Most People Think This Is A Smart Habit, But It’s Actually Brain-Damaging
This is the mental equivalent of eating McDonald’s every day.
Have you ever wondered why the Internet seems to be making people stupider rather than smarter? Even the smartest, most successful, most disciplined people are being affected.
Think about it.
We now have free, instant access to all of humanity’s best knowledge at our fingertips. We have geniuses sharing their insights via podcasts, YouTube, Audible, and countless other apps for free (or close to free).
With access to all this wisdom, shouldn’t we be entering a golden age? A Cambrian explosion of intelligence where people take knowledge, make it their own, apply it to their lives, and see positive results like never before?
Instead, someone devoting time to learning online is more likely to get brain damage than become super intelligent.
And, that’s not hyperbole. Studies have shown that the information we consume literally changes the structure and functioning of our brains, for better or worse. In one fascinating study on London taxi drivers, subjects who completed an exhaustive training process had a significantly larger hippocampus than those who dropped out of the training program. This study shows that the training program was the cause of the growth.
What happened to the Internet we were promised?
Inside The Junk Learning Epidemic That Is Destroying Our Brains
“The information we consume matters just as much as the food we put in our body. It affects our thinking, our behavior, how we understand our place in the world. And how we understand others.”— Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter
Many attribute the problems of the Internet strictly to social media. And, they think of the victims as naive or lazy — a bunch of low-willpower people constantly checking social media.
However, the reality is the opposite. Social media is actually just a single symptom of a much larger problem. And the people affected the most are the ones who are the most diligent about learning online.
In order for something to be an epidemic, it must have two qualities:
- Significant harm
The junk learning epidemic meets those two qualities in spades. It also explains why we’re all experiencing the same symptoms:
Symptom #1: False Learning
We read “interesting” things that make us feel like we’re learning, but don’t actually improve our lives. This often happens because the information we consume:
- Becomes very quickly outdated
- Isn’t actually true or helpful
- Isn’t actually applied to our life
As a result, we waste years of our life consuming information thinking we are improving our life when we’re not. It’s like eating a kale salad every day for your entire life thinking it’s helping you, and then realizing that it was actually bad for you.
Symptom #2: Memory Loss
Over the last few years, I’ve taught learning how to learn to thousands of students and personally coached hundreds. One of the top questions I get asked is, “How can I remember more of what I read?”
If you’ve ever read something interesting or useful, but have trouble recalling key parts a few days later, you know what I’m talking about.
It’s almost like having amnesia. Once again, time is wasted.
Symptom #3: Information Overwhelm and FOMO
We use the word information overwhelm to describe one general feeling, but there are actual several root causes. We are overwhelmed by…
- Distracting content unrelated to anything important to us.
- Interesting content we’d love to consume, but don’t have time for.
- Surface-level content without a connection to deeper mental models. (Like having a closet without clothes hangers.)
This feeling of constant overwhelm makes us feel anxious, guilty, and leads to decision fatigue.
Symptom #4: Addiction and Constant Distraction
We’re at a turning point when it comes to phone and Internet addiction. Nowadays, most people realize that it is an actual thing. Additionally, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to make the case that checking for news articles, emails, and social media 100+ times per day is productive.
Symptom #5: Reality Dementia
“He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
Counterintuitively, the more information we consume online, the more distorted our model of reality typically becomes.
The percentage of information we actually see online compared to all of the information that exists is infinitesimally small. It’s like passing a river through the eye of a needle. The content we see is only the content that has made it through three filters that bias reality (more on these filters later).
This creates a huge blindspot. For example, we now understand that when we see people on Instagram who look beautiful and have amazing lives, we are only seeing their highlights. We don’t see the dozens of photos that were rejected. We don’t see the photos with no make-up. The photos with bad lighting. We don’t see outside a very narrow frame.
Yet, we fail to appreciate that this Instagram beauty blindspot is tiny compared to the information blindspot created by the Internet overall. (more on the consequences of this blindspot later in the article)
We particularly see the effects of biases or blindspots when it comes to politics. So many people seem to literally have the inability to even consider another perspective, even if they are given all of the evidence in the world. In other words, as a result of junk learning, they are unable to engage with reality. The following headline from a New Yorker article captures the situation:
And bias is not just alive and well in politics. Bias is everywhere, and it’s often invisible. For example…
- People in academia might think that business people are all about money. Business people might think that people in academia have their heads in the clouds.
- Artists might look down on the cold, hard mathematical thinking of data science. While data scientists look down on the fuzzy thinking of artists.
One single bias transformed my business for the worse. One of the ideas I learned growing up was that sales is a bad thing. This single idea literally changed my brain and made me resistant to information on how to become better at this vital business skill. I had to go through a lot of financial hardship before I was finally willing to let go of this idea. My business grew rapidly afterwards.
We all have biases like these in our personal and professional lives: false beliefs, inaccurate perceptions, simply “bad information” we were given and built some aspect of our lives around. They are our blind spots, and until we remove them, we are operating within a false sense of reality that is functionally equivalent to brain damage.
Symptom #6: Over-Confidence
The world we live in is extremely complex. Topics like health care, terrorism, climate change, racism, and our economy require deep understanding in order to get to the optimal solution.
