the future. With any big career move, there are inevitably a lot of unknowns. There are no guarantees that any choice is going to be the right one. The Bayesian casino just helps you quantify your thinking based on the knowledge you have at this moment in time.

As new information comes in, return to the casino and see if your bets change.

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Conclusion

Career changes are some of the biggest moves we will ever make, but they don’t have to be daunting. Using mental models helps us find both the direction we want to go and a path we can take to get there. The result is a change that aligns with the person we are, as well as the person we want to be.

How Julia Child Used First Principles Thinking

There’s a big difference between knowing how to follow a recipe and knowing how to cook. If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia Child, “The French Chef”, did throughout her career.

Following a recipe might get you the results you want, but it doesn’t teach you anything about how cooking works at the foundational level. Or what to do when something goes wrong. Or how to come up with your own recipes when you open the fridge on a Wednesday night and realize you forgot to go grocery shopping. Or how to adapt recipes for your own dietary needs.

Adhering to recipes will only get you so far, and it certainly won’t result in you coming up with anything new or creative.

People who know how to cook understand the basic principles that make food taste, look, and smell good. They have confidence in troubleshooting and solving problems as they go—or adjusting to unexpected outcomes. They can glance at an almost barren kitchen and devise something delicious. They know how to adapt to a guest with a gluten allergy or a child who doesn’t like green food. Sure, they might consult a recipe when it makes sense to do so. But they’re not dependent on it, and they can change it up based on their particular circumstances.

There’s a reason many cooking competition shows feature a segment where contestants need to design their own recipe from a limited assortment of ingredients. Effective improvisation shows the judges that someone can actually cook, not just follow recipes.

We can draw a strong parallel from cooking to thinking. If you want to learn how to think for yourself, you can’t just follow what someone else came up with. You need to understand first principles if you want to be able to solve complex problems or think in a unique, creative fashion. First principles are the building blocks of knowledge, the foundational understanding acquired from breaking something down into its most essential concepts.

One person who exemplifies first principles thinking is Julia Child, an American educator who charmed audiences with her classes, books, and TV shows. First principles thinking enabled Julia to both master her own struggles with cooking and then teach the world to do the same. In Something from the Oven, Laura Shapiro tells the charming story of how she did it. Here’s what we can learn about better thinking from the “French Chef.”

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Gustave Flaubert wrote that “talent is a long patience, ” something which was all too true for Julia. She wasn’t born with an innate skill for or even love of cooking. Her starting point was falling in love with her future husband, Paul Child, in Ceylon in 1944 when both were working for the Office of Strategic Services. Paul adored food, and his delight in it inspired Julia. When they each returned to their separate homes after the war, she decided she would learn to cook. Things got off to a bad start, as Shapiro explains:

“At first she tried to teach herself at home, but it was frustrating to bushwhack her way through one dish after another. She never knew whether she would find success or failure when she opened the oven door, and worst of all, she didn’t know why this recipe worked and that one didn’t.”

Seeking expert guidance, Julia started taking cooking classes three times a week at a Beverly Hills cooking school. Even that didn’t help much, however, and after she married Paul a year later, her experiments in their Washington, DC kitchen continued to go awry. Only when the couple moved to Paris did an epiphany strike. Julia’s encounters with French cooking instilled in her an understanding of the need for first principles thinking. Trying to follow recipes without comprehending their logic wasn’t going to produce delicious results. She needed to learn how food actually worked.

In 1949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in classes at the famous Cordon Bleu school of cooking. It changed her forever:

“Learning to cook at the Cordon Bleu meant breaking down every dish into its smallest individual steps and doing each laborious and exhausting procedure by hand. In time Child could bone a duck while leaving the skin intact, extract the guts of a chicken through a hole she made in the neck, make a ham mousse by pounding the ham to a pulp with a mortar and pestle, and turn out a swath of elaborate dishes from choucroute garnie to vol-au-vent financière. None of this came effortlessly but she could do it. She had the brains, the considerable physical strength it demanded, and her vast determination. Most important, she could understand for the first time the principles governing how and why a recipe worked as it did.”

Julia had found her calling. After six months of Cordon Bleu classes, she continued studying independently for a year. She immersed herself in French cooking, filled her home with equipment, and befriended two women who shared her passion, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. In the early 1950s, they opened a tiny school together, with a couple of students working out of Julia’s kitchen. She was “adamant that the recipes used in class be absolutely reliable, and she tested every one of them for what she called ‘scientific workability.’” By this, Julia meant that the recipes needed to make sense per her understanding of the science of cooking. If they didn’t agree with the first principles she knew, they were out.

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When Paul transferred to Marseille, Julia was sad to leave her school. But she and her friends continued their collaboration, working at a distance on a French cookery book aimed at Americans. For what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia focused on teaching first principles in a logical order, not copying down mere recipes.

