100 Mental Models To Make You A Worldly Wise Person

Transform confusion into curiosity, certainty into skepticism and frustrations into fascinations.

Tom Chanter
Sep 22, 2019 · 22 min read
Photo by Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

I’ve always felt that our world has an innate topsy-turvy logic that I can’t make sense of. Reading Charlie Munger’s speeches on Mental Models, I realized I was right. And wrong. The world is bizarre, but we can make sense of it. And yet I never bothered diving deep into Mental Models.

But reading Gabriel Weinberg’s list of Mental Models, the truth hit home — what I didn’t know was hurting me. And so it began. I started collecting my favorite models, finding examples, and rewriting them in my own words. Still, I never shared my collection. Munger and Weinberg had it covered.

Then my Mental Model collection and commonplace book collided. As I was building my Mental Model collection on Evernote, I was simultaneously building a commonplace book with physical note cards, where I collect great lines from literature and unorthodox quotes from history’s wisest humans. Slowly, more and more connections emerged.

So I began pairing the practical with the poetic — the analytical left-brain models with the intuitive right-brain quotes. I didn’t want to only connect the Mental Models with each other, but with books, people and ideas that meant something to me. I wanted them to be better together. That mission led to this list.

  • PHYSICS (the foundations of our galaxies best thinkers)
  • SCIENCE & SCIENTISM (truth vs facts)
  • EVOLUTION (it’s not what you think)
  • STATISTICS (174% of ‘facts’ are misleading)
  • PSYCHOLOGY (humans are weird)
  • BUSINESS 101 (for owners not accountants)
  • TOOLS for ANALYSIS (meta-thinking)
  • DECISION MAKING (be less wrong)
  • ARGUING vs NEGOTIATING (winning arguments vs winning)
  • INTERPERSONAL (soft skills are underrated)
  • THE DARK ARTS (persuasion hacks)
  • CREATIVITY (breaking boundaries)
  • SUCCESS PATTERNS (open secrets to success)
  • PRODUCTIVITY (read this first)
  • KEYS of STRATEGY (connecting the dots)

PHYSICS (the foundations of our galaxies best thinkers)

First principles thinking is removing all assumptions and looking only at what has been proven. And then reasoning up from facts.

Reasonable minds often disagree when an underlying premise differs.

Read more.


The resistance of any physical object to any change in its state of motion; this includes changes to its speed, direction or state of rest.

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” ― Mark Twain

Read more.


Activation energy is the least amount of energy required to activate atoms or molecules to a state in which they can undergo a chemical reaction.

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” ― Mark Twain

Read more.


Critical mass is the minimum amount of fissile material (such as uranium or plutonium) needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction.

In social dynamics, critical mass is a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system, so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” ― Helen Keller

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The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.

“It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” ― John Maynard Keynes

Read more.


The act of observing influences the phenomena being observed.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ― Robertson Davies

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SCIENCE & SCIENTISM (truth vs facts)

The time required for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value.

“Energy has a way of dissipating, you know; what can be done when you’re eleven can often never be done again.” ― Stephen King.

Read more.


The systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of a hypothesis.

“Nullius in Verba / On no man’s word.” — Royal Society of London

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The ability of an experiment or study to be duplicated.

“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” ― Sophocles

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A false positive is a test result which wrongly indicates that a particular state is present. A false negative is a test result which indicates that a particular condition is absent.

“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.” ― Charles Darwin

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If an action or policy may cause harm to the public or the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking action.

“Precaution is better than cure.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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The usual or accepted way of doing something changes completely.

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein

Read more.


A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

“Science advances one funeral at a time.” ― Max Planck

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EVOLUTION (it’s not what you think)

A behavioral strategy which, if adopted by a population in a given environment, natural selection alone is sufficient to prevent alternate strategies from invading.

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” ― Carl Sagan

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A generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions, while a specialist species can thrive only in a narrow range of environmental conditions.

“A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” — Archilochus

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When a species has been alive for so long that they appear in the fossil record (the record of the occurrence and evolution of living organisms through geological time as inferred from fossils), they stop evolving.

They reach stasis.

Then when significant evolutionary change does occur we can see the species break into two distinct species — like humans and chimps.

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” ― Leon C. Megginson

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STATISTICS (174% of ‘facts’ are misleading)

Power-Laws are things that grow in power exponentially, rather than linearly.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” — Albert Allen Bartlett

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Roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

“…The 80/20 rule is only metaphorical; it is not a rule, even less a rigid law. In the U.S. book business, the proportions are more like 97/20 (i.e., 97 percent of book sales are made by 20 percent of the authors)” — Nassim Taleb

Read more.