When we see short articles on complex topics, a few things happen…
First, we fall prey to the Dunning-Kruger Effect where a little information can make us over-confident. This overconfidence leads to the “I already know that” syndrome.
According to one study, the Internet breeds this over-confidence through the newsfeed:
We argue that Facebook’s News Feed itself, with its short article previews, provides enough political information for learning to occur. However, this learning comes with an additional consequence: audiences who only read article previews think they know more than they actually do, especially individuals who are motivated to seek emotions.
Secondly, our knowledge becomes fractured. We become like the parable of the blind men who touch different parts of the elephant and are certain they understand the entirety of the elephant.
These five symptoms — false learning, info overwhelm, memory loss, addiction, and reality dementia — are not bugs of the current Internet. They are the logical result of how it was designed. And that design is destroying the brains of a generation. Just as junk food leads to physical obesity, the symptoms of junk learning lead to obesity of the mind.
In this article, I will:
- Explain how the Internet was designed to be a junk learning machine
- Propose a radical plan on how to overcome the junk learning epidemic
By the end, you will have the tools you need to learn faster and make better decisions in order to build your business, take your career to the next level, and make more of an impact.
The Internet’s big secret: It is designed to be a junk learning machine
The Internet is NOT fundamentally designed for learning. It is not on your team optimizing for your goals.
Rather, it is designed for infotainment — presenting you interesting information that makes you feel like you’re learning, but really sucks up and monetizes your attention.
I slowly came to this conclusion over a period of a few years when I:
- Studied the junk learning epidemic so I could avoid it.
- Downloaded every app and plugin I could find to help me stay focused.
- Studied, practiced, and taught learning how to learn.
And even though I was applying all my knowledge and willpower in an attempt to actually learn from the Internet, I was still succumbing to distraction, addiction, FOMO, false learning, information overwhelm, and memory loss. As I gained a better understanding of what the optimal approach to learning was, I finally realized that the Internet relentlessly defaults away from this approach. Ultimately, I realized that the problem wasn’t me and the thousands of students I was teaching. It was the Internet!
Trying to learn online is like trying to make a healthy salad when your refrigerator is filled with cake, candy, and soda — and you’re already tired and hungry. Sometimes you’ll succeed, but more often than not, the Internet will derail you.
Many people get the symptoms right, but the diagnosis wrong. Many blame three things:
- Themselves for not having enough willpower
- Social media for clickbait and false information
- Ad-based models of content for shallow, fake news
In actuality, these are just the surface-level manifestations of the real problem.
Therefore, simply turning off social media, buying subscription content, or increasing your willpower will not solve the root problem. It might even make it worse.
The real and hidden culprits are four standards that were popularized on social media and then adopted across the whole Internet.
While each of these features is seemingly innocuous on its own, their consequences, when combined, are extremely pernicious…
- Following: Sorts content by what we have liked in the PAST. This subtly keeps us away from focusing on what’s important to us NOW or in the FUTURE.
- News Feed: Sorts content by newness. This keeps us away from focusing on the most valuable content of ALL TIME and has us focus on content created in the last 24 hours.
- Infinite Scrolling: Makes it so that there is always new content to view. This also applies to the world of video. As soon as a YouTube video or Netflix show stops, the next one starts within 5 seconds. Infinite scrolling is the “jumbo size” of the Internet. Just as bigger packages lead to more eating, infinite scrolling leads to more content consumption rather than more action-taking or reflection.
- Like Button: Sorts content by popularity. This pulls people away from learning rare skills and knowledge that will set them apart.
Collectively, these four filters are the salt, sugar, and fat of information.
They value quantity over quality and passive consumption over active reflection. They capitalize on our innate cognitive biases to stay in the loop with what is happening and to consume content that affirms what we already believe. They do more harm than good.
Now, you might say, “Yes, but I curate my Twitter feed to only include smart people. I follow the best podcasts. Those hours are productive learning.”
Here’s what I would say back….
Even sites that we consider innately educational, and which I deeply appreciate — like Amazon, TED Audible, and podcasts — are algorithmically structured to keep us focused on what’s new and popular rather than what will help us learn the most.
The sad reality is that if we want to maximize learning, we must use the EXACT opposite filters that the Internet defaults to. We must focus on:
- The best content of all time (not just the past day). It is a much better bet to focus on knowledge that is tried and true rather than content that is here today and gone tomorrow.
- Content that expands upon and even contradicts what we have learned in the past. We learn more by proving ourselves wrong than we do by proving ourselves right. This is a foundational idea of the scientific method.
- Content that is rare rather than popular. If you know what everyone else knows, you will be a commodity. But, if you have useful knowledge that only a few people have, you will be in demand.
Bottom Line: The Internet filters content based on newness, popularity, and past interests. Rather than facilitating reflection and action, it facilitates more content consumption. Therefore, the Internet is fundamentally not designed for learning.
So what do we do about it? Here’s what we need to do first…
In order to learn in the best way, we need to very specifically define learning as this…
“[Positive] change is the end result of all true learning.”
― Leo Buscaglia
Real, quality learning has two characteristics:
- Real Learning Delivers Real-World Results. What we learn should have a practical, positive result in our lives and the world around us. The standard for being smarter should not be feeling smarter — just like the standard for human connection shouldn’t be likes and comments, nor the standard for productivity simply crossing off items on your to-do list. Adding a “results filter” immediately reveals entertainment masquerading as information — what I call infotainment.
