A Latticework of Mental Models
I am an inquisitive person and I love my job, so I read quite a bit both for curiosity and continuous improvement. I have always found it hard to keep track of the different frameworks, models and theories that I’ve learned. I know there are tangible benefits from learning a lot, but I’ve struggled to articulate how the different things I’ve learned and practiced actually apply when I’m designing or making decisions.
I was talking to Sash Catanzarite, the cofounder of Tradesy (where I work) about this a few months ago. Sash first introduced the idea of a Latticework of Mental Models to me. The concept was popularized by Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett’s investment partner), in a speech he gave to USC in 1994. Given the rapid innovation and change occurring in the past two decades, I feel the concept is possibly more relevant today than it was 22 years ago. Especially after I learned what a latticework was.
A latticework is an openwork framework consisting of a criss-crossed pattern of strips of building material, typically wood or metal. The design is created by crossing the strips to form a network. Just as wood or metal interlaces, so do the mental models in your life. The more you can draw from and combine, the more powerful your latticework is.
A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom
“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.”
Munger recommends that 80–90 mental models will carry you through 90% of life. Why so many?
Due to the Availability Heuristic, our brains try to take a mental shortcuts whenever possible and rely on immediate examples we can recall when we’re evaluating a specific topic or decision. Thus, the more we learn, the more we will have to recall from when making important decisions or judgments.
In order to achieve worldly wisdom, Munger recommends pulling from different disciplines. Really effective models can start from one field, but then applied in different ways. An example of this is critical mass, which originates in Physics, but has become a relevant concept in many industries.
Additionally, some models are more trustworthy than others. Munger outlines a hierarchy of models, those from Math & Physics are more reliable and those from Psychology are less reliable. However, Munger warns that unreliable fields like Psychology are ‘ungodly important.’ If you’re unable to understand how the brain takes shortcuts, you are bound to fall victim to those who do understand how the brain works and how to manipulate it.
Because of this, effective and useful things to add to your latticework can come from anywhere. Some things may be cognitive, while others may be process oriented.
Combining Mental Models
“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.”
Munger mentions having your models in a usable form. The key to this is application to real problems. It is great to learn and read about new theories or concepts. To build a truly effective and resilient latticework, you need to actually apply the models to real world problems, constantly trying new things and tackling new and more difficult problems. Combining models is often a way to see the same problem with a new perspective, which may be just what you need to come up with a compelling solution.
Before I moved into design, I remember reading The Lean Startup. I learned about the Build-Measure-Learn cycle which made sense.
Later, when I learned more about design process, I started to recognize patterns of good design processes (which I’ve written about previously).
These models are not at odds. In fact they’re a complementary way to the basic cornerstones of a good way to make just about anything. While the BML cycle comes from product development at startups, the cycle is the backbone of a good design process.
The concept of a latticework is viable regardless of your craft. The only thing that would change are the areas of depth and focus. As a valuable exercise, it’s worth listing the mental models you operate with currently. Writing this out will allow you to view areas where you’re strong and areas where you could improve.
We’re all bent on learning more and skill acquisition (especially if you’re reading Medium). When figuring out what to learn next, I recommend you evaluate your next pursuit on where it fits in your latticework of mental models.
Bonus — Some of My Favorite Models
The psychology of ‘optimal experience.’ How does that not sound compelling? This concept changed the way I looked at my life.
‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.’
Find real problems. Solve real problems.
‘Career capital are the skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career,” Newport said by phone. It is crucial to developing a successful career, one that Newport describes as being marked by creativity, impact and control, or autonomy.’
Incentives matter so much.
The way you carry yourself matters. Your body influences your mind. Honor this balance.
The way you perceive yourself matters a lot as well.
Do anything sufficiently complex and you will forget things.
We often put too much faith in causality and the ability to explain the world around us. The world is a truly random place.
80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Figure out the 20%, focus your efforts on important work. Many people focus on doing every task diligently, which is admirable. However, only a few things truly matter. Isolating those things is a worth pursuit.
We are irrational creatures. Understanding that is important.