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Give a Man a Hammer

Stone wall near Alcott house in Concord Mass 

The world is too complex to be understood directly, so we use simplified mental models to make sense of things.   All of us have habitual models – metaphors – that we fit w/o much thought to the events in our world.    The model/metaphor we use determines what we do.    But none of our models is reality.  They fit more or less well, and to the extent the model is a bad fit, we make bad decisions that follow with perfect logic from our assumptions.

Windows at the old Matuszek's grocery in Milwaukee, Wi

Give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.   The model makes a difference.  The most explicit models we employ are often related to sports.  Think about how different the results can be.    A football model will entail planning by a leader and execution by different people, each with specific specializations (quarterback, linebacker etc) on the field in separate steps with pauses between moves.  Basketball, with its continuous fluid and reactive action, produces a very different model evoke very understanding of the problem.    I often wonder how many of our international misunderstandings result from our football metaphor versus their football/soccer way of simplifying reality.

statue of peddlar in front of Smithsonian taken in January 28, 2009

Explicit models are treacherous enough, but it is the IMPLICIT models – the ones we use w/o thinking – put the biggest hurt on us.  Framing the model is the most important part of decision making, but it is often completely overlooked.    Decision makers often assume models out of habit or inertia and then cannot understand why their perfectly logical choices that flow from their premises do not produce the expected results.     Reality is too complex and confusing.  You have to have a model to simplify it, but make it a good one.

My preferred model is ecological, specifically forestry, and I have worked to refine my understanding of this model and its application.   No model is perfect, but this one is robust because it accounts for interaction of complex factors, properly accounts for the effects of time, anticipates changes in conditions and anticipates random shocks.  The most important insight in this model is that the actions you take will change the expected outcomes and they will never produce proportional results.    Little inputs can create very large results, very large inputs may produce almost nothing and change come in spurts and lumps.   This doesn’t make intuitive sense because we tend to think in terms or physical models where inputs relate directly to outputs.   If I pour eight ounces of water into a cup, I expect to find eight ounces.   In a biological model, eight ounces may result in a gallon of result or nothing at all; or it might produce no visible result for a long time and then make a big jump.  

U.S. Capitol on winter morning taken on January 28, 2009

You also learn that some things take time to work and extra resources cannot rush the process and that there are some things you just cannot have, not matter how much you want them or how good it would be to get them.

Many people think that if we just all agree, we can have all we want.   When it doesn’t work out, they assume there must be some villains standing in the way.  But in the real world, there are many things we cannot have right away – we have to wait – lots of things we cannot have simultaneously and some things we cannot have at an acceptable cost and things we cannot have at all no matter what cost we are willing to pay.   And this happens naturally.  Villains are optional.    And often you don’t get what you think you want, but what you get is better.  Sustained interaction with the natural world teaches these lessons.   That is why forestry is a good model.  But it takes time to learn. 


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