I recently finished Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann. The book is a whirlwind tour of mental models, patterns of thought that can help you be more effective in the world. I’ve been studying mental models for a few years now and still learned a lot from this tome. I’m sure that the book will go down as one of the best books released this year. The thing about mental models is that they are universal useful. Once you’ve learned a model and identified how to put it in to practice, you start to see places where it can be used. That’s why having a wide range of models at your disposal is useful. Here is a selection of my favorite models presented in the book. There is at least one model from each chapter, if you enjoy this, you’ll love the book.

  1. Hanlon’s Razor - “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.” There must be something in human nature that jumps to assuming the worst when things go wrong. Before applying Hanlon’s Razor, if the bills don’t get paid on time it’s because the mail person destroyed the envelope because you didn’t give them a big enough Christmas tip. After applying Hanlon’s Razor, you come to the more realistic realization that the envelope was likely misplaced in transit and decide to pay the bill online next time.
  2. Thinking Gray - “You may think about issues in terms of black and white, but the truth is somewhere in between, a shade of gray.” Things get classified as good or bad, Democrat or Republican, Cubs or Cardinals, but things are more likely in between the poles.
  3. Goodhart’s Law - “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” The incentives created from tracking a metric cause us to work to the metric and not work towards what is most effective. In schools that require standardized tests, teachers are judged on how well their students do on these tests. This leads to the teachers teaching the students to do well on the standardized test instead of on more important things.
  4. North Star - “the guiding vision of a company.” The north star is what we’re putting in the work for. A north star isn’t unique to companies, individuals can have their own north star. Think deeply on what your north star is and use it to drive your actions in the world.
  5. Two Front War - “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.” By biting off more than you can chew, you take on too much and end up losing everywhere. Focusing on a single battle at a time will help prevent loss due to lack of attention.
  6. Shirky Principle - “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Companies pay untold fortunes to lobbyists to ensure that the problem the companies exist to solve stays. The book uses taxes and TurboTax as an example. If taxes were insanely easy, TurboTax loses its customer base. Therefore, they have incentive to keeping taxes more complicated than the average person is willing to learn.
  7. Confidence Interval - “an estimated range of numbers that you think may include the true value of the parameter you are studying, e.g., the approval rating.” Polling and statistical data that is published always has a confidence interval. Often the confidence interval is unpublished but can typically be assumed to be 95%.
  8. Unknown Unknowns - “the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” These unknown unknows are risks that we haven’t accounted for because we didn’t know about them. Unknown unknowns create gaps that, if encountered, can greatly impact our ability to deliver on a plan.
  9. Influence Models - Robert Cialdini presents six models that lead to influence in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The models are: reciprocity, commitment, liking, social proof, scarcity, and authority. These models are often used in advertising in order to get you to buy something. In isolation, these techniques are powerful, but together they’re amazing. Reciprocity gives us something we feel indebted to, commitment gets our foot in the door, liking finds the common ground between us, social proof shows us that others trust them, scarcity forces us to act now, and authority gets us to follow your instructions. Psychology can provide a means to get almost anything.
  10. Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) - “After every meeting, it is made clear that there is one DRI who is responsible and accountable for the success of each action item.” Having one person accountable for the item helps us avoid the case of the task falling away. When there is no DRI for a task, people will wait for someone else to pick up the task on their own initiative, which often never happens.
  11. Only the Paranoid Survive - “Just because you won the market, however, doesn’t mean you will win in perpetuity.” Look at Sears, Kodak, Blockbuster, and other once great companies that have let time pass them by. They didn’t change their models quick enough with new technology and other companies passed them by. Every competitor is a threat. Every external innovation is worth researching. Sometimes, the biggest threats aren’t even businesses within your own sector. It took a technology company, Apple, to popularize selling digital music, the record companies couldn’t gain traction.

So, those are my current favorite mental models from Super Thinking. It’s a fantastic book, one I’m sure I’ll come back to throughout the years. I’ll also come back to this list from time to time for a quick refresher on my favorites. If you to want to learn some more models, Farnam Street has a great list with many models that don’t appear in the book. Another good online resource is Weinberg’s list which spawned Super Thinking. There’s a ton of recent content out there covering mental models and these are all perfect places to start. Mental models are a valuable tool to have at your disposal and can truly help you navigate the world more effectively.