Lao Tzu and the digestive system

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.” | Lao Tzu

The great Lao Tzu was well ahead of his time as he inadvertently described the idea of mental models. An easy way to understand this is to draw a parallel with our digestive system.

First, we ingest. This is the addition part that Lao Tzu alludes to. The focus is just to take in information.

Next, we digest. This is the stage where a teacher helps a great deal. By helping us put frames and structures around information, we are able to aggregate content and make it digestible.

Then, we absorb. The way we absorb new models is to connect them with existing patterns and models. This is why the learning process taxes the brain. It takes a long time for us to map with existing patterns or create new ones. As a result, taking the time to reflect on what we’ve learnt and digested is THE critical step in absorption. And, this is what most action packed seminars, conferences and retreats miss. Without down time, there isn’t understanding.

Finally, we excrete. This is the subtraction part of the process. Once we’ve built on an existing model or created a new one, we’re in a great position to remove unnecessary detail and information. Again, excretion is impossible if we shortcut absorption. So, if you’re going through a busy and intense experience, you should know that return-on-reflection-time is incredibly high. There is no learning without reflection.

The beauty of this process and the development of mental models is that, over time, your ability to process new information goes up dramatically. For example, if you come across a new productivity technique, you can dig into the essentials and decide very quickly as to whether it’ll suit your style or not. Decisions require you to cut and kill what is unnecessary. We do that with mental models. Not all mental models are accurate, of course. So, what makes accurate mental models? A lack of rigidity.

The more rigid the model, the more it is a sure sign of ignorance and stupidity. The smartest people are always testing their assumptions and adapting their mental models. That way, they’re constantly converting learning to understanding to wisdom. And, that’s how they experience the power of compound learning.

Notice how Lao Tzu talks about subtracting “every day.” Wisdom is not a state. It is a daily activity. And, you can’t shortcut daily reflection and thought.