Book Notes – Mental Models: 30 Thinking Tools that Separate the Average From the Exceptional

I was first introduced to the concept of mental models by Paras Chopra when he spoke about it on a podcast with Kunal Shah. Mental models are like a map which can help us navigate this highly complex thing called life, or maybe a better way to think of them is comparing it to a compass.

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I was first introduced to the concept of mental models by Paras Chopra when he spoke about it on a podcast with Kunal Shah. Mental models are like a map which can help us navigate this highly complex thing called life, or maybe a better way to think of them is comparing it to a compass.

Mental models may not have very clear/apparent answers, but they can help a lot in helping you think through how to deal with decisions in your life by offering you guidance on rough direction and a path forward. While no mental model is perfect and they all do have their exceptions and anomalies, I’ve found them to help me take better decisions, faster. Over a period of time, this compounds and really adds up. They are almost like a cheat sheet, which guide you towards making more right decisions.

Here’s the summary of the book for my own reference, Mental Models: 30 Thinking Tools that Separate the Average From the Exceptional.

Mental Model # 1: Address important, ignore urgent.

These are entirely different things that we often fuse together. Important is what truly matters, even if the payoff or deadline is not so immediate. Urgent only refers to the speed of response that is desired.

You can easily use an Eisenhower Matrix to clarify your priorities and ignore urgent tasks, unless they so happen to also be important.

Mental Model # 2: Visualize all the dominoes

We are a shortsighted species. We think only one step ahead in terms of consequences. We need to engage in second order thinking and visualize all the dominoes that could be falling.

Without this, it cant be said that you are making a well informed decision.

Mental Model # 3: Make reversible decisions

Most of them are, some of them aren’t. But we are not doing ourselves any favors when we assume that they are all irreversible, because it keeps us in indecision far too long.

Create an action bias for reversible decisions, as there is nothing to lose and only information and speed to gain.

Mental Model # 4: Seek satisfaction

This is a mixture of satisfy and suffice, and it is aiming to make decisions that are good enough, adequate and serve their purpose. This stands in stark contrast to those who wish to maximize their decisions with just in case, and that sounds nice extras. Those who maximize are looking to make a perfect choice. This doesn’t exist, so they are usually just left waiting.

Mental Model # 5: Stay within 40–70%

This is Colin Powell’s rule. Make a decision with no less than 40% of the information you need but no more than 70%. Anything less and you are just guessing, anything more and you are just wasting time. You can replace information with just about anything and you will realize that this mental model is about encouraging quick yet informed decisions.

Mental Model # 6: Minimize Regret

Jeff Bezos developed what he calls the regret minimization framework. In it, he asks one to visualize themselves at age 80 and ask if they would regret making a decision. This simplifies decisions by making them about one metric: regret.

Mental Model # 7: Ignore Black Swans

This mental models warns us against our tendency to jump to conclusions based on imperfect or skewed or incomplete information. A black swan event is an entirely unpredictable event that comes out of nowhere. In doing so, it skews all data and beliefs and people start to take the black swan into account as a new normal. But there are just outliers which should be ignored.

Mental Model # 8: Look for equilibrium points

This is about noticing trends in progress. When you first start something, you from zero to one, than an infinite rate of progress. Then you go from one to two, two to three and so on., and the rate of progress slows and the returns start diminishing. Somewhere around there is an equilibrium point that truly represents what the average mean will be. Don’t make the mistake of not waiting for it.

Mental Model # 9: Wait for the regression to the mean

A change without reason for the change is not really a change, it’s just deviation. As such, it does not represent what will continue to happen in the future. A regression to the mean is when things settle back down and resume what they were doing before, this is representative of reality.

Mental Model # 10: What would Bayes do

Bayes’ Theorem is something that actually does allows us to draw conclusions about the future, based on probabilities and taking into account events that already occurred. All you need are the rough probabilities of three elements to plug into the Bayes’ formula and you will come to a more accurate conclusion than so called experts. This is basic probabilistic thinking.

Mental Model # 11: Do it like Darwin

Darwin apparently was not a genius but he did have one trait that set him apart from others, his undying devotion to truth. In doing so, he developed his golden rule of giving equal weight and attention to arguments and opinions that opposed his own. Instead of growing defensive when presented with something that opposed him, he grew critical and skeptical towards himself. This radical open mindedness puts aside conformation bias and ego.

Mental Model # 12: Think with system 2

We each have two systems of thought, courtesy of Daniel Kahneman: System 1 and System 2. System 1 focusses on speed and efficiency of thought, while system 2 focusses on accuracy and depth of thought. System 2 is smart, while system 1 is dumb. System 1 does more harm than good but unfortunately it is the one we default to because it is easier. Gain awareness of the difference between the two.

