Product Manager, Solution Architect, Amateur Historian
A mental model is an explanation of the thought process that leads us to an understanding of how something works in the real world. Like an atom made up of interlocking ideas, it has a nucleus of positive thoughts (protons), neutral thoughts (neutrons), and negative thoughts (electrons), as well as bits of free-wheeling imagination (also electrons).
If you were to contemplate something happening in the world right now and connect two thoughts that emerge, you would be using a mental model. If you read this sentence and analyze these words, you are using a mental model. If you reflect on the sentences in this paragraph together, you are also using a mental model. In fact, any time two thoughts meet, have a recursive pattern, or have a relationship, a mental model is involved. A mental model is so powerful that it can create something even more powerful than the splitting of an atom.
I would argue if the pen is mightier than the sword, the mental model is more powerful than a nuclear weapon. After all, what do you think America used to create the atomic weapon in the first place? A new mental model formed by a Swiss pattern clerk gave us the ability to split an atom. The theory of relativity was just a bigger (or smaller depending on how you look at it) mental model. Einstein’s imagination, crushing Newton’s acolytes the world over, not with a measurable force, but a speculative one built on a hypothesis postulating that an object, depending on how fast it is going and how closely you are looking, bends and molds time and space.
We can also use mental models to track our own evolution. The first time a human made a connection between action and reaction—often between two parties—it had a magical effect on the future reality. From this point, mental models could be used to create reality, added by their newly evolved agents as thoughts and patterns, from houses, fire, and cooking, eventually doing all three inside, perhaps in a cave.
The reason you might feel afraid in the woods all by yourself is that we humans are pack animals, and as we evolved we developed this mental model: to survive, everyone must work as a unit or be close to their unit to have safety in numbers. From there, we further evolved. Mental models drive physical evolution as well as the evolution of culture, society, and the news feed you are so eager to escape.
Let’s freeze time in 1994, shift over to USC Business School, and dig into a famous speech by one of the world's leading investors. His name is Charlie Munger, and he had a great idea about combining mental models and including as many of them as you can.
“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”
—Charlie Munger, (investment partner to Warren Buffet and vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Corp.), USC Business School, 1994
Building a latticework of mental models is a tool we can all develop, but I now believe it doesn’t go far enough. It might get us to Mars, but not to warp speed. What if you upgraded your latticework, not just to an overlapping pattern of many thoughts laid out flat, but one that looks to rise off its rigidly defined plain and onto the 3rd Dimension?
The question then becomes: what can we learn from only science and math if we know, based on the observations of both, that they each have many questions yet to answer? And if you take into account that Einstein’s theory of relativity only kicks in around the speed of light, you’ll also learn that Newton’s acolytes aren’t currently suffering from depression, as they are still right 99.9% of the time. What then do you do with your latticework of mental models, once you approach the speed of light? If you included the many paradoxes of Einstein and Newton together, the latticework breaks. Even if you think we are still years away from light speed travel, consider the latticework of mental models used during a black swan event like 2008. Berkshire Hathaway, Munger’s firm, made billions. Do you think he had that in his pre-built latticework, including the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis, or has Charlie evolved the concept since 1994, and he’s just not telling us yet? (For the record, this is me calling you out, Charlie.)
There is, in fact, mystery left in the world, after all. What then can we learn from the individuals who have explored beyond the mental models’ limitations? How can we explore their paradoxes, puzzles, and places where the simple logic breaks down? My suggestion is to study a Dutchman (een Nederlandse)—an illustrator who spent his life not only in a quest to understand art but also bend it, break it, and mold it by understanding its fundamental geometry. This sage of black and white illusion shifted the art world on its axis because he was not only breaking the rules of art in his respective era but was also looking to break reality—a tear in the fabric he hoped to look behind, and then later show all of us. His name was M.C. Escher.
You most likely know his work from sketches of staircases that seem to go nowhere and other impossible tricks of the eye. The staircases seen here, would be inspired by the “Penrose stairs”—a theory dreamed by up by father and son physics team, Lionel and Roger Penrose. As demonstrated in how he translated the Penroses’ theory, Escher’s style is so unique because of his ability to see his illustrations mathematically, showing his audience a new world right below-and above-the canvas.
From The Magic of Escher:
Side by side with a mathematical logic, an element of diversion plays a large role in arousing these sensations. In his famous images Escher often presents a picture-puzzle. How can a level field evoke depth or height, as well as surface? How can something be both inside and outside or both convex and concave? By looking carefully and by penetrating into the logic of the image every viewer is able to find the solution, and this looking and finding by seeking is fascinating. What is striking is that the solution is always purely a virtual one: both the question and the solution hold us captive in the image.
What then can we learn from this method? How does Escher see the world? How can we train, like athletes, with the same set of 2D to 3D glasses as Escher? Maybe they are 2.5D glasses? After all, Escher shows them both at once? Can we build glasses like these that we never take off, glasses we can share and scale, a kind of slick RayBan for those ready to shape the future?
