How to Live and Grow Every Day (Think like a Scientist)
You Are a Scientist and This Is Your Lab!
Scientists are always doubting their ideas, results, and everything in general. This is a trait most website marketers — and people in general — could learn from.
Your view of the world isn’t the truth (sorry)
Your head is filled with so-called mental maps of how internet marketing, blogging, e-commerce, and everything else in the world works.
These maps help you navigate the world around you. And they do so quite literally in some cases — your mental map of what a door handle looks like helps you open doors without thinking.
Mental maps are good — without them, you would be stuck learning the same things over and over again.
However, most mental maps are also plain wrong.
Mental maps and their lying issues
What you see, hear, remember, envision, and think isn’t the truth — only a representation if it.
A map is only a representation of the real world — not the world itself. This means that what you think is true about the world may not be true at all.
On some level we are all aware of this.
We know that our imagination isn’t real and that our memory isn’t perfect. Still, when it comes to admitting that our representation isn’t accurate we are naive.
Most people — you and I included — would guess their mental maps are alright in most situations: we know how the world around us works and can effortlessly move and function it in.
So it’d be a good guess that our mental models of the world are decent, maybe even great.
Whatever your intuition is — good, decent, great — it’s wrong. Just like most of your other mental models (sorry again).
And this isn’t the only time you are wrong.
All of us are wrong A LOT. Way more than we would like.
It’s always easier to spot flaws in other people, so let’s just take some examples from history that shows us just how wrong we — as humans — are at times.
(This way I also don’t have to insult you anymore with how wrong you are.)
How wrong we have been…
Remember that time everybody thought the world was flat? (Some people still do.)
Or what about when we believed the sun rotated around Earth?
That our galaxy was the only one in the universe?
What about something more simple and down-to-earth — like how lead was okay to use in paint, gas, and other products?
… and I can go on for days with this. Open any history book and you’ll find nothing but flawed mental models.
But these are all old examples, we are much smarter and more developed now, right?
We are still wrong about most things, but what can we do about it?
We still can’t explain most phenomena. Nature is a puzzle to us, with each new discovery only leading to more questions. We haven’t even discovered everything — or everyone — on our own planet, let alone our close neighbors in the universe. And finally, our societies are constantly in turmoil.
Let’s just face it: we don’t know anything. And what we think we know, we are most likely wrong about.
In conclusion: I’m wrong about everything — and you are too. Quite unfortunate, huh?
Luckily, it’s bad only if you let it be.
Your mental maps — flawed as they are — are still very helpful tools to navigate the world.
You just have to question them more — especially when you working with important decisions.
Just like actual maps have developed over time to become more detailed and accurate, so can your mental maps.
But if you are hell-bent on sticking to your guns, claiming that everything is perfect as it is, you won’t develop more accurate maps. (You’ll only develop bitterness.)
Let’s take an example again.
Mental map of a website
The first time you learned about websites pages, you may have just seen them as visual pages with text and images — not unlike a physical page in a book.
That was your first mental map (or model) of a website.
A lot of website users stop at this model and accept it as their truth — knowing that there are more underneath, but that this richer picture won’t help them in their interaction with websites.
And that is perfectly fine for most people.
But as a website owner your mental map undoubtedly developed beyond this first sketch.
How did it develop?
Let’s take a look.
Method 1: learn from other mental maps
You can learn from other people’s models of the world — by reading, watching, or listening to their teachings.
And that can get you a long way developing your own mental maps.
Acquiring knowledge from other people is fast and efficient — but it is also limited in some ways.
Learning is like a transfer of mental models from teacher to student.
This means that you have to be careful of the teacher you learn from — and evaluate the knowledge in the context it is given. A great example of this is:
A lot of so-called common knowledge, industry norms, and traditional thinking is questionable — often even plain wrong.
In the internet marketing world it is common knowledge that an email subscriber is worth $1 per month. I have never seen any evidence to back up this claim, but if you ask in a forum or marketing community, there’s a 99.99% chance that someone will claim this is the industry standard.
And this is just one example off the top of my head. Common knowledge is everywhere, and you have to be cautious when encountering it. Which is why you need to know how to validate mental maps:
How to judge your mental maps
We have already established that most people — you and me included — are walking around with seriously flawed mental models in many areas of life.
