My Mental Models Framework

I have been thinking about ‘thinking’ and lately have realized how some facts, information, experiences and wisdom acquired in the past have either been partially or completely wiped out from my working memory. When I re-read some of the old books that I had already read, they seem absolutely new to me. I continue to commit the same mistakes and prior experiences do not readily come handy to my rescue. The old adage,  ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ makes a whole lot more sense at this stage of my life.

As a student most of my learnings were to get through the examination and probably I was at the peak of intelligence and effectiveness just a day before the examination and after that it’s all a downhill slide. Symbolically, I would go get a haircut to shed off the extra load not only of what I have accumulated outside but also what’s inside. I would also put in extra hours of sleep just to reboot my system and clear everything out of my RAM (my working memory).

The sense of losing what I had acquired the hard way and continuing to tread on the same path in the future is not a pleasant feeling and I decided to do something about it. The inspiration to be thoughtful and deliberate in structuring the learnings into easily recallable framework came from multiple sources notable among which include books and talks by Charlie Munger and Shane Parrish’s Farnamstreet Blog.

Charlie Munger explains:

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

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.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”

Marcus Aurelius in his classic work Meditations explain:

“You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that.”

I have been noodling on the above ideas and trying to figure out a) how best to structure my learnings such that it does not again become an academic exercise of memorizing discrete sets of facts/information without any meaningful use and b) if I think of my mind or the thought process as the most valuable resource available to me, how do I ensure that I eliminate all inefficiencies and waste in the use of this resource. With these two questions, I started thinking about – how I think, what occupies my mind, how much of it is deliberate thinking and how much of it is inactive/uncontrolled rumination, how much of it really drives any impact and how much of it is just wishful daydreaming.

I observed myself for couple of weeks and tried to identify broad mental domains of cognitive activities that I actively and/or inactively engage in. The idea being, if and when I am aware of what I am thinking about, I should be able to build a mental framework of broad domains that are mutually exclusively and conclusively exhaustive. If I am able to successfully do that, I should be able to hang my key learnings, experiences, insights etc. on such a framework that not only would make intuitive sense but also would be of use in the daily activities reinforcing the freshness of concepts and usefulness of ideas. It would also help progressively eliminate wasteful mental activities that do not really add any value to my mental framework.

Below is the output of the self-observation exercise… my “Mental Models Framework”. Obviously this will evolve with me and I will continue to add various models, key learnings, insightful references within this framework. You will find the most updated ‘Mental Model Framework’ on an Index Page – here.

Broader Domain Sub Domains Examples
Decision Making Forecasting/Predictions, Business Decisions, Human Biases, Investments, Time and Motion Decisions, etc. Which Laptop to buy? Do I take the freeway or the internal road to office? Do I invest in MSFT or AAPL? Which restaurant is good for Mexican food? Which job should I take? Is Project X worth pursuing?
Problem Framing and Solving Project Management, Operations, People, Puzzles and Brain Teasers, etc. How do I build mental models framework? How do I convenience my manager to give me promotion? How do I eliminate inefficiencies in the reporting process? How do I solve 5×5 Rubik’s Cube?
Learning Learning, Psychology, Philosophy, Business, Management, Leadership, Career, History, Life Lessons, etc. How do we learn? What are different models of leadership? How is Keynesian Economics different from Friedman’s Economics? How Pleasure and Pain drive human motives? Why are northern countries more prosperous than southern countries?
Performances Presentations, Writing, Public Speaking, Games, Competitions How to improve my presentation skills? How do I know if I am a good writer? How do I keep the attention of my audience? How to improve my marathon completion timing? How do I increase my odds of winning the potluck competition?
Planning Idea generation, career planning, retirement planning, education planning, vacation planning What to do for my son’s second year birthday? How do I plan my career? How do I generate new ideas to elevate my teams’ performance in FY16?
Socializing Relationships, Networking, Online Presence How do I build enriching/enduring relationships? How to know of a good friend from a bad one? Should I be more active on Facebook or Twitter or both? What kind of people should I network with to help with my career growth?
Nurturing Attention, Play and Learn, Discipline, Education, Health When should I start to discipline my son? What are some of the key things to do to improve marital relationship? How do I make my son to eat his food at proper times? What are the most effective ways to impact values? How do I bring the best out of my son?
Unwinding Hobby, Meditation, Creative Visualizations What kind of hobbies energize me? How do I meditate and practice mindfulness? How and where do I get inspiration to create something new?

Ancient Sanskrit literature envisages three social debts one has to repay in this life. These Debts are termed as Trirunas (Three debts) – they are Deva runa (Debt to Gods for creating this world for you), Pitru runa (Debt to Ancestors for bringing you into this world) and Rishi Runa (Debt to Teachers or Sages for creation of knowledge that makes life meaningful). One repays debt to Gods by leading virtuous life, taking care of the nature / ecosystem and complying with the rules and rituals of the scriptures; Debt to Ancestors is repaid  by begetting children and turning them into good citizens and instilling in them age old values. Debt to the Teachers/Sages is repaid by sharing acquired knowledge with others for their betterment and for the benefit of the society.

This blog is my humble attempt to repay my debt to my teachers, mentors and every other person from whom I continue to learn.


5 thoughts on “My Mental Models Framework

  1. My friend, I have been reading some of your posts for a couple of days now and have been continually pleasantly surprised and encouraged to see that you write about the very same things that have occupied my mind recently (Daniel Kahneman’s work on heurisitics and biases, meta-cognitive thoughts on learning and memory, etc). I hope to see more of your posts in the future.

    I have been especially fascinated by your whole notion of keeping an updated “mental models index”. I also took Scott Page’s Model Thinking MOOC and have thought about a way to construct a model repertoire to face day to day challenges in my life and career. In fact, I have started a new project on my own blog that might be of interest to you. I would love to get some feedback as I plan to incorporate your principle of keeping a kind of “mental models index” into my project. Greetings from Mexico!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • @ osunkoyaope – I started with Munger and added many that I learnt about in other books or online courses (I have given references in the blog posts of the sources). The real test for these models is the usability. My goal is to collect about 150 models and start deleting those that I didn’t use in the past 6 months.


    • That’s very insightful and I am sure it comes from years of practice asking the right questions and applying the inductive and deductive logic to form hypothesis. Its a true-north for me :). Thanks for sharing such a simple, elegant and powerful approach.


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