She’d grown frustrated at opening recipe books to see instructions she knew couldn’t work because they contradicted the science of cooking—for example, recipes calling for temperatures she knew would burn a particular ingredient, or omitting key ingredients like baking soda, without which a particular effect would be impossible. It was clear no one had bothered to test anything before they wrote it down, and she was determined not to make the same mistake.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961. Shapiro writes, “The reviews were excellent, there was a gratifying burst of publicity all across the country, and the professional food world acknowledged a new star in Julia Child. What nobody knew for sure was whether everyday homemakers in the nation that invented the TV dinner would buy the book.” Though the book was far from a flop, it was the TV show it inspired that catapulted Julia and her approach to cooking to stardom.

The French Chef first aired in 1963 and was an enormous success from the start. Viewers adored how Julia explained why she did what she did and how it worked. They also loved her spontaneous capacity to adapt to unanticipated outcomes. It was usually only possible to shoot one take so Julia needed to keep going no matter what happened.

Her show appealed to every kind of person because it could make anyone a better cook—or at least help them understand the process better. Not only was Julia “a striking image of unaffected good nature,” the way she taught really worked. Viewers and readers who followed her guidance discovered a way of cooking that made them feel in control.

Julia “believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch and that’s what she was out to prove.” Many of the people who watched The French Chef were women who needed a new way to think about cooking. As gender roles were being redefined and more women entered the workforce, it no longer seemed like something they were obligated by birth to do. At the same time, treating it as an undesirable chore was no more pleasant than treating it as a duty. Julia taught them another way. Cooking could be an intellectual, creative, enjoyable activity. Once you understood how it actually worked, you could learn from mistakes instead of repeating them again and again.

Shapiro explains that “Child was certainly not the first TV chef. The genre was almost as old as TV itself. But she was the first to make it her own and have an enduring societal impact.”

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If you can master the first principles within a domain, you can see much further than those who are just following recipes. That’s what Julia managed to do, and it’s part of why she stood out from the other TV chefs of her time—and still stands out today. By mastering first principles, you can find better ways of doing things, instead of having to stick to conventions. If Julia thought a modern piece of equipment worked better than a traditional one or that part of a technique was a pointless custom, she didn’t hesitate to make changes as she saw fit. Once you know the why of something, it is easy to modify the how to achieve your desired result.

The lessons of first principles in cooking are the same for the first principles in any domain. Looking for first principles is just a way of thinking. It’s a commitment to understanding the foundation that something is built on and giving yourself the freedom to adapt, develop, and create. Once you know the first principles, you can keep learning more advanced concepts as well as innovating for yourself.

Descriptions Aren’t Prescriptions

When we look at a representation of reality, we can choose to either see it as descriptive, meaning it tells us what the world is currently like, or as prescriptive, meaning it tells us how the world should be. Descriptions teach us, but they also give us room to innovate. Prescriptions can get us stuck. One place this tension shows up is in language.

In one chapter of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber describes his experience of learning Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. While the language’s writing system came about in the fifteenth century, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that missionaries documented the rules of Malagasy grammar for the purpose of translating scripture.

Of course, the “rules” of Malagasy the missionaries recorded weren’t rules at all. They were reflections of how people spoke at that point in time, as far as outside observers could tell. Languages don’t usually come into existence when someone invents the rules for them. Instead, languages evolve and change over time as speakers make modifications or respond to new needs.

However, those early nineteenth-century records remained in place as the supposed “official” version of Malagasy. Children learned the old form of grammar in school, even as they spoke a somewhat different version of the language at home. For Graeber, learning to speak the version of Malagasy people actually understood in conversation was a challenge. Native speakers he hired would instruct him on the nineteenth-century grammatical principles, then turn and speak to each other in a whole other fashion.

When asked why they couldn’t teach him the version of the language they spoke, Graeber’s Malagasy teachers responded that they were just using slang. Asked why no one seemed to speak the official version, they said people were too lazy. Graeber writes, “Clearly the problem was that the entire population had failed to memorize their lessons properly. But what they were actually denying was the legitimacy of collective creativity, the free play of the system. ” While the official rules stayed the same over the decades, the language itself kept evolving. People assumed the fault of not speaking “proper” Malagasy lay with them, not with the outdated dictionary and grammar. They confused a description for a prescription. He writes:

It never seems to occur to anyone—until you point it out—that had the missionaries came and written their books two hundred years later, current usages would be considered the correct ones, and anyone speaking as they had two hundred years ago would themselves be assumed to be in error.

Graeber sees the same phenomenon playing out in other languages for which grammars and dictionaries only came into existence a century or two ago. Often, such languages were mostly spoken and, like Malagasy, no one made formal records until the need arose for people from elsewhere to make translations. Instead of treating those records as descriptive and outdated, those teaching the language treat them as prescriptive—despite knowing they’re not practical for everyday use.

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Why don’t people talk “proper”?

So why can’t people just speak a language per the official rules? If someone has gone to all the effort of identifying and recording the rules and people received instruction on them in school, why not follow them? Why keep changing things up?

