Mental Models: How to Train Your Brain to Think in New Ways

You can train your brain to think better. One of the best ways to do this is to expand the set of mental models you use to think. Let me explain what I mean by sharing a story about a world-class thinker.

I first discovered what a mental model was and how useful the right one could be while I was reading a story about Richard Feynman, the famous physicist. Feynman received his undergraduate degree from MIT and his Ph.D. from Princeton. During that time, he developed a reputation for waltzing into the math department and solving problems that the brilliant Ph.D. students couldn’t solve.

When people asked how he did it, Feynman claimed that his secret weapon was not his intelligence, but rather a strategy he learned in high school. According to Feynman, his high school physics teacher asked him to stay after class one day and gave him a challenge.

“Feynman,” the teacher said, “you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again.” 1

So each day, Feynman would hide in the back of the classroom and study the book—Advanced Calculus by Woods—while the rest of the class continued with their regular lessons. And it was while studying this old calculus textbook that Feynman began to develop his own set of mental models.

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What users *think* they know about your system will determine how they interact with the design. Understand users’ mental models to design something that’ll work well in practice. #UX #mentalmodels #userpsychology #HCI

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“That book showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign,” Feynman wrote. “It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals.”

“The result was, when the guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was a contour integration, they would have found it; if it was a simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.” 2

Every Ph.D. student at Princeton and MIT is brilliant. What separated Feynman from his peers wasn’t necessarily raw intelligence. It was the way he saw the problem. He had a broader set of mental models.

What is a Mental Model?

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.

For example, supply and demand is a mental model that helps you understand how the economy works. Game theory is a mental model that helps you understand how relationships and trust work. Entropy is a mental model that helps you understand how disorder and decay work.

Mental models guide your perception and behavior. They are the thinking tools that you use to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems. Learning a new mental model gives you a new way to see the world—like Richard Feynman learning a new math technique.

Mental models are imperfect, but useful. There is no single mental model from physics or engineering, for example, that provides a flawless explanation of the entire universe, but the best mental models from those disciplines have allowed us to build bridges and roads, develop new technologies, and even travel to outer space. As historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility.”

The best mental models are the ideas with the most utility. They are broadly useful in daily life. Understanding these concepts will help you make wiser choices and take better actions. This is why developing a broad base of mental models is critical for anyone interested in thinking clearly, rationally, and effectively.

The Secret to Great Thinking and Decision Making

Expanding your set of mental models is something experts need to work on just as much as novices. We all have our favorite mental models, the ones we naturally default to as an explanation for how or why something happened. As you grow older and develop expertise in a certain area, you tend to favor the mental models that are most familiar to you.

Here’s the problem: when a certain worldview dominates your thinking, you’ll try to explain every problem you face through that worldview. This pitfall is particularly easy to slip into when you’re smart or talented in a given area.

The more you master a single mental model, the more likely it becomes that this mental model will be your downfall because you’ll start applying it indiscriminately to every problem. What looks like expertise is often a limitation. As the common proverb says, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 3

When a certain worldview dominates your thinking, you’ll try to explain every problem you face through that worldview.

Consider this example from biologist Robert Sapolsky. He asks, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Then, he provides answers from different experts.

  • If you ask an evolutionary biologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because they saw a potential mate on the other side.”
  • If you ask a kinesiologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the muscles in the leg contracted and pulled the leg bone forward during each step.”
  • If you ask a neuroscientist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the neurons in the chicken’s brain fired and triggered the movement.”

Technically speaking, none of these experts are wrong. But nobody is seeing the entire picture either. Each individual mental model is just one view of reality. The challenges and situations we face in life cannot be entirely explained by one field or industry.

All perspectives hold some truth. None of them contain the complete truth.

Relying on a narrow set of thinking tools is like wearing a mental straitjacket. Your cognitive range of motion is limited. When your set of mental models is limited, so is your potential for finding a solution. In order to unleash your full potential, you have to collect a range of mental models. You have to build out your decision making toolbox. Thus, the secret to great thinking is to learn and employ a variety of mental models.

Expanding Your Set of Mental Models

The process of accumulating mental models is somewhat like improving your vision. Each eye can see something on its own. But if you cover one of them, you lose part of the scene. It’s impossible to see the full picture when you’re only looking through one eye.

Similarly, mental models provide an internal picture of how the world works. We should continuously upgrade and improve the quality of this picture. This means reading widely from the best books, studying the fundamentals of seemingly unrelated fields, and learning from people with wildly different life experiences. 4

The mind’s eye needs a variety of mental models to piece together a complete picture of how the world works. The more sources you have to draw upon, the clearer your thinking becomes. As the philosopher Alain de Botton notes, “The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.”

