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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 January 2, 2019

      Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

      Better Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions to Reduce Your Stress

      The end of the year is the time when everyone tries to give you advice on how to live healthier, look better, and earn more money.

      It’s understandable if you find yourself lost among all the tips and opinions. Sometimes you no longer know what you truly want to achieve next year – and what’s just imposed by society.

      To help you out, we’ve made this article about the things you should remove from your new year’s resolution list – instead of adding to it – to make your daily life more harmonious and peaceful.

      So just make sure you cross these off your New Year’s to-do list – your body, mind and soul will be thankful.

      1. Stop Buying Meaningless Gifts

      We all know the sense of obligation – when we have to buy a gift for an event or celebration that’s already tomorrow, but we still have no idea of what to give.

      Take these tips close to heart for all upcoming holidays, including birthdays, weddings, graduations, etc.:

      Stop focusing on the material objects

      Instead of focusing on what material object to give, think about the emotion you want to evoke[1] in the gift recipient, and then pick a symbolic gift that can support or represent that emotion. For example, you can gift coziness by presenting a “comfort set” with warm socks, tea, candles, etc. Or give motivation by presenting a beautiful planner or notebook.

      Plan gifts in advance

      We know this is easier said than done. But if you try to plan which gifts you’ll need in the upcoming months (try making a list three or four times a year), ideas will more likely come to mind and you’ll avoid that last-minute shopping. Not to mention, you’ll be able to keep an eye on sales to get the best prices.

      Suggest a better way

      If you’re tired of exchanging gifts for birthdays and holidays, initiate a different approach. For example, draw names among family members and agree that each one only buys a present to that one person they got. Alternatively, you can agree not to share gifts among adults, and only give presents to kids of the family. Or, ask friends to donate to charity instead of buying a gift for you.

      Go for common experiences instead of exchanging gifts

      You can agree (with your partner or the extended family) to go on a common trip, dinner or another activity, instead of spending money on gifts.

      Sometimes you’ll have to be the one who initiates breaking the rules that have been accepted in the family for years. But if you suspect that you’re not the only one in the group who’s tired of gift-hunting, you’ll surely find support for your suggestions.

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      2. Don’t Exaggerate with Diets and Fitness Resolutions

      It’s no secret that TV shows, article headlines, and ads (not to mention our healthy diet-obsessed friends) make us feel like we need to look better, slimmer and younger than we actually are. But going on yet another diet or starting a fitness plan with the wrong motivation rarely leads to great results.

      If you are like many people, you have probably signed up for an annual gym membership at least once in your life – only to drop it one month later.

      How do you balance a good resolution for a healthier life without pushing yourself into commitments that won’t last?

      Here’s what you can do:

      Set a healthier pattern

      For example, do meat-free Mondays or reduce meat consumption to three days per week (less saturated fat for you and better for the environment). Or choose to eat only healthy food at least three days a week or only on weekdays (e.g. make sure your meals contain vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy products, and protein). This way you’ll already have a healthier diet while still being able to treat yourself with a snack on weekends or parties.

      Get a fitness watch

      Fitness watches like Fitbit or MiBand are tiny accessories that will count your steps, calories burnt and will serve as an excellent motivator to move – or to take the stairs instead of the elevator.

      Find a physical activity that you enjoy

      Even if you are not that fond of doing sports, you can definitely find an activity that you’d do with pleasure. Think about what you’d like – from taking up Nordic walking to pilates or even exercising at home.

      Try intermittent fasting

      This is an alternating cycles of fasting and eating. For example, stop eating at 8 pm and restart not sooner than 12 hours later. This approach has been proven to have numerous health benefits, in addition to weight loss.

      Skip cabs or driving to work and opt for cycling or walking instead

      You’ll burn calories, breathe some fresh air, and save money – win-win!

      3. Put a Cap on Your Daily To-Do List

      In today’s busy world, planning your day in a stress-free way is actually an art in itself. It’s natural to want to be a loving parent, a diligent employee, an active member of the local community and probably several other individual roles.

      But playing all these roles requires energy and meticulous planning. How not to lose yourself amidst all the appointments and responsibilities? And – most importantly – how to still find time for relaxing and recharging yourself?

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      These daily planning tips will help you have more stress-free days:

      Leave bigger intervals between meetings

      If you schedule too many appointments or chores in a day, you’ll probably end up late at some point, and as a result – more stressed. There are many different reasons why people are late, but poor planning is a major factor too.

      Plan time to relax

      As weird as it may sound, you should try and schedule your resting time. For example, if you only have one free evening this week, and a friend tries to squeeze in a meeting, feel free to say no. Don’t feel obliged to specify the reason for your refusal, just say that you are busy.

      Try to be a little pessimistic

      We’re often packed with plans or running late for errands because we tend to be overly optimistic – about the traffic, the time it takes to do things, etc. Instead, try an opposite tactic — assume you’ll hit traffic or the meeting will take longer.