- Real Learning Delivers The Most Value. Because there is so much information in the world and so little time, we have to make tough choices about what we learn. A decision to learn one thing is a decision NOT to learn a million other things. Furthermore, some information is 1,000x more valuable than other information. Therefore, our focus should be on the MOST VALUABLE information, not SOMEWHAT VALUABLE information. The difference between some value and most value is night and day.
Here’s why we should all be using this specific definition of learning.
Let’s say you take an hour to listen to or read a longform article about 18th century artists (nothing against art here). At the end, you might feel smarter, but ask yourself:
- How much of what you listened to will you remember a week later?
- How did the information change how you make decisions?
- What action did you take as a result of this content?
- How is your life or the lives of those around you transformed?
Now, think about what you could have listened to instead. Right now, somewhere out in the world is a paragraph, chapter, or book that would change your life forever if you read it. When you consume infotainment, you’re saying no to breakthrough knowledge.
Imagine you have two people:
- One person primarily consumes a diet of infotainment/junk learning.
- The other primarily consumes a diet of breakthrough knowledge.
As time goes by, the first person will be better at family trivia nights. The second person will have a dramatically more successful, fulfilling, and impactful life.
Warren Buffett is rumored to take his to-do list, circle the few things that are truly important and put everything else on an “avoid-at-all-costs” list. We should do the same thing with learning.
This takes us to an important question:
If most people are learning things that destroy their minds, how can you learn things that turn you into a genius?
Here’s the antidote to junk learning — superfood learning
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler
Here’s what we know for sure. There is no way that anybody interested in real learning would design a system like the one we have. Instead, the approach would be fundamentally different. It would have four crucial components that…
- Define what the “most valuable” information is (i.e., the superfood of learning).
- Show how to find that superfood.
- Help you reflect and apply that information to your life.
- And most importantly, deliver important real-world results.
This system would be active and deliberate rather than unconscious and passive.
1. First, everyone would have a framework that defines what the most valuable information in the world is — the superfood of learning.
After all, If you don’t know what you’re actually looking for, then any info will do. I call this super-valuable info the “superfood” of learning.
2. Next, everyone would have a strategy find that “superfood.”
Rather than filtering the internet based on what is new and popular, the focus would be on finding what’s most valuable.
This has big implications. For one, instead of starting off the search by logging into a newsfeed, I would ask, “Where am I most likely to find superfood?”
For example, let’s say I wanted to learn from investor, author, and researcher Nassim Taleb. Which strategy would be most efficient?
- Junk Learning Approach: Follow him on social media and log into your newsfeed multiple times per day to see if he has any updates. Comment, like, or share if you feel inspired by any of his posts.
- Superfood Learning Approach: Consider all of his writing over his career and identify the most valuable knowledge to start with. This would likely lead to starting with one of his books, which he spent years researching, writing and refining. It would also lead to rereading it, taking detailed notes, and methodically applying it.
I would argue that the superfood approach is at least 1,000x more effective from a learning perspective.
3. Next, everyone would automatically and systematically reflect and act upon the “superfood.”
“Understanding does not depend on knowing a lot of facts as such, but on having the right concepts, explanations and theories.” — physicist David Deutsch
The default approach to junk learning is to do nothing after consuming information. If you feel inspired, the next approach is to like, comment, or share it. It’s impossible to argue that this approach is even close to optimal for maximizing learning.
Learning is NOT just about taking in information. Looking at text and expecting to learn is not far off from looking at food and expecting to get its nutrients. We need to digest our life experiences just like we digest our food. Without some form of active processing, almost everything we read is lost within weeks.
Absorbing information is just the first step in the universal process for learning…
The information we absorb must be transformed in our brains to make it understandable and usable. Then, we must take action in the real world to get results. Finally, feedback from the real world helps us improve the whole learning process before we go through the loop again.
4. Finally, everyone would experience life-changing results.
“When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information?” ― Ryan Holiday
And this is the most important point.
Learning shouldn’t be measured by whether or not it makes you feel smarter.
And, it shouldn’t be measured solely by action.
It should be measured by whether it actually creates results in your life that are important to you over time.
- No action = No results
- Bad action = Bad results
- Good action = Good results ← (this is real learning)
At the end of the day, when future generations look back on this one, they will say we were entertained, but not educated.
Infotainment isn’t a bad thing. I enjoy listening to podcasts and TED talks as well. But the key distinction is that I don’t mistake infotainment for real learning.
As a result, I make sure that my infotainment time does not crowd out my results-focused learning time. I always follow the 5-Hour Rule and dedicate at least 5 hours per week to deliberate, “superfood” learning, and typically 3–4x that amount.
So where is this superfood? How do we…
- Identify it
- Find it (like a needle in the haystack of infotainment)
- Use it to truly improve our lives and others
This is the question I’ve been asking myself for many years. And, I think I’ve found the answer — by studying a group of people who we would all agree have gotten the biggest, most life- and world-changing results of our time.
To Find The #1 “SuperFood” Of Learning For Career Success, I Studied This Eccentric Group Of People
Most books and articles on career success and learning are actually a form of junk learning. In other words, if you walk into a bookstore, go to the self-development section, and pick up a random book, it’s likely that you’ll do yourself more harm than good. You’ll either do something that is actively hurtful or something that’s just a waste of time.
