Sunday, October 12, 2014

Professional Defects and Thinking Models

Professional Defects

    I heard of “professional defect” almost 15-20 years back, in a colloquial discussion with an acquaintance. I don’t remember anymore the context entirely, though as I used it then, it became part of my vocabulary. With time “professional defect” meant for me “seeing and judging the world through the knowledge of our profession, and ignoring or misinterpreting thus some (important) aspects of our quotidian life”.  I’m not sure whether the term is actually in use or a similar term is used to reflect this aspect. I met occasionally similar constructs later, some of my German colleagues stressing the fact that sometimes we have to take out our professional glasses in order to see things differently (e.g. take out or put our managerial glasses). A generalization can be met in De Bono’s six thinking hats – the hats representing in De Bono’s perception the distinct six ways in which people think about the world, each of them stressing an import aspect of reality and our thinking patterns.

    While in school, preparing for our profession, and especially later when we arrive to practice it, we acquire a knowledge base, the facts about the world, a set of thinking models that provide an approximation of the world in which our profession is anchored, and heuristics, algorithms” of thinking and decision making that form with time thinking patterns. They help us understand situations and solve problems in our professional life. They add up to our previous personal experience accumulated over the years. In fact we’ll more likely attempt at first to use some of the experience we acquired before attempting a profession, some of the knowledge, models and heuristics being validated or invalidated in our professional life. With time we arrive to use some of the models we exclusively acquired and verified in professional life also in our personal life. This translation may seem natural as professional life extends itself sometimes beyond the borders of our profession – some coworkers become our friends, we spend more and more time in communities related to our profession, we meet similar problems in the two areas as of life, etc.

    This extension from professional to personal life can have positive as well negative implications. It is true that some models from professional life can help us figure out some aspects from personal life, we arrive maybe to validate and improve our models, reaching somehow a deeper understanding of life. The problem comes when we ignore that we deal with a different type of environment, with its own characteristics, with different groups of people having higher diversity and other characteristics than the ones we meet in professional life. As the premises, the environment and its actors change, some of the models need some tweaking or they become unusable in our personal life. Maybe the number of such cases is incomparable small when we regard other type of thinking fallacies we fall into on a daily basis, though as long they arrive to define us and our choices in one way or another, we need to take a step back and look at them.

Some Examples

    There could be found multiple examples in which the thinking patterns and models about the world we “learned” in our profession are used outside the professional life. Sometimes they look at the world by generalizing the characteristics of the individuals, focusing typically on a single aspect of the human nature, making totally or partially abstraction of the whole.  It’s also a sequel of the analytic way of thinking about the world we’ve been exposed from the early years of school. A more appropriate way of studying, understanding and modeling the human nature is by following the systemic thinking view in which the human being is more than the components that builds it – the body, the psychological, the language, the character, the behavior ranging from simple movements to complex forms of expression, the creativity, the ways of thinking transposed in decision making and the philosophy about life, that include the religious and the spiritual, the experience, the community the person belongs to, and so on. Some of these aspects are interrelated and mold together, and as the human they are a part of the complex web of life we belong to.

    Unfortunately, our models about the world are quite simplistic and inflexible, as long we keep them so and as long we can’t discover and build more complex models. Before jumping to further aspects about models let’s look at a few examples. They might not be representative, they might be a little brought to extreme, though they are met in life and affect us in one form or another.

    For example, a mathematician or somebody with strong mathematical background arrives to think of the world around him in terms of probability for an event to happen. On one side this can prove as a powerful tool to quantify and predict such events, though might make the person ignore the area of impossible, expressed maybe in opportunities with small chances to happen, opportunities that when considered could have a huge impact on his live. It’s a trivial example of the attempt to quantify and simplify the world to a degree that makes it understandable and predictable, mathematician’s luggage of models being more complex than that. Judging the words of wisdom of some mathematicians, they seemed to arrive to a deeper understanding of life - spirituality, philosophy, literature and wit melting in mathematician's life. Still anyone can be entrapped in the fallacies of the cold mathematical thinking about life in which everything is reduced to a representational model.

     Not far from the previous example, a philosopher builds in his mind a world of ideas, and sooner or later arrives to evaluate the world around and his personal interactions with the world based on the philosophical currents he adheres to. No matter how complete and well-established a philosophy is, it’s a human based system of beliefs and models, with its loops and wholes. Sooner or later the philosopher will find himself trapped in the threads of his own philosophy as long he applies it too deep und unaware into his personal life. From this perspective it will be hard for a philosopher to be happy and content with his life.

    A psychologist or somebody with a similar background may arrive to judge the people outside his praxis based on the traits they reveal. A chemist or biologist may see human’s constitution governed by a chain of chemical reactions, reducing thus feelings and behavior to them. A doctor may start to see in people the predispositions to or existence of a given disease, arriving maybe to judge people based on certain predispositions. A dentist might start evaluate people based on the denture they have. A sales person might start to acquire new friends (exclusively) based on the predisposition of buying a product. Accountants and the other financial professionals might see the world around them through financial models and wealth. An artist may treat as inferior people those who don’t exhibit any artistic skills. A priest may see the people around him as sinners.

   There are many other examples, each profession comes with own type of similar fallacies. Think about your profession or the professional environment you belong to! More likely you’ll discover similar examples. How deep have they penetrated in the human society? How much have they influenced or still influence you? How could you escape them?

A Jump to Thinking Models Fallacies

    Models are a good way to represent and approximate the world around us and predict behavior, though paraphrasing George Box, all models are to some degree wrong. Sometimes is enough if a model is right once in a while, other times we need to have reliable models. In general acceptance the success of a particular model is tied to its ability to cope capture the behavior of the real world, while its reliability is proportional to the number of cases it does so. When dealing with people often we need reliable models. It’s a question of ethics, but primordially of chances we lose to meet new interesting people, new experiences, and why not in overcoming our current condition.

    Relying too much on a model make us vulnerable to a range of events that are not addressed by our models. Some of the presumptions on which such models are built upon, same as the limitations of our thinking models can get easily forgotten in our decision making process. We become then the prisoners of a set of (thinking) patterns from which will be impossible to exit unless we realize their traps. This actually applies to all type of models we built along the years. Some of them are rooted deeply in our beliefs on how the world (environment) around us works or is supposed to work.

    Not only the beliefs we have, but also the models we acquired and use make us filter the signals, events or information from our environment. What we consider in a model is as important as what we leave out. The components removed by reducing the world to a model can be quintessential in what concerns the understanding and why not the living of life as a whole – the religious, the spiritual, the favorable chance, the free will, the tipping point, the random, the potential of people or groups to raise above some condition(s). No matter how well established some models, there will always be exceptions. We should expect for such exceptions to happen. They should make us challenge and enhance our models.

   Going beyond the limitations of our models can prove to be a considerable challenge. We need to challenge our models on a daily basis, their visible and hidden premises, recognize their advantages, disadvantages and area of applicability. We need to detach ourselves from the models we’ve built, adapt them or learn new similar models that complement or counterbalance the existing models. Each model offers in the end a glimpse of truth, though we’ll mistake if we consider it the ultimate truth.