      Try waking up earlier

      Sometimes even waking up 30 minutes earlier can give you the much-needed head start for several errands of the day. But remember to get enough sleep every night, even if it means going to bed earlier.

      Plan your day the day before

      Chances are your day will be much better organized if you pack a lunch and lay out an outfit before going to bed.

      Designate a time for checking emails and social messages

      If you start checking your messages between appointments, you risk getting lost in a sea of messages that need replies. Designate a time for this activity or do it in case you arrived early to a meeting.

      4. Let Go of Unhealthy and Time-Consuming Habits

      If there’s one thing we should get rid of in the new year, it’s the habits that steal our time, provide instant gratification but don’t offer any value in the long term. Or even worse, leave a negative impact on our health.

      Here are some common (and pointless) habits along with tips on how to get rid of them:

      Binge-watching TV series

      Even if most online television platforms offer you lists of “Best TV Shows to Binge Watch”, being addicted to series is a major time-waster.

      You can manage this addiction in several ways, for example, watch one episode per day (or a few per week) as a reward, only after you’ve finished an assignment or done a house chore. Or try replacing this habit with exercise or reading a book – this will be hard at first but should stick after a few weeks. You can also try to track how much time you spend on TV or movies – seeing how much of your life you are wasting might urge you to do something about it.

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      Running on coffee

      Being a coffee addict is kind of a stylish addiction nowadays, but it’s not that innocent as it may initially seem. Besides addiction being a problem in itself, drinking too much coffee (more than 500-600 mg of caffeine a day) may lead to nervousness, insomnia, an upset stomach, a fast heartbeat, and even muscle tremors.[2]

      As a solution, try switching to tea or edible coffee – a more sustainable, healthy, and productivity-enhancing alternative. For example, Coffee Pixels are solid coffee bars that generate a more even energy kick throughout the day without the coffee-induced abstinence and dehydration.

      Procrastination

      Fighting procrastination requires some serious willpower. If it is a problem in your daily life or work, try ”eating the frog” in the morning – get over your biggest or hardest tasks first, then tackle everything else.

      Alternatively, use time tracking software to monitor exactly how much time you waste on unproductive actions, websites or apps. Once you know exactly how much time you’re spending unproductively, try to limit your time on social media, for example to just 20 minutes per day.

      If nothing else works, try bribing yourself — promise yourself to do something fun or pleasant when you finish your assignment.

      Whichever habit you want to give up, consider using some habits building tools to make a contract with yourself and reward yourself for milestones achieved.

      5. Stop over-consuming

      We live in the age of consumerism – huge manufacturers with their promise of a comfortable life on the one hand, and growing environmental threats – that are the direct result of our modern lifestyle – on the other hand. There’s only one solution – try to consume less whenever and wherever you can.

      Before making additional purchases, ask yourself these questions:

      • Do I really need it? Did I need it yesterday?
      • Can’t I buy it used or borrow it from friends?
      • Can I rent it?
      • Can I make it myself?
      • Am I buying the most sustainable version of this product?

      For example, check if the brand you chose is conscious about the environment, for example, are the products they manufacture energy efficient? Do they try to use less packaging?

      Also, if you often find yourself buying too many groceries, promise to buy only the amount that fits in one shopping bag (that you bring along). If you often forget to take your shopping bag with you, get yourself a 2-in-1 wallet with a built-in shopping bag for more eco-friendly shopping.

      6. Learn to Unplug from Your Phone

      Today’s world is crammed with information, and many people struggle to keep focus on what’s truly important. There’s just too much going on in the world – too much to read, to watch, to know, too many conversations to participate in.

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      But how to refuse the temptation to check the phone and start using social media in a controlled, not a compulsive way?

      Some tips for managing your phone-dependency:

      Spend only a limited amount of battery per day

      For example, start your day with 50% battery life, and manage your phone usage so that you’ll make it till the evening.

      Block distracting apps and notifications on your phone and computer

      Choose one-hour, two-hour or longer blocking sessions and enjoy the positive impact this will have on your mood and productivity.[3]

      Set your phone on flight mode

      When you start doing an important task that requires full focus, set your phone on flight mode so that nobody can disturb you.

      Leave your phone at home or in the office when you go for lunch

      You’ll see that the feeling of being unreachable for a moment is actually very liberating.

      The Bottom Line

      As a new year begins, we’re all excitedly looking forward to what adventures await ahead of us.

      But this year, promise yourself this:

      Instead of having a never-ending list of tasks and commitments, focus on the truly meaningful ones. And cross-out all the rest without feeling guilty.

      Less is more. Make this year count. We’re all rooting for you.

      Featured photo credit: Brooke Lark via unsplash.com

      Reference

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