Mental Models: An Overview

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Learning has morphed into one of my biggest priorities over the last 1.5 years. More specifically, acquiring more worldly knowledge in areas that I’m passionate about. Knowledge that is applicable. Functional. Useful. Dynamic.

The pursuit has led me to down a path of not simply reading books, taking classes and working to understand how things work – but to completely disect the art + process of learning, or what I like to call “Knowledge Acquisition”. Some of the key things I’ve done or looked at:

Reflection on my own learning style | How did I learn growing up? What worked best for me? What worked poorly? What works for me as a professional? How do I attack research + writing? Is it efficient and self-serving?

The Education System/Process | How are we (Americans) taught growing up? Is it effective? How do we consider or judge it’s effectiveness – i.e. measuring it based on sheer volume of people pumped through the system? Or the quality over quantity approach? Two differing results, I think…

The Learning Process | What are the best ways to learn? How do I retain more information, without sifting through things or re-reading multiple times?

The Best Thinkers, Most Prolific Problem Solvers/Do’ers | Why are some people so damn smart? How do they think? What’s their learning or knowledge acquisition process?

In short, here’s where I’ve arrived: I think the vast majority of us need to re-learn how to learn. Too many of us are wired by the education system, which, sure is great for pumping a bunch of people through it, but it doesn’t really prepare us for real world applicability and problem solving. And it brings up the whole narrative around questioning the value of a college edgree or graduate program. It’s well documented, as many of you know: Entrepreneurs say it’s a joke (even though the term entrepreneur has become “cool” and lost it’s value; so many fakes out there); Academics will disagree (well, most of them); and your parents will blindly push you down that route. Bottom line, it’s being questioned and rightfully so.

Graduating college and then starting my career led me to a couple or realizations, that I’ll describe below, which sent me down a path to uncover mental models – what I believe to be one of the most effective tools for learning and knowledge acquisiton.

Epiphany One

School + Letters next to your name don’t mean jack…

Coming out of school, degree in hand and having passed CFA Level 1, I though naively I knew somethign. Fortunately I was kicked in the ass quick-fast during my job search. Reminding me I was way behind the 8-ball in terms of understanding how the real world functions. School and professional certifications do none of that. Especially school, while certs can truly only be leveraged and add value when applied in conjunction with experiential learning – aka professional experience. Real world experience. And the kicks kept coming pretty much everyday after that by smarter, savvier colleagues. But that’s the part I liked, the growth part.

Epiphany Two

…The way we are taught how to learn from very early on is flawed…and the high performers in my profession, as well as across disciplines, are those who pull from worldly truths and principles/laws…

I was fortunate to “wear many hats” as a consultant, gaining visibility to everything from strategy to execution and sometimes sitting at or taking part in conversations that I had no business – professionally or intellectually – being a part of. But I, like many of us, was ‘thrown into the fire’ so to speak and forced to acquire highly specific domain knowledge (varying for each engagement I was on) while rapidly building the soft skills and typical capabilities of a professional (presentation skills, driving meetings, navigating the organization, etc.). None of this is a bad thing, it’s actually one of the great things about a career in consulting. 

But sometimes I raise the question: Why does school – you know, the reason so many of us are up to our ears in loans – FAIL to prepare us, so obviously, for the problem solving and skillsets truly demanded in the real world?

I’ll work to answer my own question, a bit. Maybe the educational system can’t, maybe it’s impossible to design a curriculum that could truly prepare students. Sure, there are some institutions of higher learning that are not far off – e.g. MBA programs like Harvard that teach purely off of the case-based method – but that doesn’t solve the undergraduate problem. Most graduate programs, the competitive ones, don’t want some kid who just came from college and brings zero experiential value to the touble. Duhhhhhhhhhh. Why is that? Because, sorry Jimmy, you really don’t know shit. And it’s funny that our higher education systems realize that, but then charge us out the ass for the Bachelor’s degree that doesn’t do anything.

But the problem actually goes deeper than that, I think. It’s baked within our process for teaching from early on. We are encouraged (required, actually) to focus on a defined set of curriculum. To memorize facts blindly because Mr. or Mrs. Johnson said so. To regugitate information from a book. And to get good grades if we do those things successfully. We’re never taught to be skeptical, to question everything, to think outside the box. Just to blindly accept. This lack of flexibility to let our minds wander, be creative and draw conclusions from disparate and seemingly unrelated worlds is restrictive. And it shows itself in many aspects of our lives.

Where I’m concerned, I hit a point in my career where not only was I burnt out, but I was starting to plateau in my learning. I had honed some very valuable skills in analysis, problem solving and making recommendations (in addition to being a PowerPoint pro :)) but it was all very siloed in terms of my specific subject matter expertise in financial services. I craved more knowledge that was broadly and worldly applicable. And when I looked around at the highest performers, they appeared to have that. Not surprisingly, it was the folks with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) background that made up the majority of these high performers I worked with and admired.  From what I could see, these people were equipped with unique frameworkers for which they solved problems and looked at the world. More often than not, they understood funamental truths and laws about the world (STEM) that served as reference points and grounds for understanding new, seemingly more complex information. In other words, the differentiating feature for most of these people wasn’t just domain expertise – it was a wealth of fundamental knowledge about logic, math, science, etc. and the ability to connect the dots. A lot of fuckin’ dots.

