Advertising
Advertising

Mental Models: How Intelligent People Solve Unsolvable Problems

Mental Models: How Intelligent People Solve Unsolvable Problems

Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all-time. (He was a pretty solid bongo player as well). [1]

Feynman received his undergraduate degree from MIT and his Ph.D. from Princeton. During those years, he became known for waltzing into the math department at each school and solving problems that the brilliant math Ph.D. students couldn’t solve.

Feynman describes why he was able to do this in his fantastic book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! (one of my favorite books that I read last year).

One day [my high school physics teacher, Mr. Bader,] told me to stay after class. “Feynman,” he said, “you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again.”

So every physics class, I paid no attention to what was going on with Pascal’s Law, or whatever they were doing. I was up in the back with this book: Advanced Calculus, by Woods. Bader knew I had studied Calculus for the Practical Man a little bit, so he gave me the real works–it was for a junior or senior course in college. It had Fourier series, Bessel functions, determinants, elliptic functions–all kinds of wonderful stuff that I didn’t know anything about.

That book also showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign–it’s a certain operation. It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals.

The result was, when the guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was a contour integration, they would have found it; if it was a simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.

–Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! (pages 86-87)

 
richard-feynman
    Richard Feynman (Image Source: California Institute of Technology)

    Mental Models

    Point of View is worth 80 IQ points.
    –Alan Kay

    A mental model is a way of looking at the world.

    Put simply, mental models are the set of tools that you use to think. Each mental model offers a different framework that you can use to look at life (or at an individual problem). Feynman’s strategy of differentiating under the integral sign was a unique mental model that he could pull out of his intellectual toolbox and use to solve difficult problems that eluded his peers. Feynman wasn’t necessarily smarter than the math Ph.D. students, he just saw the problem from a different perspective.

    I have written about mental models before. For example, you can use the Inversion Technique to view situations in a different way and solve difficult problems.

    Advertising

    Where mental models really shine, however, is when you develop multiple ways of looking at the same problem. For example, let’s say that you’d like to avoid procrastination and have a productive day. If you understand the 2-Minute Rulethe Eisenhower Box, and Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule, then you have a range of options for determining your priorities and getting something important done.

    There is no one best way to manage your schedule and get something done. When you have a variety of mental models at your disposal, you can pick the one that works best for your current situation.

    The Law of the Instrument

    In Abraham Kaplan’s book, The Conduct of Inquiry, he explains a concept called The Law of the Instrument.

    Kaplan says, “I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” (p.28)

    Kaplan’s law is similar to a common proverb you have likely heard before: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” If you only have one framework for thinking about the world, then you’ll try to fit every problem you face into that framework. When your set of mental models is limited, so is your potential for finding a solution.

    Interestingly, this problem can become more pronounced as your expertise in a particular area grows. If you’re quite smart and talented in one area, you have a tendency to believe that your skill set is the answer to most problems you face. The more you master a single mental model, the more likely it becomes that this mental model will be your downfall because you’ll start applying it indiscriminately to every problem. Smart people can easily develop a confirmation bias that leaves them stumped in difficult situations.

    Advertising

    However, if you develop a bigger toolbox of mental models, you’ll improve your ability to solve problems because you’ll have more options for getting to the right answer. This is one of the primary ways that truly brilliant people separate themselves from the masses of smart individuals out there. Brilliant people like Richard Feynman have more mental models at their disposal.

    This is why having a wide range of mental models is important. You can only choose the best tool for the situation if you have a full toolbox.

    How to Develop New Mental Models

    In my experience, there are two good ways to build new mental models.

    1. Read books outside the norm. If you read the same material as everyone else, then you’ll think in the same way as everyone else. You can’t expect to see problems in a new way if you’re reading all the same things as your classmates, co-workers, or peers. So, either read books that are seldom read by the rest of your group (like Feynman did with his Calculus book) or read books that are outside your area of interest, but can overlap with it in some way. In other words, look for answers in unexpected places. [2]

    2. Create a web of ideas that shows how seemingly unrelated ideas connect. Whenever you are reading a new book or listening to someone lecture, write down the various ways that this new information connects to information you already understand. We tend to view knowledge as separated into different silos. We think that a certain set of ideas have to do with economics and another set have to do with medicine and a third set have to do with art history. This is mostly a product of how schools teach subjects, but in the real world information is not separated like this.

    Advertising

    unrelated-intersection-700x466

      For example, I was watching a documentary the other day that connected the design of the Great Pyramids in Egypt with the fighting rituals of animals. According to the historians on the show, when animals are battling one another they will often rise up on their back feet to increase their height and show their dominance. Similarly, when a new Pharaoh took power in Egypt, he wanted to assert his dominance over the culture and so he built very tall structures as a symbol of power. This explanation links seemingly unrelated areas (architecture, ancient history, and animal behavior) in a way that results in a deeper understanding of the topic.