The Pursuit of Liquid Knowledge

In school, we tend to separate knowledge into different silos—biology, economics, history, physics, philosophy. In the real world, information is rarely divided into neatly defined categories. In the words of Charlie Munger, “All the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.” 5

World-class thinkers are often silo-free thinkers. They avoid looking at life through the lens of one subject. Instead, they develop “liquid knowledge” that flows easily from one topic to the next.

This is why it is important to not only learn new mental models, but to consider how they connect with one another. Creativity and innovation often arise at the intersection of ideas. By spotting the links between various mental models, you can identify solutions that most people overlook.

Tools for Thinking Better

Here’s the good news:

You don’t need to master every detail of every subject to become a world-class thinker. Of all the mental models humankind has generated throughout history, there are just a few dozen that you need to learn to have a firm grasp of how the world works.

Many of the most important mental models are the big ideas from disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, economics, mathematics, psychology, philosophy. Each field has a few mental models that form the backbone of the topic. For example, some of the pillar mental models from economics include ideas like Incentives, Scarcity, and Economies of Scale.

If you can master the fundamentals of each discipline, then you can develop a remarkably accurate and useful picture of life. To quote Charlie Munger again, “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90 percent of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.” 6

I’ve made it a personal mission to uncover the big models that carry the heavy freight in life. After researching more than 1,000 different mental models, I gradually narrowed it down to a few dozen that matter most. I’ve written about some of them previously, like entropy and inversion, and I’ll be covering more of them in the future. If you’re interested, you can browse my slowly expanding list of mental models.

My hope is to create a list of the most important mental models from a wide range of disciplines and explain them in a way that is not only easy to understand, but also meaningful and practical to the daily life of the average person. With any luck, we can all learn how to think just a little bit better.

James Clear

 

By: James Clear

 

Source: Mental Models: How to Train Your Brain to Think in New Ways

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How To Keep Sustainability At The Forefront Of Decision-Making

In times of great upheaval, it can be difficult for businesses to see the big picture. Sure, making quick, data-driven decisions to reach the right customer at the right moment is important, especially when business is uncertain. But bigger aspirational goals are still essential—maybe more so.

This dynamic can be especially true when it concerns corporate sustainability—sometimes referred to as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals that measure the societal impact of a company or business. ESG goals are designed to allow businesses to meet their present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. And ignoring those longer-term goals in the service of the here and now can undermine the future health of both the company and their customers.

In many ways, deprioritizing ESG goals in times of crisis is understandable. When economic strains are great and the business future looks cloudy, leaders often hunker down with a laser focus on the bottom line. But they must also continue to focus on the soul of their corporation, and what differentiates their products and their people.  

Today, sustainability should be front and center for companies. Business leaders increasingly see sustainability as a key facet of their mission and build it into their principles and strategy to ensure business resilience. Further, they need to acknowledge the business risk of ignoring sustainability, whether through supply chain disruptions, public perception, or lack of investment in upcoming technologies. 

A plan for progress

First, let’s define our terms—what do we mean by “sustainability”? A good place to start is with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 interlinked goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”

The SDGs include decreasing hunger and poverty, combating climate change, creating clean water, reducing income inequality, and forging better educational opportunities. They were set in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by 2030.

Today, we hear quite a bit about climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions, but sustainability is much broader—including environmental and societal impact. Not all management teams and boards are up to speed on what their company can and should do to improve their footprint, even if employees have good data and solid proposals. Here are six things business leaders can do to stay on track to meet ambitious ESG goals.

1. Make the business case 

Sustainability makes business sense. A focus on ESG can help management reduce capital costs and improve the firm’s valuation. That’s because as more investors look to put money into companies with stronger ESG performance, larger pools of capital will be available to those companies. According to a study by the United Nations Global Compact and Accenture, “between 2013-2019, companies with consistently high environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance enjoyed 4.7x higher operating margins and lower volatility than low ESG performers over the same period.”

“Over the past several months, when global markets have faced tremendous pressures and volatility, companies with high ESG scores have continued to outperform, experiencing a cumulative relative return 6.3% higher than bottom performers and facing lower volatility.”

– Accenture report, “The green behind the cloud,” September 2020

Additionally, according to a 2018 global survey by Accenture of nearly 30,000 consumers in 35 countries, 62% of respondents wanted companies to take a stand on current and broadly relevant issues, including sustainability. And 42% of consumers walk away from the brand in frustration if the company doesn’t align with customer beliefs.

2. Keep an eye on the data 

Everything around us is affected by big data today and your work on sustainability should be no exception. Keep a close eye on measuring your goals, performance, and operational changes with data. Be especially mindful of the sourcing and reliability of the data collected.

