How to sharpen your mental models over time

One day, Seth was making lunch at the office for the team. Guess what was on the menu? Scallops. I haven't liked scallops since I was a kid.

I said, "That looks great! I'm not a huge fan of scallops. I'll pass, thank you."

I've responded that way dozens of times over the years. It was habitual at that point to say no to scallops.

He said, "Really? Give them a try. They're fresh caught from a boutique grocer in Chelsea Market and they are delicious. Just cut a tiny piece and see if you like it. If you don't, I'm sure Alex or Willie will eat it."

The scallops were right there, and I could cut a tiny piece. So I thought, "What’s the harm? I’ll try a little bit."

To my surprise, it was the most mouth-watering, drool-worthy seafood I've ever had. I not only finished that scallop, but had two more—and secretly hoped my coworkers wouldn't take their share so I could eat more too.

So what happened there? I was 100% positive I didn't like scallops, until I liked them. That's weird right? I'm sure you've had a similar experience of discovering one day that something you had written off wasn't so bad after all.

Sometimes we think we don't like something, or it doesn’t work for us, because we had a bad experience with it in the past.

But consider this: it’s entirely possible what you experienced was a tiny slice of what this thing is or could be.

How does this apply to sharpening your mental models? The purpose of mental models is to have shortcuts that help you make sense of a noisy world—without having to think from scratch.

For mental models to be useful, though, they should help you make smarter decisions. But the outside world is constantly changing. Your inner world is constantly changing. Something you once believed might not apply anymore, which means your mental model could be outdated.

That’s why you should break your own rules once in a while. You should constantly be testing your rules, boundaries, hunches, intuition, and hypotheses.

When you test or break your own rules, there are two things that can happen:

  1. You’ll have a terrible experience from breaking your rule. You’ll say, “Wow I’m so glad I have this rule.” Then you can re-subscribe to your rule and continue on your merry way.

  2. You’ll realize the result was better than expected. Maybe your rule was painting in overly broad strokes. Maybe in certain situations, the rule doesn’t apply. Then you can come up with a better, updated rule.

[A caveat: Hold true to your values and do things you’d be proud to tell your grandchildren about. In other words, you should have a strict “no shadiness” policy. Aside from that, you’ll want to break your rules in as low-cost of a way as possible. Don’t do it in an area that’s irreversible or very expensive to fix.]

The point is to stay open to changing your mind, to realize what you know might be limited, and to continually hone your mental models.

It can be too extreme to say no to an entire category forever. If you want to develop better, sharper mental models, you should test the boundaries to make sure your rules still hold over time and across different areas of life. You might discover an even sharper framework or new insight in the process.

Takeaway: Strengthen your mental models by breaking rules and pushing boundaries to figure out what is true now, not just what you thought was true a while ago.

What are some "scallops" in your life? The next time you jump to a quick "no," think about whether you could be more nuanced with your mental model. I thought X didn’t work for me or my situation. But now, I realize it could work in certain circumstances. Therefore, I'll update my mental model to be more accurate, which will lead to better decisions.