Now let’s take a look at a mental mode such as “the map is not the territory”—the theory that an object and an abstract representation of that object are not the same, formulated famously by American mathematician Alfred Korzybski in the 1930s:
From Farnum Street by Shane Parrish:
The map of reality is not reality. Even the best maps are imperfect. That’s because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists.
T.E. Lawrence, the father of modern guerilla warfare, knew instinctively the map is not the territory. He quickly learned when fighting in the Arabian Peninsula that sand dunes move, and therefore maps are never totally reliable. He knew this because he actually made maps in the Middle East before World War I. While maps are useful, they are always an abstraction of the geography they attempt to portray, if they didn’t have at least one level of abstraction, they would be the actual geography. You can plan a war with a map, but if it’s your only planning tool in a battle, you’re in trouble. Lawrence knew this all too well.
Now let’s build a “Munger-esque” latticework. Take a mental model like Ockham’s razor—the simplest explanation is usually the correct one—and ask yourself, “Why do the sand dunes move?” If we apply, Ockham’s razor, we can quickly deduce it’s most likely not magic, but rather that deserts have wind; wind moves the sand; dunes are made of up sand; therefore, the wind moves sand dunes. This, of course, happens regularly and takes time, but in places like the Arabian Peninsula, one single storm can transport a dune.
Now let’s build the scenario further. A storm did come through the night before, your map is out of date, the Turkish Army is on your tail, and you’re fumbling as their cavalry forms a circle around your small insurgency. How do you get out of this? What do you do? Maybe you start to think from another mental model: “first principles,” a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. You need this low evidence method because you are in a panic; you have to get back to the basics, which is a great mental model if you have limited information.
You think I have a mobile force outfitted with nothing better than hunting equipment in the desert, and I’m surrounded by a modern army with machine guns.
But, you have horses. So, what if you tried a strategy from across the pond?
In American desert warfare, tribes of the Comanche nation would bait larger organized frontier forces into a marathon pursuit, often staying just out of rifle range but still in sight. Applying their tactics, you know you have small, fast Spanish mustangs that can outrun any farm horse or officially trained Army cavalry. You get on your horse and ride; you ride the whole day. As a small unit, you can push harder and longer than the large army that needs to rest and eat.
Then, under a summer moon, known to this day in Texas as a “Comanche moon,” you have your chance. You circle back and infiltrate the recently encamped army. But your stealth excursion is not a preamble to a frontal attack, you’re only there to steal their horses. You move in, careful to not make a sound; you may even execute your mission without firing a single arrow. You quietly untie all the horses and calmly push them away from the stockade. Now the superior force is stuck out in the middle of nowhere, with no transportation. They retreat, and you can fight another day.
You have just used the “Munger-esque latticework” method to make yourself a successful WWI Desert Warlord. Congratulations on your promotion.
Now, what happens when your newly built latticework breaks down? Maybe you’ve just seen an alien invasion or a global pandemic. Or a black swan event comes out of nowhere. How then might one “Escherize” this mental model? The straightforward, but incorrect, answer is to add more models to the mix. Think of it like a pancake; adding more batter won’t make it rise. You need a leavening agent for it to become a cake. To do this with a mental model, you need to see the world as Escher did; you’ve got to put on your 2D-3D Glasses. You must first draw the latticework I’ve just used to make you a desert warlord, using a rather old, but not forgotten strategy.
But, to rise above, you must see the holes in the model. How does the model move and expand? What happens when you add another model on top that touches “the map is not the territory,” and first principles, but not Ockham’s razor. How do you account for that? What if you need to have a bend or a break in your model? How could you depict it? After all, what does Ockham’s razor know about the adjudication between “first principles” and rival theories (see “The Tyranny of Simple Explanations” in the Atlantic)? The neat pattern you once had—your latticework—now needs a footnote. But how do you make a footnote on a latticework? Maybe instead take Escher’s pencil to your latticework, add a Mobius strip with insects on its infinite treadmill; two boys on the same roof but on different floors; or, most famously, a waterfall with the same source and destination.
In a letter to his son from 5 November, 1955, M.C. Escher writes:
“A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom, or am I off target?”
Keep in mind that I’m not going to give you all the answers; after all, you’re the one on this quest. Start to build your model and put on your 2.5D glasses. First, study all the mental models you can, create a Munger-esque Latticework, and then evolve it into an Escher illustration. Include all the paradoxes and caveats you can. Tell a few small stories in your mental picture as Escher often did. Develop characters, actors, and memories, playing and working in the mental image of your model. Do it in your head, and you’ll have a beautiful piece of art—a black and white expression of craft where the canvas is your own mind—once locked to a simple system, now you see the infinite depth and the astronomical ceiling, all on a flat latticework. And with the beautiful canvas that is your mind, you will start to shape the future. “Escherize” your mental models. Who knows; maybe one day you’ll split the “mental model atom” and build the next theory of relativity if you only complete this metaphor. Get going. All you need is a pencil and paper.