There are many rumors about the strange habits and capabilities of inventor Nikola Tesla.
He was said only to need about two hours of sleep per night, supported by occasional naps. He apparently died without ever marrying and, possibly, without any intimate relationships, deeming them a distraction to work. He once spent $2,000 to treat an injured pigeon.
He was quite cultured, speaking multiple languages, and he was very exact about his time.
The most fascinating claim about him, however – and if true, this is likely the cause of his genius – is that he could visualize his inventions with such precision that when it came time to construct them, he didn’t need drawings, or require more than one try to get them right.1
Given that he is responsible for some of the most innovative engineering feats of the 20th century, this is beyond impressive. In fact, it may well explain how he did what he did.
The reality we live in is incredibly complex. On top of that, we have known limitations when it comes to understanding it and interacting with it. We don’t ever fully see or experience it.
Our mind only captures a very small part of it through our senses, and we are then limited by the language we use to try and piece it together. It’s an incomplete game of construction.
Yet, it’s clear that some people, like Tesla, for example, are far more effective than others at working with these limitations. They may not be able to capture all of reality, but they can close the gap between what they construct in their mind and what is actually going on.
Luckily, observing how they close this gap, we can locate the seeds of potential in ourselves.
The Visual Logic of Reality
There isn’t much we can do about the fact that our senses simply can’t capture all of our surroundings. Similarly, we have no way to ensure that we process all that they do capture.
The limitations of language, however, we do have a solution for. The fact that words and sentences and their symbols and their systems distort and bias our observation of reality can be targeted if we learn to move away from their staticity towards the fluidity of images.
In his research on expert performance, one of the things that K. Anders Ericsson has found is that what all experts have in common is a mental representation of their movements.2
For example, a professional golf player can visualize the perfect shot in her mind due to years and years of practice, and she can use this image to then recreate that shot in real life.
The fact they use the visual logic of images to see their interactions with reality ensures that they capture as much of it as possible so that they can optimally make a difference in it.
Vision is the most high-bandwidth of our senses. It takes in the most information from our surroundings. While words and sentences are restricted by their static nature, the fluidity of vision captures logical aspects of reality that escape us when we simply think in language.
Of course, it’s not as easy as just deciding that you are going to think like Tesla and then hope that it sticks. Rather, you have to take the mental models you already have in your mind and then recreate and refine them through practice as mental representations.
Many things we deal with in life, we have dealt with before, and each experience we have gives us new information that we can use to better interact with similar ones in the future.
We all already use heuristics and shortcuts to see the world, but to truly get the most out of them, we have to feed them information in a way that makes them move as reality does.
Just as an athlete or an inventor are experts in their domain, we can be experts at living.
A Universal Representation
There is, however, one major shortcoming when it comes to our current understanding of mental representations. They are usually only confined to a very narrow and specific context.
A golfer has a different mental representation for when she puts than when she drives. It’s necessary mainly because of the level of detail that is confined in each movement and act.
We similarly have different mental models that are scattered in our mind based on the specific requirements of an individual experience. For example, when it comes to a night out with close friends, usually, there is no need to be thinking about the 80/20 rule.
When talking about some of the ideas that changed his life, Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund made a point to mention how our personal experience makes up 0.00000001% of what has happened in the world, but it represents about 80% of how we think the world works.3
Similarly, any individual mental model or mental representation we have makes up a tiny part of how reality works, but when we use it, we mostly see the whole situation through it.
This may be fine when it comes to a game like golf, with specific situations and solid rules, but in real life, any individual mental representation should always be supplemented with a broader view of reality to account for possible second and third order effects of any event.
The most effective way to think is to combine all of the individual mental representations you use to deal with your life into one large, universal representation that captures your whole knowledge of how the universe works – a living, moving image of reality as you know it.
Most of the power of mental models and mental representations doesn’t come from simply knowing many of them, but more so, it comes from how connected they are to each other.
There are always details missed by any single piece of knowledge confined to any one context. The only way to capture the continuity of reality is to have a continuous image.
All You Need to Know
When most of us learn something new and important that may be relevant to our lives, we create a condensed shortcut of it in our mind so that we can apply it to a future situation.
This is what we commonly refer to as a mental model. We do this intuitively, but it can also be done deliberately, and when it is, it speeds up our ability to improve our decision-making.
Nikola Tesla did exactly this when building his inventions, but he also took it a step further.
A mental representation is a transformation of a mental model from a linguistic heuristic we have programmed ourselves to remember to a visual movement that corresponds to reality.
Words and sentences are static. Even when they are clear and refer to concrete symbols in the world, they operate rigidly, limiting their usefulness. Mental representations help us overcome this. They capture the fluidity of the world by making use of our visual logic.
On top of them, they are easier to connect. Each representation in a particular context is a bead of knowledge that we can combine into a full necklace – a complete, moving image of the universe as we know it, one that allows us to zoom out so we can escape tunnel vision.
Everything in life connects to everything else. While there is a place for only applying what is needed for a given context, it’s also important to always reference that to something larger.
Reality is textured and nuanced. To see it for what it is, we also need the right mental tools.
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