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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 November 15, 2018

      Success In Reaching Goals Is Determined By Mindset

      Success In Reaching Goals Is Determined By Mindset

      What do you think it takes to achieve your goals? Hard work? Lots of actions? While these are paramount to becoming successful in reaching our goals, neither of these are possible without a positive mindset.

      As humans, we naturally tend to lean towards a negative outlook when it comes to our hopes and dreams. We are prone to believing that we have limitations either from within ourselves or from external forces keeping us from truly getting to where we want to be in life. Our tendency to think that we’ll “believe it when we see it” suggests that our mindsets are focused on our goals not really being attainable until they’ve been achieved. The problem with this is that this common mindset fuels our limiting beliefs and shows a lack of faith in ourselves.

      The Success Mindset

      Success in achieving our goals comes down to a ‘success mindset’. Successful mindsets are those focused on victory, based on positive mental attitudes, empowering inclinations and good habits. Acquiring a success mindset is the sure-fire way to dramatically increase your chance to achieve your goals.

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      The idea that achieving our goals comes down to our habits and actions is actually a typical type of mindset that misses a crucial point; that our mindset is, in fact, the determiner of our energy and what actions we take. A negative mindset will tend to create negative actions and similarly if we have a mindset that will only set into action once we see ‘proof’ that our goals are achievable, then the road will be much longer and arduous. This is why, instead of thinking “I’ll believe it when I see it”, a success mindset will think “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

      The Placebo Effect and What It Shows Us About The Power of Mindset

      The placebo effect is a perfect example of how mindset really can be powerful. In scientific trials, a group of participants were told they received medication that will heal an ailment but were actually given a sugar pill that does nothing (the placebo). Yet after the trial the participants believed it’s had a positive effect – sometimes even cured their ailment even though nothing has changed. This is the power of mindset.

      How do we apply this to our goals? Well, when we set goals and dreams how often do we really believe they’ll come to fruition? Have absolute faith that they can be achieved? Have a complete unwavering expectation? Most of us don’t because we hold on to negative mindsets and limiting beliefs about ourselves that stop us from fully believing we are capable or that it’s at all possible. We tend to listen to the opinions of others despite them misaligning with our own or bow to societal pressures that make us believe we should think and act a certain way. There are many reasons why we possess these types of mindsets but a success mindset can be achieved.

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      How To Create a Success Mindset

      People with success mindsets have a particular way of perceiving things. They have positive outlooks and are able to put faith fully in their ability to succeed. With that in mind, here are a few ways that can turn a negative mindset into a successful one.

      1. A Success Mindset Comes From a Growth Mindset

      How does a mindset even manifest itself? It comes from the way you talk to yourself in the privacy of your own head. Realising this will go a long way towards noticing how you speak to yourself and others around you. If it’s mainly negative language you use when you talk about your goals and aspirations then this is an example of a fixed mindset.

      A negative mindset brings with it a huge number of limiting beliefs. It creates a fixed mindset – one that can’t see beyond it’s own limitations. A growth mindset sees these limitations and looks beyond them – it finds ways to overcome obstacles and believes that this will result in success. When you think of your goal, a fixed mindset may think “what if I fail?” A growth mindset would look at the same goal and think “failures happen but that doesn’t mean I won’t be successful.”

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      There’s a lot of power in changing your perspective.

      2. Look For The Successes

      It’s really important to get your mind focused on positive aspects of your goal. Finding inspiration through others can be really uplifting and keep you on track with developing your success mindset; reinforcing your belief that your dreams can be achieved. Find people that you can talk with about how they achieved their goals and seek out and surround yourself with positive people. This is crucial if you’re learning to develop a positive mindset.

      3. Eliminate Negativity

      You can come up against a lot of negativity sometimes either through other people or within yourself. Understanding that other people’s negative opinions are created through their own fears and limiting beliefs will go a long way in sustaining your success mindset. But for a lot of us, negative chatter can come from within and these usually manifest as negative words such as can’t, won’t, shouldn’t. Sometimes, when we think of how we’re going to achieve our goals, statements in our minds come out as negative absolutes: ‘It never works out for me’ or ‘I always fail.’

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      When you notice these coming up you need to turn them around with ‘It always works out for me!’ and ‘I never fail!’ The trick is to believe it no matter what’s happened in the past. Remember that every new day is a clean slate and for you to adjust your mindset.

      4. Create a Vision

      Envisioning your end goal and seeing it in your mind is an important trait of a success mindset. Allowing ourselves to imagine our success creates a powerful excitement that shouldn’t be underestimated. When our brain becomes excited at the thought of achieving our goals, we become more committed, work harder towards achieving it and more likely to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

      If this involves creating a vision board that you can look at to remind yourself every day then go for it. Small techniques like this go a long way in sustaining your success mindset and shouldn’t be dismissed.

      An Inspirational Story…

      For centuries experts said that running a mile in under 4 minutes was humanly impossible. On the 6th May 1954, Rodger Bannister did just that. As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement, believing he could accomplish what everyone said wasn’t possible…and he did it.

      What’s more amazing is that, as soon as Bannister achieved the 4-minute mile, more and more people also achieved it. How was this possible after so many years of no one achieving it? Because in people’s minds it was suddenly possible – once people knew that it was achievable it created a mindset of success and now, after over fifty years since Bannister did the ‘impossible’, his record has been lowered by 17 seconds – the power of the success mindset!

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