The large number of products that sell in small quantities (niche products) can exceed the sales volume of a few best-selling products.

“Up until now, the focus has been on dozens of markets of millions, instead of millions of markets of dozens.” — Joe Kraus

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A normal distribution is an arrangement of a data set in which most values cluster in the middle of the range and the rest taper off symmetrically toward either extreme.

“An approximate answer to the right problem is worth a good deal more than an exact answer to an approximate problem.” — John Tukey

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A percentage estimate (i.e. 95%) of how confident we are that the actual value lies within the range (interval) of our estimated value.

“There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” ― Benjamin Disraeli

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The mistaken belief that if something happens more frequently than normal during one time period — then it will happen less frequently in the next time period.
(Or that if something happens less frequently than normal during some period, it will happen more frequently in the future.)

“I am not in the position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.” ― Alexander Pushkin

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Presuming that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other. A correlation between two variables doesn’t not necessarily imply that one variable causes the other.

“It looks as if the offspring have eyes so that they can see well (bad, teleological, backward causation), but that’s an illusion. The offspring have eyes because their parents’ eyes did see well (good, ordinary, forward causation).” ― Steven Pinker

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In an optimization problem, a local optimum is a solution that is optimal within a neighbouring set of candidate solutions. In contrast, a global optimum is the optimal solution among all possible solutions, not just those in a particular neighbourhood of values.

“Mathematics is the science of what is clear by itself.” — Carl Jacobi

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The point on a curve where the direction of the curvature changes.

“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” — Warren Buffett

Read more.


An estimate of a variable whose precise value is unknown and estimated to the nearest power of ten.

“Mathematics would certainly have not come into existence if one had known from the beginning that there was in nature no exactly straight line, no actual circle, no absolute magnitude.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

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A paradox in probability and statistics, in which a trend appears in different groups of data but disappears or reverses when these groups are combined.

“Don’t cross a river if it is four feet deep on average.” ― Nassim Taleb

Read more.


Prior knowledge of conditions related to an event can be used to give a more accurate estimation of that event.

“The wise man is one who, knows, what he does not know.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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A black swan is an event that is completely unexpected and extremely difficult to predict — yet these events do occur.

“Remember that you are a Black Swan” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Read more.


PSYCHOLOGY (humans are weird)

“When we look at others we see personality traits that explain their behavior, but when we look at ourselves we see circumstances that explain our behavior … we explain by permanent, enduring traits what would be better explained by circumstance and context.” — Eliezer Yudkowsky.

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” ― T.S. Eliot

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A dichotomy between two modes of thought: ‘System 1’ is fast, instinctive and emotional; ‘System 2’ is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” — Daniel Kahneman

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Personal experience coded into your personal neural network, which means your intuition is dangerous outside the bounds of your personal experience.

“All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.” — Rudolf Arnheim

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Cognitive biases are mistakes in our rational reasoning, remembering, and other cognitive processes — due to our subjective interpretations rather than observing verifiable data.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” — T. S. Eliot

Read more.


The selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis that is not random. That means that sample chosen is not truly representative of the real-world.

“Living is easy with [your] eyes closed.” ― John Lennon

Read more.


When making a decision, people rely more on information and events that are more recent, that were observed personally and that were more memorable.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” ― Robertson Davies

Read more.


The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

“People put a lot less effort into picking apart evidence that confirms what they already believe.” ― Peter Watts

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Seeing a past event as predictable, despite there being no objective basis for predicting it.

“If you feel like you knew it all along, it means you won’t stop to examine why something really happened.” — Neal Roese

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BUSINESS 101 (for owners not accountants)

Time Value of Money: Money is worth more now than in the future — because you can earn interest or invest it.

“Every time you borrow money, you’re robbing your future self.” — Nathan W. Morris

Read more.


Premature optimisation is optimising something before it has been sufficiently tested.

“We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil. Yet we should not pass up our opportunities in that critical 3%” — Donald Knuth

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The short-term sacrifices of a company that will inhibit its long-term performance.

“Just when things should be going great, organizational debt can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.” — Steve Blank

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A company may sacrifice the competitiveness or quality of one product, in order to further the cause of another product.

“You can have anything you want — you just can’t have everything you want.”

Read more.


A cost-benefit analysis is weighing the expected costs, against the expected benefits — to determine the best course of action.

“My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different time occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them altogether in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out five; and thus proceeding, I find where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.” — Benjamin Franklin

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A cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.

“Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold.” ― Thomas Jefferson

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The benefit a person or company could have received, but gave up to take another course of action.

