I’ve been trying to come up with a better way to illustrate the concept of mental model flattening, and realized that one way to do this is by describing it as I experience it.
Imagine a scale that reflects our relationship to a perspective: a self-coherent worldview. This worldview is possible because of the network of mental models we possess, helping us orient ourselves, see choices and possibilities, and act on them.
This scale is arranged as a ladder of sorts, with the mental model complexity is at its highest at the top, becoming progressively simplified with every rung down. As the model gets simpler, our capacity to relate to a perspective diminishes. As we proceed through our day, we climb up and down this ladder multiple times a day, sometimes moment to moment. Even though all rungs of the ladder may be accessible to us, we aren’t sitting still. We run up and down, sometimes intentionally, but most often not.
Just like real-life ladders, ours is subject to gravity. Climbing to the upper rungs seems to require effort. Conversely, all it takes is a little stress, fatigue, or a particular triggering experience, and down the rungs we go. Picture the process of mental model flattening as this sliding down the ladder.
Understanding which rung we are at any given moment is, in itself, a form of acquiring a perspective. It serves as an extra boost upward: pausing to understand where we are might serve a useful trick to start climbing.
So, the ladder. I’ll start at the bottom and we’ll clamber up together. I’ll describe each rung as my own experiences – I hope they resonate and help you reconstruct the picture that I am seeing in your own mind.
🌪 Detached from a perspective
The ladder’s lowest rung is what I call “just stayin’ alive”. Here, I am thoroughly disoriented and lost, mostly just reacting as best as I can. My impulses are in charge. Whether positive or negative, my experiences at this rung are intense. If you’ve ever felt that panicky feeling of just trying to find bearings – or perhaps get that insatiable craving, then you know what I am talking about. At this rung, when the notion of a perspective is suggested to me, I will typically react with bewilderment, struggling to remember what it might mean. It may feel like a lifeline when a perspective – any perspective! – is offered. The particular strength of this rung is in the rush of adrenaline it provides, the extra kick for powering through a particularly tough situation. At the same time, these hormone baths are taxing for our bodies and aren’t great for our health in the long term. And well, there’s this whole “lost” thing.
When detached from a perspective, it’s not that I don’t have any of my mental models. It’s that they all appear to have this squeaky, slippery rubber feel to them: grasping at them just makes them pop out of my hands and float farther away. The only ones that feel accessible are primitive and atavistically simple: “they bad, I good”, etc. This is the extreme of mental model flattening.
🩹 Sticking to a perspective
Just above is “sticking to a perspective” rung. I am firmly attached to a particular way of looking at what’s around me. I am no longer as disoriented, but I ain’t seeing much outside of the very specific window of the perspective. I can feel pretty comfortable in this state, aside from the occasional nagging feeling that something is missing. When someone suggests that they have different perspectives, I may look at them like they are messing with me – or trying to deceive me. While stuck to a perspective, irritation and anger are common reactions to the evidence that doesn’t fit into that perspective: I am part of the perspective and a threat to it is a threat to me. The gift of this rung is followership: I will happily roll up my sleeves and chip in to help with a problem when asked – as long as it fits into my perspective window.
While sticking to a perspective, the mental models tend to appear as crisp and simple causal chains that are unburdened by any fuzzy notions. If this, then that. Even when well-familiar with loops in a network of causal relationships, any notion of them will be neatly elided from my thinking. Mental models of others are either “exactly like me” or some overly primitive caricatures.
At least for me, this rung serves as sort of a defensive crouch. When I am distracted or tired, this is where you are most likely to find me. I’ve been looking for a sample of my writing at this rung of the latter and the Agony of a Thousand Puppies comes pretty close:
Yep, it’s the grumpy-pants Dimitri.
🔨 Holding a perspective
Another rung up is “holding a perspective”. My attachment to the perspective becomes more or less intentional. I hold the perspective, as opposed to it holding me. It is the only perspective I know, but I know it well. This perspective is particularly helpful when I am asked for loyalty or need to commit to a certain course of action.
When I hold a perspective, I can wield it like a sword and find clever ways to destroy perspectives of others. Even when I am clearly shown blind spots of the perspective I hold, I remain unfazed, retreating into the realm of magical thinking and conspiracies if necessary. I may not even be upset with people who have different perspectives. I just would have this calm sense of boundless confidence that they’re wrong.
This rung is populated by mental models that we’re experts in. The sheer depth of experience does the heavy lifting. These models may be fairly intricate, but tend to have this mechanical quality. When holding a perspective, we view all things around us in terms of precisely, pain-stakingly crafted mental models. Unlike at the previous rung, our mental models of others expand quite a bit in their sophistication. They have gears and springs that move them — and we feel like we know exactly how they tick.
