Your brain can be trained to work better. One of the best ways to do this is to think about more things than you do now. Let me tell you a story about a great thinker to show you what I mean.
When I was reading a story about the famous physicist Richard Feynman, I learned what a mental model was and how helpful the right one could be. Feynman went to MIT for his first degree and Princeton for his Ph.D. During that time, he got a reputation for walking into the math department and solving problems that even the smartest Ph.D. students couldn’t figure out.
When people asked him how he did it, Feynman said that his secret weapon wasn’t his intelligence, but a strategy he learned in high school. Feynman says that one day, his physics teacher in high school asked him to stay after class and gave him a challenge.
“You talk too much and make too much noise, Feynman,” the teacher told him. I understand. You have nothing to do. Then I’ll give you a book. You go back there to the corner and study this book until you know everything in it. Then you can talk again.”
So, every day, Feynman would hide in the back of the classroom and read Advanced Calculus by Woods while the rest of the class went on with their regular lessons. Feynman started making his own mental models while he was studying this old calculus book.
Feynman wrote, “That book showed how to tell the difference between parameters under the integral sign.” “It turns out that they don’t teach that much in college; they don’t stress it. But I learned how to use that method, and I kept using the same tool over and over again. So, since I taught myself with that book, I had strange ways of doing integrals.”
“As a result, when guys at MIT or Princeton couldn’t figure out how to do a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it using the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was a simple series expansion or a contour integration, they would have found it. Then I tried differentiating under the integral sign, which usually worked. So I got a good name for doing integrals because my toolbox was different from everyone else’s and they had tried all of their tools on the problem before giving it to me.
Everyone who gets a Ph.D. at Princeton or MIT is very smart. Feynman was smarter than most of his peers, but that wasn’t always what set him apart. It was how he saw the situation. He had a wider range of ideas in his head.
What does “mental model” mean?
An explanation of how something works is a mental model. It is an idea, framework, or worldview that you keep in your head to help you make sense of the world and figure out how things fit together. Mental models are deeply held ideas about how the world works.
For instance, supply and demand is a way to think about how the economy works. Game theory is a way of thinking about how trust and relationships work. Entropy is a way to think about how disorder and deterioration work.
Your thoughts and actions are based on the mental models you have. They are the ways you think that help you figure out what’s going on in life, make decisions, and solve problems. When you learn a new mental model, it changes the way you look at the world, just like when Richard Feynman learned a new way to do math.
Mental models are imperfect, but useful. There is no single mental model from physics or engineering, for example, that perfectly explains the whole universe. However, the best mental models from these fields have helped us build bridges and roads, create new technologies, and even go to space. “Most scientists agree that no theory is 100 percent right,” says historian Yuval Noah Harari. So, the real test of knowledge is not whether it is true, but how useful it is.
The best mental models are the ones that can be used in the most ways. They are useful in many ways in everyday life. If you understand these ideas, you’ll be able to make better decisions and do better things. This is why anyone who wants to think clearly, logically, and effectively needs to build up a wide range of mental models.
How to Think Really Well
Experts need to work on expanding their mental models just as much as beginners do. We all have mental models that we use most often to try to figure out how or why something happened. As you get older and learn more about a subject, you tend to favour the mental models that you already know.
Here’s the problem: when a certain worldview takes over your thinking, you’ll try to explain every problem you face through that worldview. This trap is especially easy to fall into if you are smart or good at something.
The better you get at one mental model, the more likely it is that you’ll use it to solve every problem. What seems like knowledge is often just a limit. “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” says a common saying.
When a certain way of thinking about the world takes over your thoughts, you’ll try to explain every problem you face in terms of that way of thinking.
Biologist Robert Sapolsky gives the following example. He wants to know why the chicken went across the street. Then he gives the answers that different experts gave him.
If you asked an evolutionary biologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because they saw a potential mate on the other side.”
If you asked a kinesiologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the muscles in its leg contracted and pulled the leg bone forward with each step.”
If you ask a neuroscientist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the neurons in its brain fired and made it move.”
In terms of the facts, none of these experts is wrong. But no one has a complete picture either. Each mental model is just one way of looking at the world. One field or industry can’t fully explain the problems and situations we face in life.
All points of view have some truth to them. None of them tells all of the truth.
Using only a small number of ways to think is like putting on a mental straight jacket. Your ability to think isn’t as flexible as it could be. If you only have a few mental models, it will be harder for you to find a solution. You need a variety of mental models to help you reach your full potential. You need to get more tools for your toolbox. So, the best way to think is to learn and use many different mental models.
Adding to the mental models you already have
Putting together mental models is a bit like improving your eyesight. Each eye can see different things. But if you cover one of them, you lose a part of the scene. If you only look through one eye, you won’t be able to see the whole picture.
In the same way, mental models give us an idea of how the world works. We should keep working to make this picture better and better. This means reading a lot of good books, learning the basics of things that don’t seem to be related, and getting advice from people whose lives have been very different from yours.
To get a full picture of how the world works, the mind’s eye needs to put together many different mental models. The more information you have, the more clear your ideas will be. Philosopher Alain de Botton says, “The main thing that gets in the way of making good decisions is not having enough points of view on a problem.”
The Search for Knowledge You Can Use
In school, we tend to separate knowledge into different silos, like biology, economics, history, physics, and philosophy. In the real world, information is rarely neatly separated into clear categories. Charlie Munger once said, “You can’t find all the wisdom in the world in one little academic department.”
People who think on a world-class level often don’t think in boxes. They don’t look at life from just one point of view. Instead, they develop “liquid knowledge” that makes it easy to move from one subject to another.
This is why it’s important to not only learn new mental models but also think about how they fit together. When ideas meet, they often spark creativity and new ways of doing things. By seeing the connections between different mental models, you can find answers that most people miss.
Tools to help you think better
The good news is:
To be a world-class thinker, you don’t have to know everything about everything. Out of all the mental models that people have made over the course of history, you only need to learn a few dozen to really understand how the world works.
Many of the most important mental models are the big ideas from fields like biology, chemistry, physics, economics, mathematics, psychology, and philosophy. There are a few mental models that make up the core of each field. For example, incentives, scarcity, and economies of scale are some of the most important ideas in economics.
If you can learn the basics of each field, you can get a very accurate and useful picture of how life works. “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90 percent of the load in making you a worldly-wise person,” Charlie Munger said again. And only a small number of those really carry heavy loads.”
I’ve made it my goal in life to find the big models that carry the most weight. After looking into more than a thousand different mental models, I narrowed it down to a few dozen that are most important. Some of them, like entropy and inversion, are ones I’ve written about before, and I’ll write about more of them in the future. If you’re interested, you can look through my list of mental models, which is slowly getting longer.
My goal is to make a list of the most important mental models from many different fields and explain them in a way that is not only easy to understand but also useful and relevant to the average person’s daily life. We might all be able to learn how to think a little bit better, if we’re lucky.