One way to question your own knowledge (your mental map) about something is simply to ask the question: Why?
And then continue asking until you reach what Tim Urban describes as a floor that acts as the foundation for your reasoning. If the floor is solid, your mental map is fine, if not, you are in trouble.
Let’s try it.
Learning a new mental model: the sky is blue?
The example we’ll use it this — the sky is blue.
I have based this fact on observations and I’m sure you agree with me. When we look up, the sky is in fact blue. At least during daytime.
But why is the sky blue?
Because of sunlight (the sky isn’t blue at night).
Why does sunlight — which isn’t blue as the sky — color the sky blue?
Because of the atmosphere (I think?).
Why does the atmosphere turn sunlight blue when we see it?
… and somewhere around this point, I hit my floor.
“It just does”.
I have some blurry ideas of light, the sun, and the atmosphere, and something I should remember from school. But I can’t go much further on my own with this example.
My floor isn’t solid
It’s safe to say that I do not have a full mental model explaining the color of the sky. My reasoning is shaky at best, and it’s not based on any solid principles.
If I were to claim the sky is blue, you shouldn’t trust me. Sounds silly, but let’s go a bit further.
My argument for the blue sky would essentially be “look up, dummy“.
And sure enough, the sky may look blue just above you right now. But what about sunsets? At nighttime? Or the fact that the sky has different nuances of blue?
Improving my mental model
Since I realized my mental model for the sky wasn’t really grounded in anything (which happened roughly 10 minutes ago), I have picked up some knowledge from NASA and I now have a model based on solid principles from the world of physics.
Briefly, the sky is blue because sunlight — which is white light made up of all colors of the rainbow — is scattered by the earth’s atmosphere. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and is scattered more, thus making the sky look blue.
Red waves are longer and not scattered as much — which is why the white sunlight looks red at sunset when we are looking more directly at it (the blue colors have been scattered away turning the white sunlight reddish).
My mental model of the color of the sky is now much more grounded — I have a solid floor as opposed to the “it just is” freefall from before.
My model is not perfect, but much better than before.
The example may be simple, but this is how you fix your mental maps to better understand your life
It’s the website example all over again — at first I only have a very shallow (and very wrong) mental model. I see a website page or a blue surface in the sky, but I have no idea how any of them came to be.
Now, I don’t rely on this knowledge for any important decisions in my daily life — I can observe the sky looks blue, and in most cases that is enough.
But what about other examples that are much more critical to your thought process and decision making?
I know storytelling is a great tool for marketers and bloggers, but why?
Or what about the pricing structure that ends in a 9 or a 5 like 9.99 or 9.95 instead of 10, why?
I have priced some of my products at the industry standard (the fancy word for “it just is“) pricing points because it was the easiest thing to do, but do I really know why the price is at that point — or even if this price makes sense?
And let’s not even get started on bigger decisions in life: where to live, with whom, what to work with, how to spend your free time, and what is the purpose of it all?
If my mental maps of all these things are as shallow as my map of the sky, I’m in serious trouble. Essentially, the map I’m following is a crayon drawing by a toddler.
And I’m using that to make some of the most important decisions in my life.
You’ve guaranteed been very wrong about very important things in your life. Many times over.
When I started writing this section I was quite confident the sky was blue. But as it turned out, I didn’t really understand what that meant — or even that it is sort of incorrect.
Now imagine that’s your mental map of some critical part of your daily life. Scary, huh? Even more so when you realize that this is almost certainly the case with many of your inner mental models and maps.
You can never have full mental maps of everything in life, but in certain areas it may be a good idea to question your maps and try to develop them by learning from other people’s maps.
But you should do so with caution — you are learning from other maps, not from the truth itself.
The NASA article about the color of the sky is based on the collective scientific society’s mental maps. There’s a strong consensus about how light waves act and the way they make the sun look blue, but maybe we realize in the future there’s some part of the explanation that we have all wrong?
Based on our current mental models, that’s unlikely — but then again, we are wrong about most things.
(Quick note about science: I’m not suggesting we should stop believing scientific theories with years of evidence to back them up. I’m just trying to make a point — everything we believe to be true is based on mental models we use to attempt explaining the world around us. Some of them may closely reflect the how the world really works, others may be wrong.)
