Trying to Get Smarter with Mental Models

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I’ve benefitted a great deal from reading more in the past 2-3 years than I did during my entire twenties. Each month, I felt myself thinking more clearly, rationally, and creatively about various topics and issues. The formula that I told myself was: read more books, get smarter. Sounds simple enough, right?

A couple sources have helped me to reframe my thinking on this. The first is Tempo: Timing Tactics and Strategy in Narrative-Driven Decision-making by Venkatesh Rao. The other is the blog Farnam Street by Shane Parrish and especially his post on mental models.

Here’s the big takeaway: better decision-making (which I equate to being smarter or behaving in a smart way) gets a big boost when you have a solid supply of mental models that you can use to assess situations, process information, and ultimately draw conclusions that aid in your ability to take action, tell stories, and interact with other people (all which are types of decisions). Parrish, referencing Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, labels this as “building a ‘latticework’ of mental models” and notes that it’s a lifelong project that’ll help us understand reality and make good decisions.

I’ve been thinking about all the people in my life that I respect as “wickedly smart” and they all seem to have this in common: a very strong latticework of mental models that help them quickly understand complex situations and to draw helpful insights that ultimately aid them in some way. One artifact of being smart is that these people ask very incisive questions that draw out additional bits of data to feed into their latticework. It makes me want to reword the phrase “there are no such thing as a stupid question” to be: “smart people ask smart questions; dumb people mostly stay silent.”

Knowing what I know now, I don’t think reading a lot of books is a surefire way to be smarter. While it may help and expose you to ideas and frameworks that ultimately make you smarter, it’s also possible that you may not quite connect the dots and deliberately practice with what you’ve learned if you’re not consciously trying to build your own supply/toolbox of mental models. On the flipside, if you’re conscious of adding to the toolbox, then reading becomes a very deliberate activity and you’ll find yourself trying to come away with certain types of insights and takeaways (or quickly discarding the book if it fails to provide such value). And beyond reading, this hunger for adding new mental models can make you rethink conversations with people, the websites you visit, the shows you watch, the podcasts you listen to, and whatever else you consume.

Speaking of deliberate activity, I think the work I do at Barrel provides me with fertile ground for putting mental models to the test. A common activity is communicating with prospective and existing clients and navigating ways to land new engagements. I’ve found myself consciously thinking about people’s motivations (incentives, such as impact on career for working with us), their attachment to sunk costs, their reliance on social proof (“Who else that’s just like us have you done this for?”), as well as the way they’re influenced by authority (e.g. known experts on specific topics) and anchoring (e.g. the first price you tell them). Every few weeks, I find myself having been exposed to a different mental model that I’d want to stick into my repertoire. It’s too early to tell if I’m getting better results by thinking this way, but I’d like to think that I’m asking better questions and making better decisions for the company.

A big part of understanding and appreciating mental models is to constantly scrutinize the way our mind works. This goes nicely hand-in-hand with meditation as well as with a work activity like managing employees. The mind is rife with biases (e.g. confirmation bias, recency bias, consistency bias, etc.) as well as emotionally charged irrational thoughts that have little or no basis in fact (e.g. jealousy, inferiority complex, persecution complex, over-confidence). By consciously observing the way thoughts pop up into my mind, I can become a better driver who avoids the potholes (e.g. emotionally-driven outbursts or stubborn adherence to what I believe “must be the only way”) and emerges onto a smoother road where I can take in the full view and make sounder, more rational decisions.

The mind, in addition to our physical health, is our greatest asset. This concept of building a latticework of mental models is very thrilling, and I’ll continue to share the treasures I pick up along the way.

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