For example, when I learned about entrepreneurship at business school, almost all of the classes focused on writing a business plan as the key to success. In retrospect, instead of writing 40-page business plans, I should’ve been out there talking to customers. This set me back years!
Junk learning in the field of success and self-development happens for two predictable reasons:
- The “experts” are not actually experts. Either they’re successful because of luck, not because of skill. Or, they’re pretending to be more successful than they actually are.
- The “experts” are not good teachers. As we become more and more expert in any domain, we gain the ability to automatically perform at a world-class level. The cost of this automaticity is that we forget the basic building blocks that make up our skills. This makes us a worse teacher and is known as the curse of knowledge.
- The “experts” have ok advice, but not great advice. Unfortunately, the difference between good advice and great advice is night and day. The difference between a good result and a great result can be 100x.
To narrow down the group to the right people to study, I very deliberately selected for people who are successful because of skill, not because of luck, inheritance, network, or celebrity. We identified the top handful of entrepreneurs, leaders, investors, and business people in the world, and then we studied their learning patterns.
To my surprise, the criteria actually worked way better than I expected. The group of people I chose had a very unique approach to learning and making decisions. Furthermore, copying their approach has made me smarter than anything else that I’ve done.
Below are the criteria we used…
- They have had a huge impact on the world. I wanted to learn from role models, people that inspired me to make a dent in the universe with my short time on this planet… Founders who started with nothing and made something that improved other people’s lives or used their earnings to improve other people’s lives.
- They have a multi-decade track record of career success. With the passage of time, markets go up and down. Environments and paradigms change. By focusing on people with a long track record, I removed people who were merely in the right place at the right time at a single point in their life.
- They have spent 5+ hours a week on deliberate learning throughout their career. In other words, they value knowledge extremely highly. Despite being so busy and having thousands of the world’s smartest people working for them, they still made time to learn.
- They are serial, self-made billionaires…. not all billionaires are worth learning from, and money in itself is neither good nor bad … but I have found that studying people who built incredible wealth from the ground up, more than once, without having inherited it, tend to be some of the most resourceful and innovative people on the planet and have some of the best models for career success.
- They have extensively shared their lessons with the world. I narrowed down the list to people who have written books, have been interviewed extensively, or shared their thoughts publicly in other ways.
Through this criteria, I narrowed down the list of 2,000 Luminary Learners in the world to approximately 50 luminaries like:
- Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft, richest person in the world for decades)
- Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon, richest man in the world)
- Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX)
- Oprah Winfrey (#1 talk show host in history)
- Charlie Munger (partner at Berkshire Hathaway)
- Reed Hastings (founder of Netflix)
- Ray Dalio (founder of Bridgewater Associates, largest hedge fund in the world)
- Judith Faulkner (founder of Epic Systems)
- Marc Andreessen (founder of the Netscape, world’s first Internet browser)
- Steve Jobs (founder of Apple)
- Sarah Blakely (founder of Spanx)
- Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba)
- Thomas Edison (most successful inventor in US history)
- Folorunsho Alakija (woman billionaire based in Africa)
- Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal)
- Drew Houston (founder of Dropbox)
- Patrick Collison (founder of Stripe)
- Tory Burch (founder of Tory Burch)
I call these serial, self-made billionaires “Luminary Learners.”
Naturally, these Luminary Learners share common traits you’d find in any self-development book — hard work, thinking big, overcoming obstacles, setting goals, etc.
But, as I spent more time studying these Luminary Learners , I noticed something peculiar — something they all have in common, that no one seems to have written about before…
The #1 “SuperFood” Of Learning, According To This Small, Quirky Group Of Luminary Learners
When they talk, it’s almost as if they’re speaking a different language.
Just look at this interview where Elon Musk describes how he thinks:
“I look at the future from the standpoint of probabilities. It’s like a branching stream of probabilities, and there are actions that we can take that affect those probabilities or that accelerate one thing or slow down another thing. I may introduce something new to the probability stream.”
One writer who interviewed Musk describes his mental process like this:
“Musk sees people as computers, and he sees his brain software as the most important product he owns — and since there aren’t companies out there designing brain software, he designed his own, beta tests it every day, and makes constant updates.”
Musk’s top priority is designing the software in his brain. Have you ever heard anyone else describe their life that way?
Luminary Learner Ray Dalio is no less “weird.” In his book, Principles, he describes how he thinks: “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.”
Dalio’s company, the largest hedge fund in the world, records every conversation (meeting or phone call) inside the company and has built several custom apps that allow any employee to evaluate any other employee in real time. The data is then added to profiles that each employee can see and is subsequently fed into an artificial intelligence system that helps employees make better decisions.
Dalio also describes his day in much different terms than you would expect from a CEO:
“I’m very much stepping back. I’m much more likely to go to what I describe as a higher level. There’s the blizzard that everyone is normally in, and that’s where they’re caught with all of these things coming at them. And I prefer to go above the blizzard and just organize.”
Charlie Munger uses a “cognitive bias checklist” before making investment decisions to ensure he properly applies the correct mental models. Warren Buffett uses decision trees. Jeff Bezos thinks of Amazon as being at Day One even though it’s been around more than 20 years.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that the reason these Luminary Learners talk differently is because they think differently. In other words, they have “thinking tools” — ways of using their brain, which we can all learn from — so that we become smarter, more successful, and more impactful ourselves.
