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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.

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    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.

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    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.

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      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

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      Last Updated on March 21, 2019

      11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

      11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

      Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

      You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

      But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

      To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

      It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

      “What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

      The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

      In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

      Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

      1. Start Small

      The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

      Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

      Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

      Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

      Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

      Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

      It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

      Do less today to do more in a year.

      2. Stay Small

      There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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      But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

      If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

      When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

      I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

      Why?

      Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

      The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

      Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

      3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

      No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

      There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

      What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

      Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

      This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

      This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

      4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

      When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

      There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

      Peter Drucker said,

      “What you track is what you do.”

      So track it to do it — it really helps.

      But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

      5. Measure Once, Do Twice

      Peter Drucker also said,

      “What you measure is what you improve.”

      So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

      For reading, it’s 20 pages.
      For writing, it’s 500 words.
      For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
      For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

      Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

      6. All Days Make a Difference

      Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

      Will two? They won’t.

      Will three? They won’t.

      Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

      What happened? Which one made you fit?

      The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

      No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

      7. They Are Never Fully Automated

      Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

      But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

      What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

      It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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      The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

      It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

      It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

      8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

      Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

      Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

      When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

      The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

      Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

      9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

      The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

      Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

      You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

      But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

      So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

      If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

      This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

      The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

      Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

      10. Punish Yourself

      Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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      I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

      It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

      You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

      No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

      The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

      But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

      11. Reward Yourself

      When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

      Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

      The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

      After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

      If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

      Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

      If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

      In the End, It Matters

      What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

      When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

      And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

      “Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

      Keep going.

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      More Resources to Help You Build Habits

      Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
      [2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
      [3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
      [4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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