Phew. Let’s get back to the topic — your mental models.
You can develop them by learning from other’s mental models — but you should be careful and critical if they do not base their reasoning on solid principles.
And what about specific areas where you can’t rely on other people to develop your mental maps?
We’ll tackle that next.
Method 2: Your website — and the world in general — is your grand experiment
When it comes to developing mental maps, the closer you are to the source, the better — when knowledge goes through several links, it risks becoming generalized or watered-down.
To avoid this, you need to check your reasoning from mental map to the floor of it.
You need to keep asking why if you want to find your floor — the foundation of your mental map. And if you can’t find it — if your reasoning has no solid base — you can’t truly trust it.
So how do you develop better mental maps?
We’ve discussed learning from other people — the fast and efficient way of developing decent mental models — but there is a more accurate way, closer to the floor.
The second way you can develop your mental models is by experimenting yourself — building your mental maps directly from solid base principles.
This way, you will be able to create more accurate mental maps than you have ever had before. However, the process is far from easy.
You have to question your own reasoning a lot if you want a clear picture. And generally speaking, this is not something we are taught in school or at home.
For the longest time, society didn’t need us to question our own thinking — it needed us to follow orders, working in factories and at assembly lines. So that is what schools taught us to do.
But if you want a more accurate view of the world — better mental maps — you need to learn this skill.
Let’s try to see if we can experiment with something.
Experiment 1: a better headline?
As a marketer, good mental models for what makes great headlines is beneficial.
People unknown to the art and science of crafting headlines may think it all boils down to luck — and some part of it does — but the fact that some marketers are continuously creating high-performing headlines is evidence that it’s not all luck.
A better mental model is required.
You can learn a lot about headlines from copywriters and from data collected by other marketers.
Like how impact words — words with strong emotional value — are linked to how many shares a blog post will receive. You can even use tools to predict this score for your headlines.
But you can also experiment yourself — and you certainly should if you want to improve your understanding and your results.
Part of developing a mature mental model for headlines is realizing that not even the best marketers or copywriters can predict with certainty how well a headline will perform.
There are heuristics explaining how headlines with impact words, numbers as “5 secrets about X“, or how-to headlines like “How to X” generally perform well.
But to get optimal results, you need to experiment.
Experiment 2: Industry price points?
Earlier in this post, I mentioned how industry pricing may just be another way of saying “that’s just how it is” with no actual reasoning to back it up.
So I decided to test my own pricing.
The result? Going from $9.95 to $11.95 immediately increased my overall profit. All for a change that took less than 20 minutes to implement across my front end products.
The results are still preliminary and may change with more experimentation — but for now, it’s looking like going two dollars above the norm was a good choice.
The interesting takeaway here isn’t my results, it’s that I was leaving money on the table for a very long time because of my lack of experimentation.
I had accepted the norm and stuck with it.
The normal price was a good starting point, but it’s critical not to get stuck with it just because that’s what everybody else is doing — remember, they may not know why they are doing it either.
A price point is one thing, but what else is holding me back just because I have accepted it as the norm?
I reckon it’s a great many things. And I intend to find them.
Our mental maps of how the world works are extremely flawed.
The brain is good at simplifying things and then sticking with it — like how we accept the sky is blue or that a pdf report is supposed to cost $9.95.
This ability is great in most daily activities. Without abstraction and simplification, we wouldn’t be able to function in this highly complex world of ours.
But, when it comes to making important decisions or spotting flaws in your own thinking, you need to question your own mental maps and models.
You need to ask yourself why — you need to question your own reasoning and make sure it is rooted in solid principles.
And importantly, the surer you are about something, the more you should question yourself — overconfidence is a clear warning sign.
When you find an important mental model with no floor, you need to develop a better understanding — a better mental model.
You can do this by learning from other people or by experimenting yourself.
Learning is the faster and more efficient path, but it is also at the risk of taking on other people’s simplified mental models. Or even worse, their wrong mental models.
Experimenting is much more resource intensive, but also closer to the actual truth — closer to the real world.
Whatever you do, these two activities — learning and experimenting — should be part of your growth as a person and as a marketer.
This post was inspired by The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce, go check it out.