Interestingly, even though these Luminary Learners are all unique, there is a surprising consistency in how they think. They share certain mental models on the world that are unique and rare.
And because of the explosion of media, we can all see inside their minds for the first time. We can do the equivalent of spending hundreds of hours with them side-by-side as their virtual “cognitive” apprentice.
And that’s what I did…
How I Learned To Think Like The World’s Smartest “Luminary Learners”
The more I studied the thinking tools of these Luminary Learners, the more I naturally started to use them in my life and business outside of writing, and the better results I got. This was a game-changer for me.
The results I was getting weren’t just a little better. This wasn’t a little 5% or 10% change. It wasn’t even a 100% improvement. This was 10x, and in some cases 100x. It was a big deal.
Here’s the transformation I experienced…
I saw reality on a much deeper level — and on a fundamentally different level. I looked back on many of my old mistakes, and thought to myself, “Oh my God! If I had only known this or that mental model…” I wasn’t just learning new strategies or hacks.
On some level, I could relate to some of my favorite movie characters just after their intelligence had exploded…
First, I saved over one hundred thousand dollars…
For example, 12 years ago, I borrowed $100,000 from friends, vendors, and banks (at high interest rates) to keep a struggling website I created alive. Rather than facing obvious indicators that the idea wasn’t working, I kept on doubling down. I was in love with my idea, and I didn’t want to admit defeat. The company died a slow, painful death.
Now that I understand mental models, I see how a bad mental model — “sunk cost fallacy” — caused my poor decision-making.
Today when I consider new business ideas, instead of just imagining how great they’re going to be, I also envision what could go wrong — a good mental model — saving a lot of my time and money upfront. For example, a few months ago I had the idea to create a book summary of the month club where I would write a weekly in-depth summary of a life-changing book. I got really excited about it and spent 10 hours thinking about how great it was going to be. A few days of planning later, I decided to take a step back and honestly assess the downsides. Almost immediately, I started seeing some glaring roadblocks, and the new shiny object was no longer as exciting. Soon after, I decided to just focus on our core businesses. I’m very happy that we did. Twelve years ago I would have jumped in straight away.
Also, our article virality shot through the roof…
The success of our business is directly related to the number of views each article gets. So, being able to get hundreds of thousands of visitors per month without paying for ads is a big deal.
After learning about the 80/20 Rule (which is now one of my favorite mental models), I started asking the most successful article writers what the 20% activities were that give them 80% of the results. Almost all of them mentioned that titles were key. Previously, I viewed the titles as just an afterthought.
Because of this insight, my team and I restructured our entire article creation process:
- Now, we create titles before we write articles.
- Rather than spending 5 minutes on titles per article, we dedicate 5–10 hours per article.
- For every article, we brainstorm over 30 titles rather than a handful.
- We test the article titles before we publish them.
Our team has now spent over 1,000 hours studying the patterns of titles and testing nearly 5,000 titles. As a result, we have a fundamentally different and better understanding of what makes articles go viral.
This is one of the mental models I use for my articles to be viewed tens of millions of times…with the average article now being viewed 150,000+ times.
Finally, I started making a lot more money.
- I have had people hire me for six-figure consulting contracts.
- I began charging $500 per hour as a coach and consultant.
- I even got a five-figure speaking gig from an article.
- When I launched a new company, we were able to create a business strategy based on “breakthrough knowledge” that is hard to replicate. This one strategy alone made us over 7-figures in revenue.
I once heard a coach talk about changing a client’s way of seeing the world in a way that would blow their mind. When he looked into his client’s eyes and could see him or her really getting it, he’d say, “Now, you’re in my reality!”
That’s how I felt.
Reality somehow feels different on an aesthetic level — as if I’m cutting through the levels of illusion and noise we normally see and getting a more direct view.
The best way I can describe this is that it’s like wearing augmented reality glasses that constantly feed you relevant wisdom about the situation you’re in.
The Difference Between Smart And Average: Mental Models
“Mental models are to your brain as apps are to your smartphone.” — Jayme Hoffman
According to research, we all use mental models in our thinking.
You can think of a mental model simply as: “The way you think that things work in a particular domain.”
It’s the idea that you have about how something works. In fact, we all unconsciously create models of how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on.
If your model is bad, then your thinking is bad. If your model is accurate, then your thinking (and decision-making, and prediction ability) is far more accurate. It’s that simple.
The difference between truly smart thinkers (e.g. Luminary Learners) and average thinkers is that, for average thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For smart thinkers, it is conscious and proactive.
Luminary Learners and other smart thinkers collect the most effective models across all disciplines, stress-test them, and creatively apply them to their daily lives. Mental models are so valuable that billionaire Ray Dalio’s only book is full of his best mental models. Charlie Mungers’ only book is packed full of his top mental models too.
One of the most common pieces of advice that Elon Musk gives is to think from first principles. Mental models and first principles are similar in that they each model deeper levels of reality. While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie — across fields), these smart thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA…
“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.”
In another interview, Musk gives an example…
“I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.”