If languages didn’t evolve, it would make life a lot easier for historians looking at texts from the past. It would also simplify matters for people learning the language, for those coming from different areas, and even for speakers across generations. Yet all languages change all the time.

Graeber suggests the reason for this is because people like to play. We find it dull to speak according to the official rules of our language. We seek out novelty in our everyday lives and do whatever it takes to avoid boredom. Even if each person only plays a little bit once in a while, the results compound. Graeber explains that “this playing around will have cumulative effects.”

Languages still need conventions so people can understand each other. The higher the similarity between the versions of a language different people speak, the more they can communicate. At the same time, they cannot remain rigid. Trying to follow an unyielding set of strict rules will inevitably curtail the usefulness of a language and prevent it from developing in interesting and necessary ways. Languages need a balance: enough guidance to help everyone understand each other and provide an entry point for learners, and enough flexibility to keep updating the rules as actual usage changes.

As a result, languages call into question our idea of freedom: “It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. ” On the other hand, no rules whatsoever mean no one can understand each other.

Languages need frameworks, but no amount of grammar classes or official dictionaries will prevent people from playing and having fun with their speech.

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The dictionary is not the language

“The map is not the territory” means that any representation of reality has to be a simplification that may contain errors, become outdated, or reflect biases. Maps remove details that aren’t necessary for their intended use. Representations of complex systems may show expected behavior or ideal behavior. For example, the London Underground map doesn’t reflect the distances between stations because this information isn’t important to most commuters. If a map represented its territory without reducing anything, it would be identical to the territory and therefore would be useless. In fact, the simplest maps can be the most useful because they’re the easiest to understand and remember.

Sometimes maps are descriptive, and sometimes they’re prescriptive; often they’re a bit of both. We run into problems when we confuse one type for another and try to navigate an idealized territory or make the real territory fit an idealized image.

A language’s grammar and dictionary are a sort of map. They take a complex system—a language spoken by what could be tens of millions of people—and aim to represent it with something which is, by comparison, simple. The official rules are not the language itself, but they provide guidance for navigating it. Much like a map of a city needs periodic updates as parts are torn down, built up, renamed, destroyed, added, and so on, the official rules need updating as the language changes. Trying to learn Malagasy using grammar rules written two hundred years ago is like trying to navigate Antananarivo using a street map made two hundred years ago.

A map of a complex system, like a language, is meant to help us find our way by giving us a sense of how things looked at one point in time—it’s usually descriptive. It doesn’t necessarily tell us how that system should look, and we may run into problems if we try to make it conform to the map, ignoring the system’s own adaptive properties. Even if the cartographer never intended this, we can end up treating a map as a prescription. We try to make reality conform to the map. This is what occurs with languages. Graeber calls this the “grammar-book effect”:

People do not invent languages by writing grammars, they write grammars—at least, the first grammars to be written for any given language—by observing the tacit, largely unconscious rules that people seem to be employing when they speak. Yet once a book exists, and especially once it is employed in schoolrooms, people feel that the rules are not just descriptions of how people do talk, but prescriptions for how they should talk.

As we’ve seen, one reason the map is not the territory with language is because people feel compelled to play and experiment. When we encounter representations of systems involving people, we should keep in mind that while we may need rules for the sake of working together and understanding each other, we’re always pushing up against and reshaping those rules. We find it boring to follow a rigid prescription.

For instance, imagine some of the documents you might receive upon starting a role at a new company. Process documents showing step by step how to do the main tasks you’ll be expected to perform. But when the person you’re replacing shows you how to do those same tasks, you notice they don’t follow the listed steps at all. When you ask why, they explain that the process documents were written before they started actually carrying out those tasks, meaning they discovered more efficient ways afterward.

Why keep the process documents, then? Because for someone filling in or starting out, it might make sense to follow them. It’s the most defensible option. Once you truly know the territory and won’t change something without considering why it was there in the first place, you can play with the rules. Those documents might be useful as a description, but they’re unlikely to remain a prescription for long.

The same is true for laws. Sometimes aspects of them are just descriptive of how things are at one point in time, but we end up having to keep following them to the letter because they haven’t been updated. A law might have been written at a time when documents needed sending by letter, meaning certain delays for shipping. Now they can be sent by email. If the law hasn’t been updated, those delay allowances turn from descriptions into prescriptions. Or a law might reflect what people were permitted to do at the time, but now we assume people should have the right to do that thing even if we have new evidence it’s not the best idea. We are less likely to change laws if we persist in viewing them as prescriptive.

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Conclusion

Descriptions of reality are practical for helping us navigate it, while also giving us room to change things. Prescriptions are helpful for giving us ways of understanding each other and providing enough structure for shared conventions, but they can also become outdated or end up limiting flexibility. When you encounter a representation of something, it’s useful to consider which parts are descriptive and which parts are prescriptive. Remember that both prescriptions and descriptions can and should change over time.

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The FS team were saddened to hear of David Graeber’s passing, shortly after we completed this article. We hope his books will continue to inspire and educate new readers for many years to come.