Draw Me A Bike

Think in these layers:

1. The real-world thing

2. The words that we use to describe the real-world thing to someone else

3. The way another person would recreate the real-world thing based on our 2nd-layer description

Remember the game of telephone? Where person A whispers something to person B like, “roses are red,” and then B whispers to C who whispers to D, etc. until the last person proclaims the now garbled message to be, “Rosie is dead” with a confused look on their face?

That was just a game, but a similar effect happens around us all of the time. Think about how many first-hand accounts of things you actually deal with are truly level 1.  Most of life does not deal with real-world things. Most of life seems to be at level 3 and greater, where we’re dealing with someone else’s story and/or model.

Perhaps for the worse, we play telephone in our own heads too. Gianluca Gimini has a famous experiment where he asks people to draw a bicycle from memory. Try it for yourself – it’s really hard. Most efforts produce mechanical impossibilities, and the sketches he’s captured most make people look crazy (see the “Brain Games” TV episode where they actually made the bikes and had people ride them).

If we accept that we spend most of life operating with faulty descriptions of things at level 3 and greater, we have to be sensitive to the presence of the risks it introduces. You don’t want to try to ride the bike you drew, so try remember that humility.

The purpose here isn’t to suggest that we need to reverse engineer everything either (no need to try to draw your car engine) but when it comes to important decisions or analysis, we should take a moment to contemplate how one would derive the models we drive.

We don’t need to understand all of the math, but we should check that we understand the path of logic. If we get the sense that a level 3 model may have become a self-referential feedback loop which lost touch with reality, at least raise a flag of caution before proceeding.

The world is a complex place, it pays to take a moment to think about these things.