One of my biggest priorities over the last 1.5 years and especially since leaving behind my career has been learning. Specifically, re-learning how to learn. What are the best ways to learn? To retain information? What are the most efficient ways to think? How can I spend more time retaining information than sifting through it over and over again and trying to connect the dots?

Well, what about formal education?…

The notion and narrative around questioning the value of a college degree or graduate education is well known and well documented. Entrepreneurs say it’s a joke. Academics disagree. And most of your parents blindly push you down that route…I know mine did. Bottom line, it’s being questioned. And rightfully so.

Education and my first career led me to two realizations…

The first big epiphany for me was coming out of school. Degree in hand, and having passed level 1 of the CFA, I thought (very naively) I knew something. Thankfully, I got kicked in the ass quick-fast during my job search, letting me know I was way behind the eight-ball in terms of understanding how the real world functions. School and professional certifications do none of that. Especially the former, while the latter can only truly be leveraged in conjunction with professional experience. And the kicks in the ass kept happening pretty much everday after that by smarter, more talented and savvier colleagues. But that’s the part I liked, the growing part…

Just before putting the wheels in motion to exit my career, the second aha moment took place. I always felt forutnate to “wear many hats” as a consultant and be a part of conversations ranging from a heavy focus on exectution all the way up to high level strategy. Sometimes I was a part of conversations that I had no business, intellectually or professionally, being a part of. Haha. But when I look back, I was thrown into the fire, like most of us are, and forced to acquire highly specific domain knowledge and skillsets. And it’s not a bad thing, I think it’s just the learning curve that exists because school, and all of our “learning” before hand, simply doesn’t prepare us the way it should for a general level of competence about the world. And you know what? Maybe it can’t, maybe it’s impossible – but it’s worth noting. Think about how siloed you are as far as learning in your current role? Sure, you’re probably understanding your business or craft, but how much learning are you doing that is broadly applicable? Worldly applicable? Fundamentally true, regardless of domain, discipline, industry, etc? I hit a point where my skills were growing, but my learning was stalling, and was constricted. It was siloed.

From what I could see, it wasn’t the pedigree of your education, your IQ or your test scores that set you apart or determine success. But the differentiating feature or thing that set most folks I looked up to as great thinkers or learners apart, other than hard work and those types of things, was a plethora of fundamental knowledge that wasn’t found in academia as we know it. It was the ability to connect the dots. A lot of fuckin’ dots.

The second realization ties back to the first. I’m not blaming the education system, per se, but I do think we spend a lot of time debating college vs. no college and overlooking the real dilemma. The way we learn from very early on is flawed. We are encouraged to focus on a defined curriculum, memorize facts blindly and regurgitate them. How much are we really learning, analyzing, forming opinions and problem solving with the material we learn?

My quest to “re-learn how to learn” and figure out how the best people learn, led me to stumble across the abstraction called Mental Models. Used by many of the world’s best thought-leaders and decision makers (Charlie Munger, Ray Dalio, Elon Musk, Tim Ferriss, etc.), mental models are a very large but infinite set of fundamental knowledge that these folks use to be more efficient and as reference points to evaluate a wildly infinte number of possible questions and problems presented in our world.

First THings First...Give Credit, Where Credit Is Due

A number of folks are talking about Mental Models these days. Arguably none better in terms of distilling and curating the mass of information on mental models, than Shane Parrish.

Shane is the founder and brains behind one of my favorite blogs, Farnam Street Blog, which I’ve been following for almost two years now. I highly recommend subscribing to his free mailing list with weekly and monthly bits of brain food.

Here’s a quick blurb on Farnam Street Blog, from their website, and if this doesn’t pull you in, not sure what will if you’re looking to learn.

Farnam Street Credo:

 Mastering the best of what other people have already figured out

Expanded Credo:

Farnam Street is devoted to helping you develop an understanding of how the world really works, make better decisions, and live a better life. We address such topics as mental models, decision making, learning, reading, and the art of living.

In a world full of noise, Farnam Street is a place where you can step back and think about time-tested ideas while asking yourself questions that lead to meaningful understanding. We cover ideas from science and the humanities that will not only expand your intellectual horizons but also help you connect ideas, think in multidisciplinary ways, and explore meaning.

Much of my (limited) knowledge on Mental Models comes from surfing the web and validating it against Shane’s content. So thank you to Shane.

