The Incredible Value of Mental Models in a World of Infomania

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

Over the last few years of consuming Internet media, I’ve noticed my choice of information shift considerably. I’m much less interested in data and tactics, much more interested in the structures underlying them. Sometimes data and tactics are necessary, but I often find when I focus on the core, the tactics become obvious, or at least simpler to pick up and understand.

Much has been said in the last few years on the value of mental models. I suspect this popularity originated with Farnam Street quoting the lessons of Charlie Munger, and it’s propagated out from there. A popular article by Gabriel Weinberg, a few mentions from Naval Ravikant, and a number of auxiliary sources touting their value.

I have my own meager collection of them, though I’d recommend Farnam Street’s list as they’ve given more thought to writing them down.

A mental model is one of the most effective units of mental compression. It gives a structure or a “latticework” as Munger would put it, that you can hang other information on and plug other data into. A more useful analogy for the modern era might be a computer or smartphone. You can download tons of data onto the device, or you can focus on downloading apps, the tool for processing data, which will allow you to better process information in the future.

The biggest challenge we face with information today isn’t finding it, but focusing on retaining what’s useful. If you focus on retaining data, you’ll use up your available memory on information you could have Googled as you needed it. But by focusing on retaining mental models and methods of understanding, you free yourself from needing to retain all the little data and may find you never need it at all.

For example, Geography. I’m writing this flying from Chicago to Washington D.C., but I was just in Wyoming. Over lunch, the question came up of whether or not Wyoming bordered South Dakota. None of us knew the answer. But none of us needed to know the answer because in a few seconds of Googling, we had the answer (it does). The ability to find the answer and read a map have made the precise knowledge of a map of the U.S. nearly useless, despite the reassurances of my 8th grade Social Studies teacher.

This mental model mentality applies itself in more exciting ways than just Geography, of course. One mental model I’ve come across in the last year is Jocko Willink’s “Discipline Equals Freedom” dictum. If you fully understand and internalize the idea of “discipline equals freedom,” and understand my notion of “artificial complexity,” you can safely ignore 99% of information on productivity, health, entrepreneurship, and other “noisy” disciplines.

For example, say you want to wake up earlier. The obvious solution is… to wake up earlier. It’s not that hard. But then you think it’s hard and start reading tons of articles and even whole books about waking up earlier (artificial complexity) when really, the solution was to get more control of yourself (discipline equals freedom).

Or, you want to get in shape. First, you make sure you’re avoiding bad information on diet and exercise, so you read medical papers, older fitness regimens (using the Lindy Rule mental model), and reputable sources of information like Examine while avoiding blogs (artificial complexity), then, you recognize you need to do the work (discipline equals freedom) and stop ignoring reality.

We can apply it to productivity, too, bringing in a few other mental models. First, efficiency vs. effectiveness. Are you actually working on something that matters? That’s the most important part. Then, are you being efficient? Here, the discipline equals freedom comes in again since the most likely obstacle is your own tendency to distraction and looking for new “hacks.”

We could put all useful productivity advice into a few good mental models:

If you truly understand and internalize those five models, you need no other productivity advice. Any time you’re not being as productive as you could be, it is most likely one of those models that you need to take a closer look at.

We can do a similar breakdown with exercise. If you understand antifragility and the second law of thermodynamics, you’ll have the basis for most training programs, and you won’t make excuses for failure to lose weight or lack of muscle gain.

Certainly, there are details within each of these systems that the models don’t cover, but the models give you validation criteria to check the data through. For example, say someone told you that you should focus on light, non-sweaty exercises to build your cardiovascular endurance. That would fail the “antifragile” model check, since a biological system is much less likely to get stronger in response to no stress than it is likely to get stronger in response to an acute stress.

Once you understand and internalize the value of mental models, your approach to information consumption should change as well. It is no longer valuable to memorize data or hacks, but rather to try to collect and internalize as many useful mental models as you can from a variety of fields that are relevant and interesting to you.

Book selection is a huge factor. If you read a lot and you get through a book at least every week or two, there’s a big opportunity cost to each book you pick. Namely, every other book you’re not reading at that moment. So how do you assess which books to read? The method I’ve settled on now is their potential impact on my mental models (unless I’m trying to solve a very specific problem). The latest business book is unlikely to provide and valuable mental model, or if it does, it’ll be one idea spread out over 250 pages, 200 of which you can skip.

Blogs, too, should be judged on their likelihood to affect your mental models. Farnam Street has based their whole blog around it. Naval RavikantNick SzaboWait but Why, many of the best blogs out there are valuable largely because of their mental model impact.

It’s helpful for me, too, as a heuristic for articles. If they’re not going to provide some fundamental mental model value to you (decomplicationinfomaniarunway), or help you solve a very specific problem in a complete way (learning marketingbuilding a lifestyle businessmeeting people), then it shouldn’t be written about. Both because it’s rude to waste your time, and the opportunity cost of writing about it is a waste of mine.

This gives us a meta-mental model. The question you should be asking yourself as you read, or decide to read anything, should be:

“Will this positively impact my mental models in some tangible way? Will it change how I interpret the world?”

If the answer is no, either put it down or skip ahead to where it does. If a publication or author continually fails this test, stop engaging with them, and replace them with someone or something that does.

Footnotes

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