It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail. —Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow might have popularised the theory of ‘man with a hammer syndrome’ in 1966, the idea, however, stretches back much further. Track back through history and you’ll uncover the concept of the ‘Birmingham Screwdriver’ used over a century previously, to humorously suggest that those that hail from Birmingham rely on the use of force to solve problems… perish the thought.
This idea, that we tend to rely on the tools we have to hand – the tools we already know – should, to the seasoned designer, sound a note of caution. An over-reliance on familiar tools can, after all, tend towards familiar outcomes.
If we’re not careful we can find ourselves guilty of approaching every problem with the proverbial hammer, when often that hammer is inappropriate for the task at hand. A better idea is to equip yourself with more than that sole hammer.
To grow as creatives we need to develop our toolsets, both practically and mentally, ensuring that the tools we have to hand are drawn from a wider array of sources. In short, we need to develop a knowledge toolset that we can apply holistically as needed.
We work in a complex and multi-faceted world. The kinds of tasks we undertake today, and the roles we inhabit, would have been unimaginable in the past. To operate effectively in this exciting new environment of opportunity, we need to establish a new mindset. We need to develop, and draw upon, what Charlie Munger – celebrated investor, partner to Warren Buffett and noted thinker – calls a ‘Latticework of Mental Models’.
The idea of mental models was first postulated by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce in 1896 and later developed by the psychologist Kenneth Craik in 1943. Craik believed that the mind constructs ‘small-scale models’ of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underpin explanation. As he put it:
[The mind uses these models] to try out various alternatives, conclude which are the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, and utilise knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and the future.
Cognitive scientists argue that the mind constructs mental models as a result of its engagement with, and understanding of, the world. Each mental model represents a way of looking at the world – one possible perspective – as such it’s important to develop our ‘palette’ of mental models. The more models we engage with, the greater our possible understanding.
As the Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon, puts it:
The better decision maker has at [their] disposal repertoires of possible actions; checklists of things to think about before they act; and they have mechanisms in their mind to evoke these, and bring these to conscious attention when the situations for decision arise.
This state of ‘readiness’ requires the development of repertoires of possibility, models of the world that approach it from different angles, as if seen through the various facets of a diamond.
This readiness, unsurprisingly, requires hard work. It necessitates a worldview that is open to new knowledge and new ways of thinking. (Given that you’re reading this, you, of course, understand this.)
Latticeworks and Lollapaloozas
Mental models, as we’ve seen, are powerful lenses through which we can see the world. They enable us to reframe the problem at hand and see it in a different light.
Where mental models come into their own, however, is when they come together to form what Munger calls a latticework. To build this latticework you need to become – as Munger puts it – a ‘learning machine’. As Munger states:
I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.
This insight is obvious, isn’t it? (But then, the best advice always is.) In aggregate it’s simple: Strive to finish every day a little wiser than you started.
So where do you search for this wisdom? Where is the ideal place to start? Perhaps the best place is furthest from home: find something new, find ground you’ve yet to tread. Start there. (Alternatively, try Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, but be warned, it’s expensive.)
The world of knowledge is, of course, incredibly expansive; some concrete areas of investigation, however, might include: psychology, anthropology, engineering, mathematics, accounting, economics…. (I could go on and on.)
In short, widen the frame of reference and deepen your understanding. In doing so you’ll create what Munger terms a ‘Lollapalooza Effect’, where the power of your ideas together is greater than the sum of their parts. (You might already know of this effect by a different name: ‘gestalt theory’.)
The Long Haul
In Warren Buffet’s 50th annual Letter to the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., he states: “It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.” An undeniable assertion, it’s – cleverly – the opposite of what we’re used to hearing, but in that twist lies a cold, hard truth. It takes time to build a fully comprehensive framework of understanding. Experience adds up. The longer you’re in the game, the more you benefit, and the latticework you’ve woven together makes you stronger.
It takes time to join the dots.
As Maria Popova puts it in Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, a wonderful piece that is well worth reading:
…creativity is combinatorial, nothing is entirely original, everything builds on what came before, and we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombine them into incredible new creations.
This line of thinking echoes that of James Webb Young and Vilfredo Pareto who – a century before – underlined the importance of, “combinations of old elements,” leading to new ideas. Popova calls this ‘networked knowledge’, rightly reflecting the increasingly connected culture we find ourselves occupying.
Popova continues: “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.” I couldn’t put it any better. The castles we build will, of course, be founded on the ideas of the past.
Herein lies the challenge to the creative wishing to set themselves apart as we accelerate into an unpredictable future. Feed the mind, nourish it, and equip it with a wealth of mental models. From these latticeworks the answers will, inevitably, flow.
It takes a lifetime to join the dots and build a latticework of mental models. The days of learning your skillset in a matter of a few years are over, we need to embrace a new mindset, understanding that learning is a lifelong undertaking.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the art of reading, in particular studying syntopically, and exploring what the wonderful Mortimer J. Adler can teach us about how to read a book. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.