Summary of The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien

Whenever we try to solve a problem, much like a mechanic working on a car, we need the right tools for the job. Sometimes, it’s really simple and sometimes it takes longer than we like. However, in each instance, we use different mental tools to work through it. This is the basis of our everyday decision making. 

But, did you know that there are certain mental models that you could use to help you? Well, there are and the more models you know of, the better your chances of success. This book summary provides you with nine such techniques to make you a master of decision making.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Think of a mental model as a map
  • Knowing your circle of competence
  • Use first principles to find creative solutions
  • The technique of inversion
  • The importance of thought experiments
  • Second-order thinking is crucial
  • Probabilistic thinking
  •  Occam’s razor
  • Hanlon’s razor

Key lesson one: Think of a mental model as a map

To describe a mental model simply would be to think of it as a tool that helps us navigate reality much like a map helps us navigate the world. A map represents large and often complicated areas in a simplified way. This means that there is a lot of details that have been left out. It is unavoidable as it would be completely impractical to have every single detail on a map. It would be huge! That being said, it is important to realise that there are elements of the map that are not there. 

Just like a map, mental models are also useful but we must keep in mind that it is simplified and there are limitations. Simplified tools that serve as guides to the world around us should be used with the knowledge of this fact. Some things are not included and they need to be updated so that we do not take a wrong turn so to speak. 

Key lesson two: Knowing your circle of competence

Your circle of competence refers to the skills that you have acquired over the years. It is your area of expertise and the area you are most familiar with. Thus, within this circle, you are confident with the decisions you make. Outside of this circle, however, is unchartered territory. You will be lost and completely uncertain as to what to do. 

Understanding your circle of competence and where it ends is important. It does not matter how big or small your circle is, what matters is that you know what your limit is. If you know this, you become a master of your strengths and weaknesses, knowing when you need to seek help to get the best results. If you know you are outside your circle, you can adjust accordingly and learn more potentially expanding your circle. 

What is important though is that we refrain from thinking that our circles are bigger than they really are. It is okay to not know everything, no one does. If we let ego get in our way, we venture outside our circle with unsanctioned confidence. Know your circle of competence and you will never be caught out of your depth.

Key lesson three: Use first principles to find creative solutions

Whether you are in your circle of competence or not, creativity always plays a part in coming up with the best solutions. No matter what you are dealing with, if you consider the first principles of the subject, you can come up with creative solutions. 

First principles refer to the foundational facts on which everything in a specific area gets built upon. For example, if you are looking to build a new type of refrigerator, the first principle you need to consider would be the law of thermodynamics. However, first principles are not always so clear cut and the way you work to seek them out leads to creative solutions in the process. An example of this comes from scientists who were looking at the overconsumption of meat. By looking at the first principles of meat consumption, they realized that customers considered the taste and smell of the meat to be the most important things. This meant that the way the meat was prepared was more important than where it came from. This lead scientists to begin research on artificial meat production which has made incredible headway in the last few years. 

Thus, trying to solve a problem by considering the first principles allows you to dig deep and come up with a creative solution that deals with it from the very foundation.

Key lesson four: The technique of inversion

Inversion, as the name implies, refers to flipping the normal approach to problem-solving upside down. This can be done in one of two ways. Firstly, you make the assumption that what you are presented with is true. Then you begin to work backwards from this fact to determine what else would be true. An example of this technique was demonstrated by Edward Bernays when he was asked to get more women to buy cigarettes. So, he first assumed that in order to sell more cigarettes to women, they would have to smoke as much as men. He began to think of what else would have to be true for this fact to be true. This was when Bernays realized that women would need to believe that smoking was socially acceptable. To accomplish this, he based his advertising campaigns on linking smoking with socially acceptable and desirable traits. 

The second way to achieve this is to assume the opposite of what you want to accomplish is true. For example, if you want to be someone with lots of money, you would assume you are broke. You would work back from this and try to find out the reasons that will make you poor. In this way, you identify all the things you can avoid if you want to save money.

Key lesson five: The importance of thought experiments

Thought experiments are all about running simulations in your imagination. It can be extremely helpful, especially because it can allow you the possible implications of your decisions without actually affecting anyone in the process. Therefore there are no repercussions, you could conduct seemingly impossible experiments and you won’t be wasting any valuable resources. 

It was thought experiments that actually helped Albert Einstein to come up with the general theory of relativity. By being able to consider impractical scenarios we are able to see things clearly. You will eliminate any hindering factors and be able to see things from another perspective – one that could possibly provide the solution you need.

Key lesson six: Second-order thinking is crucial

Second-order thinking refers to thinking about the consequences of the consequences regarding your decision. Meaning you are taking the consequences one step further from your thought experiment. Second-order thinking is extremely important and without it, some serious problems can arise.

For example, if you consider antibiotic use in agriculture. At first, all farmers thought about were the first-order consequences – if they used antibiotics they got bigger cattle and that meant more money. However, if they had stopped to consider the second-order consequences they would have minimized the problem they have now with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Second-order thinking allows us to seriously consider our decisions. Short-term benefits could not be worth the long-term costs and short-term costs could be worth the long-term benefits. You will be able to figure this out with second-order thinking.

Key lesson seven: Probabilistic thinking

Another thing that has to be considered is the probability of the possible consequences. As much as thought experiments and second-order thinking is helpful, it can also hinder you from making any progress. 

This is when Bayesian updating comes into play. It refers to the fact that we already possess some information about the would. This information is not comprehensive but it is enough for us to use. Thus when we are presented with new data, we assess it with our prior knowledge and make a conclusion overall. This is what prevents us from staying locked inside when we read a headline that says that crime is escalating. We take into consideration the area we live in and the fact that violent crimes have decreased significantly through the years. Thus even an increase would still not be enough for you to stay out of the streets. 

However, the information we have must not be outdated as well. We have to keep ourselves knowledgeable and should not hold onto old information stubbornly. 

Key lesson eight: Occam’s razor

Occam’s razor simply states that if there are two explanations available for any given situation, the simplest of the two is more likely to be true. The reason behind this is that the more complicated explanation would have more factors that would need to be true than the simpler explanation. It’s obviously not always the case, but in most circumstances it is.

If your spouse is late in picking you up from the airport, does this mean that they were in a car accident or that they got stuck in traffic? The latter is probably the most possible cause.

Key lesson nine: Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is very similar to Occam’s razor but it deals with human behaviour. It states that the simplest explanation for misbehaviour is not malice but stupidity. This means whenever you feel like someone has done something wrong intentionally it might not be for the reasons you think. Mistakes are often the most likely cause. 

Obviously, some people are just plain malicious and will do things intentionally however, they are usually the exception. People are not usually out to get us, they usually just not that careful about what they are doing. For example, the person that overtakes you in traffic is not personally attacking you for driving slowly, they could just be impatient and in a hurry.

The key takeaway from The Great Mental Models is:

Making decisions are often difficult but if we use mental models, they can guide us through the process. Knowledge of mental models will allow you to choose which one to use in a specific situation and how to navigate the situation. Mental models lead to efficient thinking which in turn leads to better decisions.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Great Mental Models:

Don’t be paralyzed due to second-order thinking. It is easy to get trapped in a loop if you keep considering negative consequences. You must always use probabilistic thinking to avoid this. The whole point of mental models is to help you make decisions, not scare you away from them!

🤙 Your Next Step… 🤙

Head across to one of the following pages for more goodies

🍕 Read our Blinkist review and become a member of Blinkist. Read or listen to 3000+ full version quality summaries!

🍕 Read our list of the best business books of all time

🍕 Read some more of our book summaries

🍕 See our top book summary apps