Here’s a visual way that shows the difference between thinking horizontally (1D) versus thinking horizontally and vertically (2D)…
When you think vertically and horizontally, suddenly fields that seemed disconnected appear connected. Here’s an example…
In the 1D image below where the thinking is only horizontal, productivity, hiring, and exercising seem like completely unconnected fields.
In the 2D image below, which is horizontal and vertical, these three fields are connected by a mental model — The 80/20 Rule:
- 20% of exercises create 80% of the results.
- 20% of employees create 80% of the value.
- 20% of productivity hacks create 80% of the value.
Since Musk has spent much time learning across fields and at a deeper level, his knowledge tree is huge…
Thanks to the size and complexity of his tree, Elon Musk can see exactly how different “leaves” and “branches” interact with each other. This gives him major superpowers:
- He can reuse fundamental knowledge over and over.
- He can take insights from one side of the tree to another.
- He can identify small, high leverage actions that can drastically improve the overall quality of everything he does.
Now, compare this to an average person who can only see one leaf at a time. This person:
- Only uses their knowledge in the domain they learned it in.
- Focuses on low leverage hacks and band-aid solutions.
Physicist David Deutsch explains it even further…
“It’s in the nature of foundations, that the foundations in one field are also the foundations of other fields…The way that we reach many truths is by understanding things more deeply and therefore more broadly. That’s the nature of the concept of a foundation… just as in architecture, all buildings all literally stand on the same foundation; namely the earth. All buildings stand on the same theoretical base.”
By understanding verticality and depth, you can see how learning mental models connects things that were previously separate and disconnected. Just as every leaf on a tree is connected by twigs, which are connected by branches, which are connected by a tree trunk, so too are ideas connected by deeper and deeper ideas.
One of the most effective and universal mental models is the 80/20 Rule: the idea that 20 percent of inputs can lead to 80 percent of outputs. This same 80/20 idea can be applied to our personal lives (productivity, diet, relationships, exercise, learning, etc.) and our professional lives (hiring, firing, management, sales, marketing, etc). As such, you can see how the 80/20 Rule connects many disparate fields. This is what all mental models do.
To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Of all the things on my to-do list, what are the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results?” When we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy, which ones could really change my life?” When considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?” In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.
Mental Models Are The New Alphabet
“You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.” — Bo Dahlbom, philosopher and computer scientist
Evolution is so slow that a child born today is — biologically — indistinguishable from a child born 30,000 years ago. Yet, here I am typing on a MacBook, while my ancestors spent most of their time collecting berries, throwing spears, and chipping rocks. So what’s the difference between someone born 30,000 years ago and me?
Between then and now, there has been an unprecedented explosion and evolution of tools that have collectively created modern society.
We all intuitively understand this. We all know that if we didn’t have basic tools like fire or the plow, or more complex ones like a Macbook or car, our lives would be completely different. Watch any post-apocalyptic TV or movie series and you can see how the world quickly falls apart when tools fail.
But there’s a major blindspot people have when it comes to understanding tools. Many people fail to appreciate non-physical tools — tools that they cannot touch, hear, or see. But mental tools are just as powerful and complex as physical tools. For example, consider the alphabet: the Western alphabet is a mental tool that wasn’t invented until around 1100 BC (pictorial writing systems like hieroglyphics were invented much earlier). Now we take it for granted, but at the time, it was a cutting-edge tool. Though it was adopted slowly at first — only 30 percent of the population could read and write before the printing press was invented in 1440 — once it began to spread, literate individuals had a huge leg up. In fact, literacy is now so important that it’s a national priority for all governments. That is the power of an effective mental tool.
It’s by understanding the significance of the alphabet that we can understand the significance of mental models too…
- Mental models should be taught early in one’s life, because nearly everything else builds on them. In other words, they are fundamental and critical.
- Mental models explode our creativity. Models represent large chunks of reality that can be combined together to create even more complex and useful “supermodels.” This is similar to how letters can be combined into words, which can be combined into sentences. In the same way that the alphabet gives us infinite creativity with language, mental models give us infinite creativity with ideas.
Mental models trigger higher-order thinking. This is similar to how becoming literate triggers a whole slew of higher-order thinking capabilities known as the Alphabet Effect.
As society evolves, it’s becoming more and more complex. There are more people, more tools, and more knowledge, all globally connected in complicated ways. Therefore, people who are able to model how this more complex reality works will be far more successful at navigating it. Or, as Ray Dalio says in his book…
“Truth — or, more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality — is the essential foundation for any good outcome.”
Before an architect can build a house, he or she must first design a model of that house. That architect must have an understanding of how the electrical, plumbing, design, materials, pricing, and so on come together to create a safe, beautiful building at the right price that the market will purchase.
Someone who architects a skyscraper must have a much more complex latticework of mental models than someone who models a two-bedroom house.
People who are able to model how a complex business works in their minds are more likely to be successful business leaders, because they must understand the complex subtleties of finance (balance sheet, cash flow, and income statements), HR (recruiting and managing A+ players), product development, marketing/sales, and how they all interact with their mental models of their various stakeholders (community, customers, suppliers, employees, investors).
Furthermore, as people progress in their careers, they must evolve the amount, diversity, and quality of their mental models if they want to have higher and higher levels of success and impact:
The Incredible Power Of Learning Mental 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 (Luminary Learner)
So how do you build complex, accurate mental models? Let me explain with a simple example: dogs. Let’s hypothetically imagine for a moment that we have no idea what a dog is. We’ve never seen or heard of one before.