It pains me to admit how familiar this rung is to me. Some of my biggest blunders were rooted in this mechanized world – yet it remains to be somewhat of a default notch for me. If you want to hear how I sound at this rung, here’s a post from 2007, written in “holding a perspective” voice, where I propose an alternative to Apple’s iPhone SDK.
🌳 Having a perspective
The next rung up is “having a perspective.” It is characterized by this sense that I do indeed have a particular perspective, and I know why I have this perspective. I can look around and see ample evidence that the way I am seeing is self-consistent and coherent. I can discern my own work of constructing this perspective. When someone talks to me about it, I can describe my perspective (and the reasoning behind it) in detail. I can take the perspectives of others, understand them, compare them, show flaws and benefits in them, and even adjust mine to make it more robust.
When at this rung, I am not trying to answer the question of “why is this perspective true/false?” but rather “why is it so?” The growing depth of understanding of my perspective helps me maintain the clarity of direction, which frames the main strength of this rung: the capacity to lead others.
It is my experience that leadership and commitment are at the different rungs of the ladder. Especially in fluid environments, these are two different activities. One is patiently staying a decided course of action, and the other is looking to navigate a changing terrain. The latter requires flexibility and rapid changing of the mind, which can appear like lack of conviction at the “holding a perspective” rung.
The sense of organic flexibility, like weeds, permeates our models at this rung. The models open up, no longer precise and mechanistic, allowing for ambiguity and tolerating clusters of unknowable. When we have a perspective, we recognize that it’s just a snapshot of some much more complex thing that we aren’t yet seeing, and are able to be okay with our model’s inherent incompleteness. The source of groundness at this rung emerges not from the confidence of “knowing the world”, but rather from the sense of awe of the complexity of the world and the deep desire to glimpse the whole picture.
A post from 2014 about Web platform deprecation might be a sample of how I sound at this rung. There’s a patient and thorough analysis of the situation, admission of its gravity and high ambiguity, and an optimistic call to action. It is the voice of most of my writing at work.
🌀 Visiting perspectives
The “visiting perspectives” rung is at the top of our ladder. In addition to seeing perspectives of others, I can shift to inhabit them. I can step out of what I believe to be true and temporarily adopt someone else’s ontological realm. I do this without judgment and temptation to evaluate it against my perspective, accepting that this someone else also has a rich life experience and a lot to teach me. I am a traveler who’s visiting perspectives, and the less I hold on to mine, the more depth of other perspectives is revealed to me.
This ladder might actually be one of those spiral staircases. In a weird circular fashion, the last rung resembles the first one: in both, I appear to have no attachment to any given perspective, and may even seem lost. The big distinction is that in the first rung, I can see very little. In the last one, I have the full capacity to see perspectives of others around me. This process of perspective examination is deeply enriching, and offers the gift of being able to see blind spots that nobody else can. When I am able to stay at this rung at the ladder, it almost feels like I can see around corners. When I say “systems thinking”, I usually mean not a particular discipline or methodology, but rather the experience of gaining access to the complexity of mental models at this rung of the ladder.
For me, writing rarely happens at this rung, because the moment is so fleeting. I could try and plead the case that most of my recent posts are written in that voice, but I suspect it’s just skill. I have learned to emulate the gentle, curious voice of this rung, even though I am not actually inhabiting it.
However, I do have a few posts that I remember writing immediately after touching that top rung. They have this nearly delirious delight of briefly seeing something much larger than what I can typically afford. My Decoherence post from 2020 post is one of those. The first sentence reaches for a galactic horizon: “There is no past or future”.
Perspective ladder mini-case study
To give you a sense of how traveling up and down the ladder feels, I’ll describe my experience at a meeting I’ve been at just last week – here it goes, with commentary.
We were discussing a subject that I knew a lot about, and I was pretty sure about that. I was also pretty sure that we were all on the same page. I started getting a little bit distracted, checking my email, and thinking about something else. Only a bit of attention remained on the conversation.
At this point, it is unclear if I am sticking to a perspective, holding it or having one. All three feel the same. However, the “partial attention” bit points at the sticking to perspective: letting it hold me.
Then, one of the participants spoke up, revealing a different perspective that was incongruent with mine. My first internal reaction: “Wait, what? What’s happening here?”
Aha! Indeed, it looks like I was at “sticking to a perspective,” rung, and my colleague’s confident voice triggered a dip into the “just stayin’ alive” rung. The disorientation is a telltale sign in such cases.
Then I immediately had this sense of irritation come over me. I was feeling disheartened and disappointed.