That said, let’s introduce Mental Models, by using Shane’s awesome video below.

Alright, So What The Heck's A Mental Model?

I’ll bet if you’re brains operating at half speed right now you could throw out a definition and land somewhere pretty close. Abstract concepts are, well, abstract. And by definition, they’re not overtly concrete or specific. Which means if you’re in the “ball park” you’ve probably got a decent grasp of what we mean by mental models.

To be clear, just because something is abstract and difficult to define or put in a box, doesn’t mean it’s not very deep and very complex. Most abstract concepts are deeply theoretical.

Given the inherent abstraction of a topic like mental models, there’s no one definiton, none are mutually exclusive. Personally, I’ve done my research and pulled from the definitions of many others, so here’s how I conceptualize or fit the construct of mental models into my own brain:

Mental models are the world’s undeniable truths, the foundational building blocks of knowledge or phenomena that have been empirically validated; the rules or beliefs that have not only stood the test of time and held true, but can be applied across almost all scenarios.

Where Did They OrIginate?

Most people think of Berkshire Hathaway and think of The Oracle of Omaha, aka Warrent Buffet. Those who know Warren, or Berkshire Hathway, know there’s another “BB”, or Brilliant Billionaire, in Omaha.

Charlie Munger, alluded to earlier, is the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and the other brilliant billionaire behind the company. Revered as one of the best thinkers in the world, the book about him – Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit an Wisdom of Charles T. Munger – is recommended by just about everyone.

The excerpt below is from a famous talk Charlie gave at USC Business School in 1994 called A Lesson Elementary Worldly Wisdom. In the speech, he talks about his approach to gaining practical knowledge and speaks to the fact that our current education and overall approach to learning is flawed.

I can’t say that he is the first to coin the term mental models, but in the excerpt below he lays the groundwork for the latticework of knowledge reference points that Shane Parrish describes in the mental-models approach.

Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. …

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.(1)

What are Some Examples OF Mental Models?

Some of the folks at the forefront of the discussion on mental models say there are over 650 mental models. The good news, I’ll remind you, is that a much smaller percentage of these models is where you should focus, and as Charlie Munger alludes to, “only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight”. The funny thing is, one of the very mental models we’ll study helps explain why a much smaller, finite group of a seemingly infinte number of models produces the majority of the benefits – that model is Pareto’s Principle, better known as the “80/20” rule and says: a minority of the inputs produce a majority of the outputs; a minority of costs produce a majority of your profits; a minority of your time produce the majority of your effectiveness; a minority of your relationships produce the majority of your joy. Applied the opposite way, 20% of relationships cause 80% of the drama; 20% of your movements cause 80% of your pain.

One other example, just because most of you may not think of it, is the good old scientific method. Remember that nonsense from back in, say, 4th or 5th grade biology? I may be wrong on the timing of the curriculum, but the scientific method is a very interesting mental model because it’s actually been used to validate many of the other fundamental truths we know in the world across all disciplines. The scientific method is an approach used for investigating phenomena. Here’s a refresher:

1. Make an observation

2. Ask a question

3. Form a hypothesis or multiple hyptheses – i.e. a testable explanation for the observation and assocaited question

4. Make a prediction as to the results of the hypothesis and test.

5. Test the prediction

6. Evaluate the results and make iterations – i.e. adjust hypotheses or predictions.

How CAn Mental Models Help Us Learn?

Going back to the beginning of this post, I rambled on about the flawed education system we have. Maybe it’s more of a flawed approach. One thing is for certain, though, if some of the most successful people in the world across disciplines leverage these fundamental truths, principles or laws, then it simply makes sense. I’ve also seen first hand that some of the most effective problem solvers have almost a library of these thought models to pull from.

Munger – yes, back to Charlie – likens the value of mental models to the fabric of a latticework of knowledge, woven together by the models we master. Simply memorizing siloed academic facts related to one disciplien is part of the problem with our learning & education – the advantage to these is that you they’re time-tested laws that you can supplement with experiential learning and wisdom.

I like to think of them as follows: nodes in the network of your brain; landmarks or location pins on a topography map of your mind; knowledge models that you acquire and keep in the app store of your noggin. So when you’re solving that problem that’s attacking you from all angles with information, meta problems and so many possibilities you can pivot back to time-tested laws and work from truths as opposed to more question marks.

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