2/17/22: "Context is that which is scarce"

Sent 2/17/22

This week's Think Better Newsletter is about the importance of context in framing our expectations and understanding. 

The Idea

One of the thinkers I have followed for many years is Tyler Cowen, an economist, author, and creator of the Marginal Revolution blog. Tyler is a polymath who consumes an incredible number of books, music, films, and other content, on top of traveling extensively to get a first-person perspective on the world.

He recently posted about his (recent) favorite maxim, "Context is that which is scarce."

In his post, he outlines 10 areas in which a lack of context affects our ability to interpret the world correctly. And in characteristic fashion, he provides minimal context for some of them. In any case, I wanted to highlight two of them because they relate to training, coaching, learning, and improving.

"7. Many attributions of bad motives to people, or attributions of conspiracy, spring from a lack of understanding of context. It is easy enough for someone to seem like he or she is “operating in bad faith.” But usually a deeper and better understanding is available."

This is related to the fundamental attribution error and what I call the "talent trap." When we attribute success or failure to other people, we tend to associate it to their personality and natural talents, and we discount the effect of their environment and/or effort.

Fundamental Attribution Error and Talent Trap

I also liked:

"9. So much of education is teaching people context. That is why it is hard, and also why it often does not seem like real learning."

One of the ways elite performers set themselves apart from beginners is in the mental representations they create. A mental representation is an idea coined by Anders Ericsson, who defines it as "a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about."

Elite performers develop their mental representations through deliberate practice. They will spend hours refining their skills through highly focused practice activities.

But it goes beyond that. They will also immerse themselves in the sport, and continually look for ways in which their non-practice activities can be modified to improve their results. The more they engage themselves, the more context they gain. And the more context they gain, the more productive their work becomes.

The System

We can't just insert context like Neo downloading the ability to do kung fu. It takes time, experience, mistakes, conversations, reading, and lots and lots of effort.

In the meantime, as we encounter new people and situations without the necessary context, we need to be careful how much we are assuming about them. 

My simple system is to ask myself: could I be missing some important context here?

Even if I don't know what it is, it keeps me humble, curious, and open to changing my mind. It also builds in a reason to not immediately take offense to others' actions. It's the default I'd like applied to me, so it's the least I can do for others.

The Question

How often do you ask yourself: could I be missing context here?


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

“Children learn and remember at least as much from the context of the classroom as from the content of the coursework.”
– Lawrence Kutner



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