One big tire company, for instance, uses data generated by sensors in their tires globally to reduce waste, increase profits, and reduce the number of defective tires going to landfills, thus doing their bit for the environment. Small improvements in efficiency due to resource optimization can result in big savings.

Related: Unlock the transformational power of information you’re already collecting. Get the “CIO’s Guide to Data Analytics and Machine Learning.”

3. Make sustainability a key part of your executive structure 

Organizations should have a chief sustainability officer and team working closely with line-of-business and tech leadership. The chief sustainability officer needs to be in board meetings and other gatherings where the long-term health of the company is considered. They must be a bridge between technologists and business strategists, pushing them to look at sustainability through a new lens—a technology lens—and asking how technology can help a company build a more sustainable world.

4. Expand your ecosystem 

Reaching your sustainability goals doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires an ecosystem of both government and nongovernment organizations, researchers, scientists, technologists, and businesses, for example, who share the same views. Establishing this ecosystem enables collaboration through the sharing of knowledge, data, analytics, and technologies. Seek to collaborate with others who support and foster similar goals.

Throw out your regular playbook. Sustainability is not just about technology—it is about enabling change to the business processes. It requires us all to think much more collaboratively. We are in this together.

Google Cloud and Unilever, for instance, are working together to fight deforestation through sustainable commodity sourcing. By combining the power of cloud computing with satellite imagery and AI through Google Cloud and Google Earth Engine, Unilever is building a more holistic view of the forests, water cycles, and biodiversity that intersects their supply chain—raising sustainable sourcing standards for suppliers and bringing them closer to their goal of ending deforestation and regenerating natural resources.

This will allow Unilever to provide a better picture of the ecosystems connected to their supply chain, and create a better mechanism for detecting deforestation. Ultimately, it will lead to greater accountability while simultaneously prioritizing critical areas of forest and habitats in need of protection. 

5. Be an internal evangelist for change

As a business leader committed to helping the organization meet ambitious ESG goals, being an internal evangelist and continuously championing the importance of sustainable practices is key. Make it your mission to reinforce the mindset that sustainability is not optional—it’s imperative not only for the success of the organization but for much broader, purpose-driven motives beyond that. Work on collaborating with other managers to propose and execute on initiatives to “green” operations within each department. Commit to following through on these initiatives, measuring the impact, and improving the effectiveness as you go.

6. Make bold commitments—even if the path there isn’t clear

As Accenture underscores in this September 2020 report on how a thoughtful cloud-first approach can help boost your profits and benefit the planet, “the greater the ambition, the greater the reduction in carbon emissions.” Broaden the scope of possibility by setting ambitious sustainability goals and timelines for your organization. You might not know how to get there, but making bold, transparent commitments opens the door for increased collaboration and sets the direction for others who might be able to help find a way.

For example, in September Google announced a new goal to operate on 24/7 carbon-free energy in all our data centers and campuses worldwide by 2030. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet was candid, saying, “this is far more challenging than the traditional approach of matching energy usage with renewable energy, but we’re working to get this done by 2030.” Establishing executive buy-in, setting shared goals, enforcing accountability, and consistently measuring and evaluating your progress will make all the difference when it comes to moving the needle.

It may be hard to do, but I believe that now, even during a global crisis, sustainability should be at the center of a business’s decision-making. Sustainability is not only good for your bottom line, but it’s also good for your top line and good for the planet—the perfect trifecta.

Keep the momentum going: Reduce your environmental impact with Google Cloud. Explore tools and technology for sustainability at scale.

Jen Bennett

Jen Bennett

Jen is a Technical Director in Google’s Office of the CTO where she collaborates and co-innovates with Google’s strategic customers. She has spent her career leading engineering and product organizations leveraging data and analytics to transform a number of industries from sports and media to manufacturing. In her free time, Jen reached the pinnacle of soccer (football) as a FIFA referee refereeing several Women’s World Cups between 2002-2010. Jen holds a MS BioEngineering from University of Pittsburgh and a BSEE from Cornell University.

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Churchill College, University of Cambridge

Businesses are under pressure to become socially and environmentally sustainable, but this creates difficulties in decision-making, as executives need to reconcile competing social, environmental and economic demands. Most of the solutions proposed to this problem have focused either on improving information and analysis (Zapico, 2014), on cognitive approaches (Hahn, Preuss, Pinkse, & Figge, 2014) or on organisational issues, such as shared values (Epstein, Buhovac, & Yuthas, 2015). However, there has been very little work looking at the integrated set of capabilities that organisations might need to be able to address multiple tensions. We therefore set out to understand how executives experience the conflicting demands of sustainable business, and how they resolve these tensions in decision-making.

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