“Economics is the study of how to get the most out of life.” — Tyler Cowen

Read more.


TOOLS for ANALYSIS (meta-thinking)

Considering the effect of both the individual components of a system, as well as the effect of the relationship between those components.

“Systems and processes will always surpass motivation.” ― Chris Matakas, The Tao of Jiu Jitsu

Read more.


Sensitivity Analysis: Identifying how the uncertainty of individual inputs of a system effect the uncertainty of the system as a whole.

“The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step outside the frame.” ― Salman Rushdie

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The imitation of a real-life situation or system.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” — George E. P. Box

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Scenario Analys is predicting and planning for several possible outcomes and their implications.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ― Benjamin Franklin

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A proximate cause is immediately responsible for a problem. The root cause is the underlying reason. It’s the difference between a symptom and the actual issue.

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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First order effects directly follow from a cause, while second order effects follow from first order effects.

“We are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequence of our actions.” — Stephen Covey

Read more.


The Theory of Constraints recognises that productivity is limited by a very small number of constraints.

“A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.”

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A variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable.

“Nature will not be admired by proxy.” — Winston Churchill

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When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” ― Sigmund Freud

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DECISION MAKING (be less wrong)

The decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act.

“Understanding the OODA loop enables a commander to compress time — that is, the time between observing a situation and taking an action. A commander can use the temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, wonder, to question.” ― Robert Coram

Read more.


A graph that uses a branching method to illustrate every possible decision and their consequences.

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” ― Roy Disney

Read more.


Thinking in extremes and not perceiving the middle-ground of a decision.

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” — Elon Musk

Read more.


A large group’s aggregated answers to questions involving quantity estimation, general world knowledge, and spatial reasoning has generally been found to be as good as, and often better than, the answer given by any of the individuals within the group.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” ― Socrates

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The desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain

Read more.


The set of decisions we face today are limited by the decisions we’ve made in the past, even if the past circumstances are no longer relevant.

“History matters.”

Read more.


A question that seeks a fast, rough estimate of quantity which is either difficult or impossible to measure directly.

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli

Read more.


Using an isolated example or personal experience to determine that something is true, false, related or unrelated.

“Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training.” — Michael Shermer

Read more.


If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

“Prosperity is only an instrument to be used, not a deity to be worshipped.” ― Calvin Coolidge

Read more.


Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

“The simplest explanation is usually true.” — William of Ockham

Read more.


When making a decision, if there are low consequences and you have a weak conviction, you should delegate the decision. You can let employees make their own mistakes and learn.

But if there are high consequences and you have a strong conviction, you must make the decision.

“I have a fantastic team of people who run the Virgin companies, who have a lot of freedom to run the companies as if they were their own companies, I give them the freedom to make mistakes.” — Richard Branson

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ARGUING vs NEGOTIATING (winning arguments vs winning)

Giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent.

“Some books against Deism fell into my hands… It happened that they wrought an effect on me quite contrary to what was intended by them; for the arguments of the Deists, which were quoted to be refuted, appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough Deist.” — Benjamin Franklin

Read more.


Asserting that if we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen, so we must not allow A to happen.

“I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.” — Mark Cuban

Read more.


An argument is rebutted by attacking the person’s character or motive rather than attacking the argument itself.

“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.” — Margaret Thatcher

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The most advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached.

“He who has learned to disagree without being disagreeable has discovered the most valuable secret of a diplomat.” — Robert Estabrook

Read more.


INTERPERSONAL (soft skills are underrated)

In a higher-context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain them. In a low-context culture, communication is more explicit.

“Words and word choice becomes more important the higher-context the culture, as a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group.”

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Fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and remembering what is being said.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ― Stephen R. Covey

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The listener repeats back what they have just heard to confirm understanding of both parties. It avoids any misunderstandings.

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” ― Peter Drucker

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Assume the best of others, considering only the best, kindest, most helpful interpretation of every communication and responding solely to that version.

“Give a good deed the credit of a good motive; and give an evil deed the benefit of the doubt.” — Brander Matthews

Read more.


Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness or stupidity.

“Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Read more.


THE DARK ARTS (persuasion hacks)

The manipulation of emotions in order to win an argument, especially in the absence of factual evidence.

[When wisdom is used for evil] “I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” ― Adolf Hitler

Read more.


People would rather avoid losses than acquire gains.

“Money does not buy you happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery.” — Daniel Kahneman

Read more.


Maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism and public drinking helps create an atmosphere of lawfulness and order, therefore preventing more serious crimes from occurring.

“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” — James Q. Wilson

Read more.


An attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.

“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” ― George R.R. Martin

Read more.


The rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas and trends increases the more they have already been adopted by others. The effect of people moulding their behaviour to receive validation.

“What motivates most gold purchasers is their belief that the ranks of the fearful will grow … As ‘bandwagon’ investors join any party, they create their own truth — for a while.” — Warren Buffett

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CREATIVITY (breaking boundaries)

Solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that isn’t obvious and involving ideas that are not obtained through step-by-step logical thinking.

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things.” — Steve Jobs

Read more.


Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.

It is often used in conjunction with its cognitive opposite, convergent thinking.

Convergent thinking follows a particular set of logical steps to arrive at one solution, which in some cases is a ‘correct’ solution.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ― Plutarch

Read more.


Imagining the potential consequences of an action.

“Strap a piece of toast -buttered side up- to the back of a cat. Throw the cat out of the window. Will the cat land on its feet or will Murphy’s law apply?” ― Alan Fletcher

Read more.


SUCCESS PATTERNS (open secrets to success)

An abundance mentality sees there are enough resources and successes to share with others. A scarcity mindset thinks that if someone else is successful it means you lose.

“Let not your mind run on what you lack as much as on what you have already.” — Marcus Aurelius

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Having a fixed mindset means you believe your abilities are innate, while having a growth mindset means you believe you can acquire a greater ability if you invest the effort and study.

“Children given praise such as “good job, you’re very smart” are much more likely to develop a fixed mindset, whereas if given compliments like “good job, you worked very hard” they are likely to develop a growth mindset.”

Read more.


Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

“People become really quite remarkable when they start thinking that they can do things. When they believe in themselves they have the first secret of success.” — Norman Vincent Peale

Read more.


We can offer either a reward or threaten a punishment, or both, to induce good behaviour.

“I think any writer is a fool if he doesn’t do it for money. There needs to be some kind of incentive in addition to the project. It all goes together. It’s fun to sit there and think of characters and get them into action, then be paid for it.” — Elmore Leonard

Read more.


A difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. That’s why experts make poor teachers.

“Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice because the curse prevents us from noticing.” — Steven Pinker

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The selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role.

“Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Read more.


The logical error of concentrating on people or things that ‘survived’ a process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility.

“Ability is of little account without opportunity.” ― Napoléon Bonaparte

Read more.


PRODUCTIVITY (read this first)

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

“Delay is the deadliest form of denial.” — Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Read more.


An excessive focus on short-term results at the expense of long term interests.

“Everyone who has worked with American management can testify that the need to satisfy the pension fund manager’s quest for higher earnings next quarter, together with the panicky fear of the raider, constantly pushes top management toward decisions they know to be costly, if not suicidal, mistakes.” — Peter Drucker

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A person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present.

“The price of greatness is responsibility.” ― Winston S. Churchill

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Any task, activity or event that forces you to take action and produce a result.

“Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.” — David Heinemeier Hansson, Matthew Linderman, Jason Fried

Read more.


Diminishing Returns: Beyond a certain point, the rate of profit, production, or benefit fails to increase proportionally with added investment, effort, or skill.

“The Law of Diminishing Returns is true of everything in life, except sex, which seems endlessly repeatable with effect.” ― Robert McKee

Read more.


KEYS of STRATEGY (connecting the dots)

Waiting as long as possible to nail down the factors, decisions, or variables that are hardest to undo once they’ve been settled on.

“People overestimate their knowledge and underestimate the probability of their being wrong”. — Nassim Taleb

Read more.


A zero-sum situation means for someone to gain something, someone else must lose something.

In contrast, a non-zero-sum situation is when the aggregate gains of a group is greater than their aggregate losses.

“It is sort of a bit of a caricature of capitalism, that it’s always this zero-sum game where you have winners and losers. Silicon Valley, the technology industry at its best, creates a situation where everybody can be a winner.” — Peter Thiel

Read more.


Unforeseen outcomes that are not intended by purposeful action.

“We are free to choose our paths, but we can’t choose the consequences that come with them.” ― Sean Covey

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When an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them” ― Albert Einstein

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A situation where you lose something in order to gain something else.

“I think it’s a false trade-off to say quality time versus quantity — you have to have both.” — Hillary Clinton

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Every person in a group makes the optimal decision for himself, based on what he thinks others will do. And nobody can do better by changing strategy: every member of the group is doing as well as they possibly can.

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” ― Oscar Wilde

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Knocking over the first domino will knock over the rest. The most important task is the first one.

“The mob rushes in where individuals fear to tread.” ― B.F. Skinner

Read more.

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