The short answer – is that mental models are deeply held beliefs, rules, principles or power laws – that are fundamentally true in this world and have stood the test of time.
Here’s two of the better conceptualizations of the concept:
Representation that describes how reality is (as it is known today) — a principle, an idea, basic concepts, something that works or not — that I have in my head that helps me know what to do or not. Something that has stood the test of time (Peter Bevelin)
A mental model is an explanation of how something works. It is a concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind to help you interpret the world and understand the relationship between things. Mental models are deeply held beliefs about how the world works (James Clear)
And from Shane Parrish, probably the best curator of Mental Models on out there today, is the best video on the web in terms of explaining them:
And why do I care? What’s the value-add in understanding these models? Well, let’s just say that mental models are used by some of the world’s greatest thinkers: Elon Musk, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet, Ray Dalio, Tim Ferriss; to solve some of their biggest problems. Most of us want to acquire knowledge, and feel smart or savvy – yet the traditional system for education and knowledge acquisition is flawed. We spend our lives memorizing text books and taking notes from professors – but little time truly understanding or applying concepts. Mental Models help us acquire truly worldly knowledge that can be applied across disciplines understand how the world works and solve problems by working from truths that have stood the test of time.
Charlie Munger, in his famous 1994 speech at USC Business School, described the importance of mentals models below. The TLDR version is that truly great thinkers and problem solvers don’t just memorize isolated facts because if the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, then the knowledge isn’t very leverageable. Mental Models, these worldly rules or truths, serve as reference points that you can hang further knowledge – theoretical or experiential on – and build a “latticework of knowledge”.
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.
Keep scrolling to check out some of the resources below…
Mental Models LibraryA simple Google Sheet tracking all of the Mental Models I research – with their category, general overview, the best sources or examples and a link to my one page overview.
Mental Model "One-Pagers"Documenting the key points for each model helps me learn. I hope it does the same for you in a concise, easy-to-digest manner.
Blog PostsCheckout my blog for updates and the most recent blog on Mental Models will be right here. Over there. To the right…
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...