      In a similar way, mental models from outside areas can reveal a deeper level of understanding about issues in your primary field of interest.

      Don’t try to tighten a screw with a hammer. The problems of life and work are much easier to solve when you have the right tools.

      This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

      Notes

      1. Feynman was famously eccentric and varied in his hobbies. Among other things, he played the bongos, spent years as an artist drawing nude models, and cracked a safe with top secret information about the atomic bomb inside.
      2. This isn’t to say that you should avoid reading the books your peers are reading. You should probably read those too, so that you have the same baseline of knowledge.

      Thanks to Shane Parrish for sending me down the rabbit hole of mental models.

      Featured photo credit: Christian Weidinger via flickr.com

      More by this author

      7 Reasons You Haven’t Found Your Passion Yet 7 Ways To Get Over Fear and Make Big Life Changes Fast Growth Is Overrated — Here’s Why Famous Biologist Louis Agassiz On The Usefulness Of Learning Through Observation How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness

      Trending in Productivity

      1 How to Be Productive at Home and Make Every Day a Productive Day 2 7 Things to Remember When You’re Going Through Tough Times in Life 3 20 Productive Hobbies That Will Make You Smarter and Happier 4 Ditch Work Life Balance and Embrace Work Life Harmony 5 The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

      Read Next

      Advertising
      Advertising
      Advertising

      Last Updated on May 24, 2019

      How to Be Productive at Home and Make Every Day a Productive Day

      How to Be Productive at Home and Make Every Day a Productive Day

      If you’ve ever wondered how to be productive at home or how you could possibly have a more productive day, look no further.

      Below you’ll find six easy tips that will help you make the most out of your time:

      1. Create a Good Morning Routine

      One of the best ways to start your day is to get up early and eat a healthy breakfast.

      CEOs and other successful people have similar morning routines, which include exercising and quickly scanning their inboxes to find the most urgent tasks.[1]

      You can also try writing first thing in the morning to warm up your brain[2] (750 words will help with that). But no matter what you choose to do, remember to create good morning habits so that you can have a more productive day.

      If you aren’t sure how to make morning routine work for you, this guide will help you:

      The Ultimate Morning Routine to Make You Happy And Productive All Day

      Advertising

      2. Prioritize

      Sometimes we can’t have a productive day because we just don’t know where to start. When that’s the case, the most simple solution is to list everything you need to get accomplished, then prioritize these tasks based on importance and urgency.

      Week Plan is a simple web app that will help you prioritize your week using the Covey time management grid. Here’s an example of it:[3]

        If you get the most pressing and important items done first, you will be able to be more productive while keeping stress levels down.

        Lifehack’s CEO, Leon, also has great advice on how to prioritize. Take a look at this article to learn more about it:

        How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

        3. Focus on One Thing at a Time

        One of the biggest killers of productivity is distractions. Whether it be noise or thoughts or games, distractions are a barrier to any productive day. That’s why it’s important to know where and when you work best.

        Advertising

        Need a little background noise to keep you on track? Try working in a coffee shop.

        Can’t stand to hear even the ticking of a clock while writing? Go to a library and put in your headphones.

        Don’t be afraid to utilize technology to make the best of your time. Sites like [email protected] and Simply Noise can help keep you focused and productive all day long.

        And here’s some great apps to help you focus: 10 Online Apps for Better Focus

        4. Take Breaks

        Focusing, however, can drain a lot of energy and too much of it at once can quickly turn your productive day unproductive.

        To reduce mental fatigue while staying on task, try using the Pomodoro Technique. It requires working on a task for 25 minutes, then taking a short break before another 25 minute session.

        After four “pomodoro sessions,” be sure to take a longer break to rest and reflect.

        Advertising

        I like to work in 25 and 5 minute increments, but you should find out what works best for you.

        5. Manage Your Time Effectively

        A learning strategies consultant once told me that there is no such thing as free time, only unstructured time.

        How do you know when exactly you have free time?

        By using the RescueTime app, you can see when you have free time, when you are productive, and when you actually waste time.

        With this data, you can better plan out your day and keep yourself on track.

        Moreover, you can increase the quality of low-intensity time. For example, reading the news while exercising or listening to meeting notes while cooking. Many of the mundane tasks we routinely accomplish can be paired with other tasks that lead to an overall more productive day.

        A bonus tip, even your real free time can be used productively, find out how:

        Advertising

        20 Productive Ways to Use Your Free Time

        6. Celebrate and Reflect

        No matter how you execute a productive day, make sure to take time and celebrate what you’ve accomplished. It’s important to reward yourself so that you can continue doing great work. Plus, a reward system is an incredible motivator.

        Additionally, you should reflect on your day in order to find out what worked and what didn’t. Reflection not only increases future productivity, but also gives your brain time to decompress and de-stress.

        Try these 10 questions for daily self reflection.

        More Articles About Daily Productivity

        Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

        Reference

        Read Next