Mental Model # 13: Peer review your perspectives

Many of the ways we fail at solving problems are related to our inability to look at other perspectives. In fact, we should be continually checking our perspectives through triangulation against those of others. Thinking and solving a problem in vacuum will never work because if you didn’t experience it firsthand, it wont make sense to you.

Mental Model # 14: Find your own flaws

This mental model is about resisting the comforting allure of confirmation bias and attempting to scrutinize yourself before others ever get the chance. Assume that you are wrong, this especially applies to interpersonal relationships. If you assume that you are at least 1% responsible for conflict, then your illusion of superiority and infallibility is broken an important factor in social interaction.

Mental Model # 15: Separate correlation from causation.

They are entirely different things. Forcing a relationship where none exists will cause you to chance the wrong issue. In addition, you must separate proximate cause from the root cause — root cause is what we always want and it can be reached through a series of questions.

Mental Model # 16: Story-tell in reverse

When it comes to causation, sometimes we just need to get better at thinking in a certain manner.. You have a visual aid in a fishbone diagram, which goes on to document causes of causes and so on. This is storytelling in reverse because you start with a conclusion and you work backward through sometimes ambiguous means.

Mental Model # 17: SCAMPER it

The SCAMPER method stands for seven techniques that help direct thinking toward novel ideas and solutions. S — substitute, C-combine, A-adapt, M-minimalize/magnify, P-put to another use, E-eliminate and R-reverse.

Mental Model # 18: Get back to first principles

When we try to solve problems, oftentimes we attempt to follow methods or a specific path just because they are the conventional means. But are they the best? First principles thinking strips away assumptions and leaves you with only a set of facts and a desired outcome. From there you can forge your own solution.

Mental Model # 19: Avoid direct goals

Direct goals are like shooting for the moon while anti goals or inverse foals are about avoiding falling and doing everything to prevent that from happening. This has just as good a chance of achieving the outcome you wan through direct goals, but it might get you there quicker and more efficiently. Simply articulate the factors involved in a worst case scenario, then devote your time from preventing them.

Mental Model # 20: Avoid thinking like an expert

Experts think about the big picture and sometimes can’t be bothered with small details. Small details counterintuitively are mostly paid attention to by novices because they are absorbing new information and going slowly through a process. Thinking like an expert in a given field will probably mean that you make small mistakes because you engage in assumption thinking and focus on overall effects and conception.

Mental Model # 21: Avoid your non genius zones

All of us have natural advantages in some things and despite how hard we work, we will never be more than mediocre in other areas. Recognize your strengths and while you should not stop trying to improve upon your weaknesses, understand where you will have the most impact.

Mental Model # 22: Avoid to-do lists

In fact, construct don’t do lists. Narrowing down what you should be avoiding, and what really does not matter, will drastically free up your time. This means you will have less stress and anxiety and know what exactly your priorities are.

Mental Model # 23: Avoid the path of least resistance

Does something appear too easy? It’s too good to be true. Avoid it. Seek resistance, because that is a sign that you are on the right path. On a daily basis, we are faced with two choices, the easy thing and the right thing. We usually don’t even realize we have a choice, but when you start to honestly categorize your choices, you might realize that behavior change in needed.

Mental Model # 24: Murphy’s lay — anything that can go wrong will go go wrong

So, make sure it doesn’t have the opportunity. Don’t reply on just getting by; make sure that you are as fail-safe as possible.

Mental Model # 25: Occam’s Razor

The simplest explanation with the fewest variables is most likely to be the correct one. Our instinct is to go for the most mentally available explanation which says more about what we want to see or avoid.

Mental Model # 26: Hanlon’s Razor

Malicious acts are far more likely to be explained by incompetence, stupidity, or neglect; assumptions about one’s intentions are likely to be wrong. Improve your relationships by giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming at worst, absent mindedness.

Mental Model # 27: Pareto’s principle

There is a natural distribution that tends to occur, where 20% of the actions we take are responsible for 80% of the results, thus we should focus on the 20% for maximum input to output ratio. This is in the name of becoming results driven and simplify following what the data is telling you. This is not about cutting corners, its about understanding what causes an impact.

Mental Model # 28: Sturgeon’s law

Ninety percent of everything is crap, so be selective with your time. Start with the 10% absolute non-crap and slowly work your way out.

Mental Model # 29 & 30: Parkinson’s law

First, triviality can easily set in because it feels good to feel productive and voice your opinion. Know your real priorities and ask if progress is actually being made toward them. Second, work expands to full time it is given, so give it less time. Wanting to work at a relaxed pace often just causes self sabotage.

Hope you enjoyed going through the above mental models. Remember, use them as guiding principles to help you make better decisions faster. But do not blindly reply on them without your own thought.


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