It sounds like I quickly escaped out of the lowest rung and climbed to “sticking to a perspective.” There could have been two alternatives here: one of me sticking to my colleague’s perspective, immediately adopting it, and the other is of me remembering that I have a lot of expertise in this area, and sticking to that. It looks like I picked the latter. One interesting marker for “sticking to a perspective” rung is Should-ness. If I feel strongly that I should be doing something or acting in a certain way, and/or others around me should be doing the same, or something I expect them to do – that’s a sign that I am at this rung of the ladder.
After fuming for a little bit, but not saying anything, I noticed that I was feeling irritated. I tried to reorient and did a breathing exercise to release the tension. Once I settled down, I started noticing that my colleague was just wrong: they clearly didn’t understand the problem as well as I did.
This indicates that I am currently climbing upward, likely at the “holding a perspective” rung. There’s usually a sense of relief that accompanies reaching this rung, when I realize that all is well and it is the others who are lost, not me.
I started asking questions trying to better sense where their misunderstanding originated. To my surprise, I realized that my colleague had good insights that I could build on to improve my knowledge.
I am now at the “having a perspective” run. There is a subtle shift when climbing up here: other people’s “wrongness” becomes a parts bin for ideas. Instead of being a protector of my perspective, I become a savvy gardener who eagerly improves it once novel insights are uncovered.
The meeting ended on a good note, and I felt pretty excited about learning new things, though I wasn’t quite sure what to do about the difference of perspectives between my colleague and I that we encountered.
It was only next morning that I realized how neatly our perspectives cover a larger problem space that I haven’t seen before, and how their view is not only valid, but also overlays a blind spot that I suspected was there, but couldn’t quite see (because that’s how our blind spots typically behave). The idea of how we could collaborate immediately became obvious and got me excited and fired up for the day.
This flash of insight is a result of briefly reaching the top rung of the ladder. I could swear it feels like it’s accompanied by the angelic choir sound: that’s how clarifying and revealing the insight that arrives. I wish I’d spend more time at this rung, but I only seem to reach it ephemerally and in certain conditions. Things like having enough rest and sleep, for example, are a large part of the equation. The excitement that followed is a drop to “having a perspective” rung: learning and incorporating the new gems into my garden of mental models. It is followed by the commitment and determination (“I am fired up!”) that tells me I clicked into the “holding a perspective” rung.
What I learned so far
I hope this illustration has been helpful. I have been using a less kempt rendition of this framework for a while. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way.
- Fake it till you make it. When at the bottom rungs, it seems that the key is to remember that there’s a ladder at all. At these rungs, it’s just trying to cling to the framework itself as a perspective (there’s literally a stickie with the words “Remember the Ladder” on it), and being patient with myself. Have faith that the model flattening is a temporary effect, and the disorientation and the limited sight being experienced will pass.
- Different gifts at different rungs. Each rung is useful for unlocking its particular gifts, though these gifts tend to be mutually exclusive. There is no rung where I can both follow and lead. To do both, I have to be consciously switching between the two, and that is an effortful process. If I want to see around corners, but am also looking to commit to one particular perspective, I need to anticipate a lot of climbing up and down. Similarly, if I am “just stayin’ alive” at “detached from a perspective” rung, any attempts to lead or even follow will be highly unproductive.
- No free pass. Going down can happen quickly (gravity makes things fall), but going up, the rungs of the ladder don’t appear to be bypassable. Even if very quickly, it looks like I have to travel through the rungs to reach the ones I need. Be it reading a book or watching an interview, the travel from “well, that’s just preposterous!” to “ah, yes – I see how they’re wrong” to “huh, these bits are insightful” is something I am learning to anticipate. At this point, I’ve gotten to the point where I can sometimes feel the clicking of the rungs happening – which helps to orient.
- Bottom rungs are trappy. The “sticking to a perspective” rung is, well, sticky. I have to be fairly vigilant about not getting trapped in the not-learning cycle that lives just between it and the “holding a perspective” rung. Both rungs have a very satisfying feel of not having to change anything about myself. On too many occasions, I would recognize that I’d spent a chunk of my time just going up and down between these two rungs, trapped in the cycle.
The story above might sound familiar, because it is a loose, more flexible re-telling of the adult development theory. I’ve been unsatisfied with how, in conversations about ADT, the stage-like progression aspect of the theory takes center stage, displacing another useful aspect of it – the fluidity of how we show up in our daily lives. It is tempting to imagine that once a person reaches a certain stage, they just kind of stay at it. Since my experience is a bit different, viewing it as a one-way stair step progression felt too static. However, when combined with the concept of model flattening, it seems to gain this dynamic flavor.