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The Stairs: How to clarify complexity and clear fog of war

This concept is one of the general mental models that communicate complexity. It is primarily visualized as stairs as each step conveys a different level.

I particularly enjoy using this mental model because it’s such a beautiful way of expressing and highlighting the existence of difference: something that varies, something that can be evaluated, prioritized, sorted.

There are different levels to everything.

  • Different levels of meals (a simple piece of toast with eggs vs. a full-course meal)
  • Different levels of response to criminal activity (a strong reprimand vs. a ticket vs. jail and fines vs. death penalty)
  • Different levels of relationships (strangers, acquaintances, friends, close friends, intimate relationships)
  • Different levels of saying no to a person (lightly taking the situation and laughing away while declining, saying a plain and simple no, explicitly setting the boundaries of your strong aversion to the request, moving yourself physically away from the person, filing for a restraining order or asking for external help to say no)

Many people already fundamentally understand the concept of The Stairs, as this information is ingrained within society:

  • We shouldn’t expect a full-course meal at McDonald’s.
  • We don’t expect death penalty from parents when children are starting to learn the concept of stealing.
  • We know that we’re not supposed to suddenly kiss a stranger on the lips, because that’s not a human interaction acceptable for the level of your relationship, or lack thereof.
  • We know that it is inappropriate for a woman to file a restraining order immediately after a man introduces himself. It’s a case-to-case basis but you get what I mean.

Ultimately, I wrote about the mental model of the stairs because I want to highlight the existence of different levels. One must acknowledge and utilize the different levels to its fullest, so that we can use the appropriate level for the appropriate context.

  • Are you feeling angry? What is the appropriate level of response to your situation?
  • You have an app idea? What’s the appropriate level of commitment in relation to the risk, the idea’s potential, and your financial context?
  • You have a good hand in poker? What’s the appropriate quantity of a raise that you’ll get to make others call while not scaring them away?
  • You love programming and want to always make fantastic software? How much time can you only allot and invest in this client’s project in relation to the amount you’re getting paid?
  • You want to purchase a computer whose purpose is only word processing and internet? What’s the appropriate level of money that you should spend for the value you want to get?

As demonstrated in the above examples, this mental model that emphasizes different levels in different contexts. In the above examples, simple failures to apply this mental model is easily recognized in people that lack emotional mastery when they blow up in anger, or completely going all-in by quitting your job to pursue a risky app idea, or not betting enough in poker, or encountering delays in the software development project, or getting a gaming computer for your grandmother.

The mental model of the stairs enables the individual to recognize, accept, and unravel complexity.

I particularly love this mental model because I am person that values growth very deeply. What better way to grow than to study, and to learn more about the complexities of life. The mental model of the stairs enables the individual to recognize, accept, and unravel complexity. This allows a highly self-aware and observant individual to learn and grow at a rapid pace.

Roadblocks to this mental model

The acceptance of difference and the acknowledgement of complexity is something frequently overlooked by many, and for various reasons. We explore these different cases of people failing to understand this mental model in the following sections.

Naivety- Failure by inexperience and lack of creativity

Some fail to recognize complexity because of inexperience. They don’t have enough exposure to real experiences that the darkness and the unknown is simply a blank space to them. This is similar to the concept of fog-of-war in most video games, where part of the map is covered in black, representing the unknown. Inexperience prevents the novice from knowing that there are more possibilities than what is already known.

Fog of War affects visibility. Marines/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Related to the lack of experience is a potential lack of creativity. It is likened to a painter that has only ever painted in red. Without creativity and a dream of something beyond the colors one has already mastered, one will not be able to experiment, fail, and discover new colors.

Foolishness- Failure by laziness

Laziness could be a factor that prevents a person from putting in the effort to explore the difference, or what each level looks like. There are times when laziness affects our prioritization (I’d rather just sit and relax rather than perform thought experiments).

This highly depends on the context, but it could possibly lead to a person not bothering to recognize, accept, and understand other potential cases and this can be compounded with the failure to make a timely and wise decision to pursue exploring the levels at a more relaxed and controlled environment.

Choosing not to explore the levels does not always entail foolishness. On the cases where the individual actually recognizes and acknowledges that different levels exist, it is not a failure of applying the mental model but is instead a conscious decision not to elaborate on the mental model. This may occur when they have the capability and creativity to infer or expect what is unknown, but a difference in value prioritization dictates that it would be better that they don’t explore at all. You understand and are able to explore the different levels; you just choose not to.

Arrogance- Failure by pride

Pride hammers the idea in that all that is already known is all that is there to know. What makes this dangerous is that the individual grows a blindside because of the arrogance. It is dangerous not being receptive to hear something different. Examples of this is when a person is not willing to accept that they can be wrong, or hearing other perspectives or understanding of the situation, or accepting that others do not have to think and act like you do.

Desiring wisdom overcomes this particular failure because wisdom requires you to possess a mindset of humility- knowing that we are working with partial information and that there are things that we could possibly not know.

The Stairs

Recognize and accept differences. Explore different levels. How broad is my experience? Am I lacking in my intellectual vocabulary? Am I missing a step in the stairs? What is the mid-point between two steps in the stairs?

15 de mayo ~ oficio taller | photos © adrian llaguno

How did you guys like the first article on mental models? Do you have specific applications of the mental model you want to share? Let me know what you think, or if you have any suggestions on how these blog series can be better improved.

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