Then, one day, we see a dog, and someone tells us that this is a dog. “Ah, I get it,” we say. “Now I know what a dog is.”
But if we’ve only seen one dog, technically we don’t really know what a dog is. With just this single case example, our definition of a dog would be: a large black and brown animal with pointy ears that sits down, and sticks out its tongue. Bring out a Pomeranian dog and with only this mental model in mind, you are likely to ask ‘What is that?’
The numerous dog models on the right (the contrasting cases example) show us that dogs can come in all different colors, sizes, and shapes. At the same time, we can see the underlying element of “dogness” that they all share. This emergent element of “dogness” is a deeper mental model, and humans created the word “dog” to symbolize this mental model. Using that mental model, you can identify an animal as a dog even if you’ve never seen a particular breed of dog before.
What can we take away from this example that is relevant to our own life?
Many of the world’s problems result from people overgeneralizing from simplistic models just like our hypothetical one-size-fits-all “dog”. Here are three prime examples:
- Black/white thinking (you’re either a good person or a bad person with no gray area in between)
- Us/Them thinking (people outside your personal religion, nationality, or belief system are the enemy).
- All manner of stereotypes — race, gender, politics, ethnicity, etc.
Over-applying one model in too many places is no different than a carpenter trying to build an entire house with one single hammer. All models, no matter how brilliant, are imperfect. The beauty of using multiple and diverse models is that many of the imperfections cancel each other out, allowing you to create a new “emergent” model that transcends all of the other models.
Smart thinkers improve their thinking by taking in a larger quantity of information and developing a greater diversity of models. For example, a novice chess player might only know the name of each piece and how it moves across the board. But a grandmaster has memorized no less than 50,000 chunks (mental models) of increasing complexity including openings, closings, patterns throughout the game, and how one single move can lead to a particular result 10 moves or more down the line.
Many, diverse models also lead to heightened creativity. Nothing is truly original. Everything is derived by combining existing building blocks.
Babies are created when a man and a woman have sex. New tools are created when pre-existing tools have “tool sex.” New ideas are created through “idea sex.” In the same way, we can build more complex mental models by combining simple mental models. For example, by understanding cause-and-effect mental models better, we can more effectively prioritize what’s important for us to do now to cause something we want in the future. The larger our base of mental models, the more creative combinations we can form. The more unique our mental models are compared to other people, the more we can think in ways that they can’t even fathom.
Through constant and diverse learning, we can organically build better and more varied models of reality. And those models will help us navigate the world far more effectively and creatively. Just as a blueprint is necessary for constructing a stable building, mental models of how the world works help us construct a better — and more stable — life.
A Simple Way To Get Started: Peek Inside The Luminary Learner’s Mind…
“Education is not the learning of facts, but training the mind to think.” — Albert Einstein
Let’s imagine for a second here…
What if you could look inside a billionaire’s mind?
And steal their best “thinking tools”?
What would it do for your career? Your business? Your life?
For the sake of being realistic, let’s just say you only learn 0.01% of their core mental models that made them successful. 001% x $1 billion = a six-figure income.
And, even more conservatively, let’s just say you only learn one idea from them. That might be all you need to go to the next level of career and business success. (For example, it only takes one Google, Facebook or Uber investment to make you a successful investor.)
If you want to learn from the most successful billionaires’ minds, and dramatically increase your success, here’s the next step…
I’ve already done all of the hard work for you. I’ve spent the last few years…
- Studying Luminary Learners.
- Building the largest database of the top mental models of the top billionaires.
- Narrowing down the list to the most useful and universal ones.
- Doing the most in-depth and actionable explainers for these that have ever been done.
Over the past few years, I have identified what I consider to be the most valuable and useful mental models in business and life. And more importantly, I’ve started teaching them to a serious group of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and other professionals.
Introducing The Mental Model Of The Month Club
If you’re starting to understand the power of mental models, and you’re ready to go to the next level and learn the most important mental models to create success in your life, then I’d like to invite you to join our Mental Model Club.
Inside, every month you’ll learn one of the most important mental models and how to apply it to your life — in just 1–2 hours per month.
The Mental Model Club is an online course, community, and membership that teaches you the most valuable and useful mental models that Luminary Learners have in common. We have almost 1,500 members from around the world, and we’re growing fast.
Inside the Mental Model Club, you’ll…
- Learn key mental models that are most critical for professional success, personal fulfillment, work-life harmony, and making a positive impact in the world (without feeling overwhelmed by all of the distracting information out there)
- Automatically apply mental models in your professional and personal life, without having to remember what you learned
- Use the right mental model in the right situation every time, so that you can think faster, smarter, make better decisions, get the results you want
- Avoid painful thinking and decision-making mistakes that set us back (most people aren’t even aware of these, because they are so hidden inside their minds)
- Be confident that you’re making the right choices in your life where it matters most (no more second-guessing)
Here’s What You Get Every Month…
✔ Your Mastery Manual
Every month, you receive one mental model in the form of a high-quality, comprehensive guide. I call it your Mastery Manual.
It’s the most condensed, in-depth explanation of any mental model that exists in the entire world. We take the best of what’s ever been said about the mental model, cut out all of the fluff, and organize it in a way that is easy and fast to learn.