Re-Learning How to Learn

So began my narrative around re-learning how to learn and rewiring my brain if possible. I’m now ditching my old “study” habits and defined curriculums, trying things through controlled experiments and doing a ton of research on how exactly to do this.

My quest to re-learn how to learn sent me to do research on some of the best thinkers in the world – looking at how they learn, acquire knowledge and apply it to solve problems, build businesses and sometimes change the world. The answer amongs so many of the world’s best thought leaders and decision makers: Mental Models.

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Abstract is the best way to describe the phrase mental models. And by definition, anything abstract is not overtly specific or concrete. So if your brain is operating at half speed right now you could problem ball-park a definition and come pretty close. To be clear, though, just because something is abstract and difficult to put in a box, doesn’t mean it’s not deeply useful. Many theories start out like this and serve as a lens for problem solving or uncovering truths about the world.

If you give Google a quick spin and search for Mental Models you’ll find a whole host of definitions. None of them are mutually exclusive, and personally, I’ve done my research and pulled from many definitions to conceptualize a definition in my own brain. Here it is:

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.

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

I have to thank Shane Parrish of the Farnam Street Blog and Michael D Simmons for their work on making Learning (and re-learning) and Thinking More Effectively accessible to all. 

Farnam Street Blog is fascinating and I highly recommend subscribing to Shane’s weekly newsletter, which is free, and is undoubtedly “brain food” you should be eating. Many very famous and successful folks from across the world follow his blog and engage with other members in his community.

Shane has a very comprehensive set of research and data on Mental Models and has created the best short video summarizing Mental Models that I’ve seen. So, here it is, from the expert…

[/et_pb_blurb][et_pb_code _builder_version=”3.0.100″ text_orientation=”center” max_width=”60%” module_alignment=”center”]<iframe src="" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe><!– [et_pb_line_break_holder] –><p><a href="">Farnam Street: Mental Models</a> from <a href="">Shane Parrish</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>[/et_pb_code][et_pb_blurb title=”Where Did Mental Models Originate?” content_max_width=”1100px” _builder_version=”3.0.106″ header_font=”Montserrat|700||on|||||” header_text_align=”left” header_font_size=”30px” header_text_color=”#000000″ header_line_height=”2.5em” body_font=”Montserrat||||||||” body_font_size=”22px” body_text_color=”#353740″ body_line_height=”1.8em” saved_tabs=”all”]

Ever heard of Berkshire Hathaway? I bet you have – but most of you will think of the “Oracle of Omaha” – aka Warren Buffet. But there’s another “BB”, or Brilliant Billionaire, in Omaha.

Charlie Munger is the long-time Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Buffet’s right hand man. 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 confirm 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)

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Folks at the forefront of the discussion on Mental Models say there are over 650.

Oh, shit…

Not so fast – the good news, I’ll remind you, is that a much smaller percentage of these models is were 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 you’ll study helps explain why a much smaller percentage of the models produces the majority of the benefits. That model, is the Pareto Principle aka the “80/20” rule, which says: a very small minority of inputs or efforts produce a majority of the outputs and results…e.g. a minority of costs produce a majority of profits; a minority of your time produces the majority of your results. Applied the opposite way, 20% of your relationships cause 80% of the drama or stress.

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.

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Once you come up with your own way of defining or explaining the cocept of mental models it should be clear to see the value in creating the latticework or network of reference points that some of the world’s most successful people use to hang further knowledge and experiences on.

 I know that many of you are skeptical. And I’m proud of you for that, because a healthy dose of skepticism is how I approach life 🙂

But because of that, I’m going to break down the hard science behind why mental models work…

First off – your brain is literally a network. Areas and regions responsible for different functions. Wired together with millions and millons of synapses + pathways and neurons (brain cells).

Second – we actually use less than 50% of our brain power regardless of task. This is because different parts of the brain are required, depending on the type of task we’re performing.

Third – Neuroplasticity tells us that our most important asset, our brain, can be upgraded. We do, indeed, have the ability to “upgrade” our brains. We can literally become smarter and healthier by rewiring our brain.

Now, how you go about “upgrading” your brain is where there’s likely many approaches.  Here’s how I see mental models as the perfect tool for the upgrading the network that is your brain…

I like to think of mental models in relation to books that you’ve read. While it’s not an apples to apples comparison, if you think of a book shelf with unlimited room for books, that’s your brain. The rules are that you can only add a book to the shelf once you’ve read it. The more books on the shelf, the more knowledge you’ve acquired and the more experiential learning you can hang on that knowledge or use to “connect the dots”.

Well, because you’re brain is the same damn thing as a network, think of the books as nodes in a network. The brain has millions of pathways that probably never fire or connect to nodes in its other regions. Mental Models become your opportunity to add nodes to the network, and as you continue to acquire mental models, the connections your brain can make become much more valuable.

Think about it in terms of Metcalfe’s Law – which says that the value of any network goes up exponentially for every new user on the network – it’s been used to value the internet and new social networks like Facebook.

So, if you want to increase the value of the network that is your brain, add more nodes or users to that network. The nodes are mental models. Boom.

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