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All About You: Using mental models

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

What’s your story? We all have one. It starts the familiar way: “Once upon a time (your name here) began.”

Your story continues, like all stories do, with characters interacting with you and situations changing moment to moment. Villains and heroes are peppered throughout your journey, along with the day-to-day events.

I often ask people I meet during my travels, “What’s your story?” Common responses are “What do you mean?” or “I don’t have much of a story.”

Not so. Everyone has a story. And how you frame it helps mold what happens to you. Although I can’t prove that, people who research this subject have evidence to back it up.

When Safety+Health Editor Melissa Ruminski offered me the privilege to write “All About You,” she asked whether I thought I’d be able to come up with enough ideas for a monthly column. At first, I was a bit intimidated by the assignment. But since then, I’ve made a mental model – which is a story – of coming up with new topics, even if they’re at the last moment (sorry about that, Melissa). It works!

Serendipitously, shortly after I started writing this month’s installment, I bought “Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity,” a book by Charles Duhigg. I was thrilled when I got to the third chapter, “Focus,” because it includes research results on mental models and their effectiveness in improving performance. Duhigg writes that 
“People who know how to manage their attention and who habitually build robust mental models tend to earn more money and get better grades. Moreover, experiments show that anyone can learn to habitually construct mental models.”

That means making up and playing out mind stories is more likely to gain you what you imagine. I believe mental models improve my ability to focus and react to the variables life throws at me. I’m sure they can do the same for you.

Here are two tips on ways to use mental models (storytelling) to improve your focus and life experiences:

Visualize what happens

Picturing your reaction to an event beforehand gives you 
a template to help you react wisely if something unexpected happens.

Let’s say you’re going to present a safety meeting on lockout/tagout, so the night before you play a story in your mind of how the meeting will pan out, including the questions you’ll get and the reactions of the attendees. Now you have a foundation to work from that will equip you to react better if, for example, a mechanic asks you a question you didn’t expect.

Why will this make you better able to handle the surprise? Because you can fit it back into the story you visualized. So if you’ve already played out the “No matter what happens, you need to get a permit” scenario in your mind, and the mechanic asks, “What if the operations supervisor is away from his desk, but I need the LOTO permit right away?” you can, without hesitation, say “call the VP of operations” or give some other resolving answer. (One reason you’ll have an answer ready is because your storytelling has fed into your subconscious, which is a magnificent problem-solver.)

Have a conversation twice

Whether it’s while we’re in the shower or during our drive to work, we’ve all had a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. If it’s a past conversation, it rarely turned out the way we expected. If it’s a future encounter, who knows what will occur? However, it’s still a good habit to play out, as a story, what we want to happen when we’re going to interact with a person or group. The same thing goes for what we plan to do. Tell yourself a story about your amazingly productive and fulfilling day tomorrow, and that model is going to stimulate impressive results.

You’re a talented storyteller. You might not think so, but I (and smart researchers) do. So, tell yourself a wonderful story about tomorrow and the rest of your life, an “I’m going to do grand things” tale.

This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit


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