In each Mastery Manual, you learn…
- A 101 Overview of the mental model (why it’s important, how it works, vocabulary, etc.)
- An advanced overview to give you the high-level summary, then an in-depth report that includes a more nuanced explanation
- Examples, tricks, and hacks you can use to apply the mental model to every area of your life and career
- Exercises, resources, & templates that you can use on a daily basis to integrate lessons in the manual and get results in your life.
✔ Your Monthly Masterclass
To help you learn your mental model knowledge faster, you also get a high quality, pre-recorded masterclass of the month’s mental model.
The monthly masterclass is deliberately designed as a standalone resource, so that you can get value right away — well, in just one hour of listening to it.
Here’s what you get in each pre-recorded masterclass:
- Concise “80/20” overview of the mental model: To help you understand and apply the mental model on a deeper level, I explain the most important ideas.
- Walkthrough of mental model exercises: I handpick exercises in the Mastery Manual, and coach you on using them.
- My answers to other Mental Model Club members’ questions: These are often common questions that people have about the mental model.
You Also Immediately Get Two Billionaire Mind Reports On Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos For Free
Earlier this year, we surveyed our 1,500+ members and asked which Luminary Learners they wanted us to do a deep dive on in order to study their top mental models.
More than anybody else by far, we got back two people — Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
On one hand, we were excited. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are two of the entrepreneurs we’re inspired by the most. On the other hand, we were concerned. Both of them have already been covered so much in the media, “How would we have a unique angle?” we wondered.
But as we researched — digging through all of their letters to shareholders, interviews, profiles, and biographies multiple times — we found the following holes:
- Most of the profiles written on them are written by journalists who have never been entrepreneurs. Therefore, the focus is on company announcements, interesting stories from their life, and tabloid rumors. The actual advice you can take-away is minimal.
- Almost all of the advice on them is surface level hacks. The content doesn’t go deep into their thinking — let alone their mental models.
- Almost all of the recent coverage has been on their little mistakes rather than their huge triumphs. It’s easier for the media to tear Musk down. But, it’s more valuable for us as the reader to learn from their unparalleled achievements.
And so we decided to invest dozens of hours into each report to get the “map of success” in their head that no one ever talks about. The end result is two reports that have been life transformative for us that I think you’ll love as well.
Each report is designed to help you learn faster, make better decisions, create products/services your customers love, recruit and manage world-class team, and create more wealth and fulfillment in your life.
In addition to sharing their mental models, we also provide you with exercises and action steps, so that you can take action easily and immediately — start thinking like them!
When you try out the Mental Model Club today, you get these two manuals for free.
What Mental Model Club Members Are Saying…
“I’ve been a teacher, trainer, administrator and ultimately am an entrepreneur. I have been learning more from the Mental Models than anything else in my recent memory. The mastery manuals articulate concepts in a way that not only filled in my knowledge but gave me much better language to explain the concepts to others. The Mental Model Club provides actionable insights for a very reasonable price. I am enjoying being the first of my friends to recommend the club as it makes me feel smarter than everyone else who hasn’t found it yet.”
— Juliet Mee, Teacher, Trainer, Administrator, Entrepreneur
“As a self-taught entrepreneur who has built five organizations (which employ over 60 people) on transforming education to include character building and skill development, I am blown away by the content in the Mental Model Club. Having read hundreds of books, without a doubt, it provides the most comprehensive training on mental models in the world. As an educator, I think we should be teaching everyone about mental models.”
— Tijl Koenderink, Entrepreneur
“I joined the Mental Model Club, so I could experience faster rates of growth in my personal life and career. The biggest benefit I’ve had from being a member so far is realizing how little of my potential I’m using and how much more I’m capable of. As a result of the 80/20 module I’ve 80/20'd my morning routine, what used to be a stressful anxiety inducing experience is now the cornerstone of me having an excellent day and has become a keystone habit. As a result of the goal setting module, I’m now enjoying a higher quality of life by spending more time in nature and more time with my wife. In a sea of intellectual mediocrity and information overload, the Mental Model Club is my 80/20 cubed of gaining actionable insight I can get to make real traction in my life.”
— David Pita, Project Manager, Digital Agency
“I joined the Mental Model Club just a month ago and not only my clarity has skyrocketed, since I no longer need to read a lot of books and lots of info. Because I know understand the mental models and thought processes behind them. Thanks to this club too, my business decisions are 10X better because I use the mental model checklists provided. As I scale to 7-figures this year this club is a must have for me. It keeps my thinking and mindset straight as I face some of the problems that come with scaling up.”
— Sergio Estevez, Entrepreneur
Try The Club Now
As you become more successful in life, you have to do different things to get to the next level.
You can keep using trial & error, building your knowledge on a potentially shaky foundation. Keep risking making mistakes in your career, business and life.
you can get it right the first time, by investing in the Mental Model Club today.
When you register now, you’ll start by learning what we consider to be the most powerful mental model. You get a Mastery Manual and implementation exercises.
In less than an hour, you’ll be making better decisions, understanding the world better, and making better predictions and estimates about what’s going to happen.
Give Mental Model Club a try now:
If there’s a link to an Amazon book, it’s an affiliate link, which means I get a small amount of compensation when you buy the book. This compensation does not influence the specific books I recommend, as I only recommend books that I read and love.