Mental models impact how you see the world or a person or an issue. They are powerful. They are fortunately also malleable.
My early mental models didn’t always serve me well. I thought smart people became doctors. Well . . . I failed at becoming a doctor. So did that mean I wasn’t smart?? Or was my mental model flawed. I went with the second option for some of the obvious reasons.
Another mental model I held was asking for help was a sign of weakness. As a child of immigrants where money was scarce, I learned the power of independence and self-reliance. But I probably took it to an extreme. Asking for help was painful and something I tried to avoid if at all possible. It felt so much better to do it on my own.
However, life had other plans for me. I was forced to ask for and accept help. I was diagnosed with cancer in my 30s and after surgery, I literally couldn’t help myself. I was so weak and confined to a bed for weeks. And allowing people to help take care of my two young sons, to cook me food, showed me my previous mental model was wrong. Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. It is also a precious gift to both the person helping as well as the one helped.
A mental model I recommend for your long term success is to approach what comes next with your whole life in mind – both breadth and length.
My original approach was "work" and "life" or "family." Even expressions like “work life balance" or "work life harmony” have built in mental models that these parts of your lived experience are separate. They are not. You have one life. Those are some of the pieces of it and there are quite a few more. Don’t compartmentalize – work, home, etc. Work across the roles and elements of your life to create a beautiful tapestry that is cohesive and yet colorful.
Also think about your life in its full length where the only certainty is that there will be an end much as we all act daily as if we will live forever.
A provocative title to an article summed it up well for me, “Are you living for your eulogy or your resume?” I will let you guess which I think is a more effective model. Having eulogized my dad late last year made this super personal for me. I recall growing up wishing he had more ambition. He didn’t finish his PhD but he was so close. He taught at a community college rather than a prestigious institution. His published works done with government grants focused on approaches for those with math phobias that really had a limited reach. He was so smart and talented, I thought he could and should want to do more. When I tried to capture his life in 4 minutes or less (pastor’s instructions), I realized he had fully adopted the better mental model. He did what he loved and gave it his whole self whether with some crazy building project or teaching.
Embracing a mental model to consider both the breadth and length of my life really changes my approach to things as simple as my “to do list.” I only have one that is anchored in the person I want to become at the end of my life.
It also changed how I think about my priorities. There is no “having it all.” There is only my choices and the trade-offs they represent. I hope I can do as good a job as my father.
I saw a wonderful expression that said it best, “Hell is at the end of your life meeting the person you could have become.”