Mental Models For Dummies

Plus 7 of the best that will help you to make sense of reality

Brian Pennie
Dec 19, 2020 · 9 min read

Making sense of reality

Mental models are psychological explanations of how things work. They provide us with a new way to see the world, and as a result, help us to make sense of reality. Mental models also improve how we think, helping us to simplify complexity and better understand life.

Stop swinging your hammer

The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models at our disposal. Why? Because the more models you have, the more likely you are to use the right ones to help you to see reality.

Blind spots, big blind spots

Having a variety of mental models at our disposal is particularly important when facing complex problems, as it provides us with an ability to see the world through multiple lenses.

Source: Example of a latticework — interlacing strips of material forming a lattice

Mental Models: 7 of the best

For an in-depth review of mental models, see “The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions” by Farnam Street (Shane Parrish) and “Learn How to Think Better and Gain a Mental Edge” by James Clear.

1. Circle of Competence

This idea is simple: Through experience, we’ve all acquired useful information and skills in certain areas of the world. But in some areas — those that require specialist knowledge — we are often lacking.

2. The Two Razors

Occam’s Razor and Hanlon’s Razor are two separate mental models, but they complement each other nicely.

3. Inversion

Inversion is one of the most powerful mental models. Its origins can be found in the word “invert,” which simply means “turn upside down.” As a thinking tool, it helps us to successfully identify and eliminate obstacles by tackling them from the opposite end of the natural starting point.

4. Second-order thinking

Every action has a consequence, and each of these consequences has further consequences. These are called second-order effects. Second-order thinking means thinking about these second-order effects. In other words, it means thinking about the effects of the effects.

5. Thought Experiments

Thought experiments are used by many of the world’s great thinkers. Defined as a device of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things, thought experiments help us to envisage real-world problems, enabling us to explore impossible situations and predict their outcomes.

6. First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complex problems. Often called reasoning from first principles, it’s the act of boiling things down to their most fundamental truths.

7. Pareto Principle

Named after Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

  • 20% of your customers produce 80% of your profits.
  • 20% of your sources produce 80% of your happiness.

Takeaway Message

If you want to improve how you think, see the world more clearly, and ultimately, be more successful in life, look no further than mental models.

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store