There are two worlds - the one in our head and the one that is real. It’s easy to conflate the two; perception is reality, the saying goes. But they are separate. Perception is just a representation of reality and as we know, the map is not the territory.
We use thought space to model reality. It serves us well for simple activities, enabling us to successfully predict the consequences of our actions (e.g driving through a yellow light). For more involved tasks, however, we overestimate the fidelity of our model. As a result, operating excessively in thought space impedes us from creating the desired outcomes in the real world.
Here’s a recent example. When I reviewed the draft of my first essay, I was preoccupied with this question: will anyone find this useful? I pored over it, top to bottom. On the first pass, it was elementary. On the next, it was profound. On another, it was too abstract. As I dizzily vacillated between opinions, a realization struck - the essay itself hadn’t changed. Only my impression did. In fact, the quality of the essay was impervious to my perception. It would remain as good (or bad) as it was, regardless of my impression. I was pursuing the wrong goal. An “accurate” opinion was just a means to an end - to determine whether others would find it useful. So, rather than continue theorizing, I decided to publish it to uncover the answer directly.
Prolonged time in thought space doesn’t just slow us down. It leads us astray and delays course correction, through misplaced confidence in our judgement. Ever dreaded a conversation, building it up in your head, only to realize it was nothing to worry about? Left unchecked, our perception steadily drifts away from reality. To keep them in sync, we must regularly validate our hypothesis in the real world. If we don’t, our future actions are built on a shaky foundation of invalid assumptions. Consequently, we waste valuable energy on outcomes that don’t manifest in the way we intend. Consider how many successful founders had to pivot from their first idea. Would their companies be alive if they spent years perfecting the original idea in isolation? No. This is the exact danger of perfectionism (perfectionitis?) - the misallocation of resources towards success defined by a model that isn’t representative of reality.
Thought space alone does not move us forward. Reading a book on productivity doesn’t make you more effective. Listening to a startup podcast doesn’t make you a better entrepreneur. Watching a cooking video doesn’t make you a better chef. Action is the interface between thought space and the real world - we actualize our ideas by doing. Knowledge is merely potential energy. Only when applied, does it translate to growth. If not, it just creates an illusion of progress. (This exemplifies the explore/exploit framework discussed in this previous essay.)
Next time you’re doing anything, ask yourself this question: am I operating in thought space or reality? This awareness helps you identify your untested assumptions and induces a general bias towards action. By tightening the feedback loop, you empower yourself to simultaneously build a better map and conquer the territory.
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