The Potholes In Your Mind: Using Mental Models

Cole Harmonson

I don’t get angry. I don’t get anxious.

That’s just how I’m wired; I always thought it was a good thing, an advantage. It certainly helped when I was building a company. It helped, too, when there were problems; I didn’t overreact, didn’t let it keep me up at night. 

Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking whether it’s an advantage – or whether it’s a liability, in ways I hadn’t really considered.

An operating system for life

How many decisions do you make a day?

Little ones, big ones. What do I wear? Does this email require my attention?

How should I react when someone lets me down?

Mental models – like this one – help us build those decisions on a framework. A process. Something that’s repeatable, that lets us take our personal biases out of the question – or our deficiencies. They’re what Charlie Munger calls “an operating system for life.”

Let me tell you a story about decisions, anxiety and anger, and biases.

“I should have thrown him out the window”

There was an employee I had worked with for a long time. He’d been there with me at the beginning. He was the definition of “team player you don’t worry about.” He showed up, he produced. So when I found out he was complicit in fraud, I didn’t feel violated; I didn’t feel angry. I felt like I had failed. I hadn’t helped him “unleash his potential”; I would never do something like this, there must have been a mistake, he must have made a mistake. When he said he regretted it, that he wanted to change, I believed him – even though I had to fire him. 

I should have thrown him out of my office window. I didn’t know he’d go on to attempt the same fraud with someone else. I didn’t know he’d be the reason I’d have to talk to law enforcement.

I had fallen into two common traps: I was overconfident, and I had confirmation bias. I saw what I wanted to see because I was too confident in my ability to spot problems, assess truth. 

These are the potholes that using mental models can help us avoid. Unforced errors, if you will. I went with my gut, and my gut was wrong – because it was weighed down with cognitive biases I hadn’t considered.

Some useful mental models

You probably already have a few mental models in your head. Occam’s razor, for example – we all know that one. (The simplest answer is often the best!) 

But you should never have just one. Relying on one mental model – or the ones you know and grew up with – is like limiting your perspective to a single porthole on a ship. Sure, you can see pretty far on a clear day. But you’re missing the island on the other side. 

For example, did you know about “Hanlon’s razor”? “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I like that one.

Think of mental models like cross-training your body in the gym, except you’re training your head. “Once you have a name for something, you can spot it, and you can use it,” Gabriel Weinberg says in this great podcast about mental models

To use mental models, know thyself

You can’t really use these tools until you know your own weaknesses – the biases you’re most prone to. Not long ago, I took an emotional intelligence (“EQ”) test through my mentor. I answered a lot of questions, and it came up with a profile that confirmed what I suspected: while my empathy for others was through the roof, my access to my own feelings – particularly anger and anxiety – was very low. 

(By the way, while the test I took isn’t available publicly, this one is similar. Try it, tell me what you think.)

This leads me back to my story, and the two mental models – or biases – I struggle with most. 

The biggest, for me, is confirmation bias. Sometimes your story is so good, it’s hard not to fall for your own bulls**t. In our business, we need to be right 99% of the time. I’ve done this business for 23 years, so I have been right, 99% of the time, most years. It can make you cocky. It has made me cocky, in the past. If you have a problem situation with the client, it’s easier to tap into my capacity for joy and love. To believe my own story, believe in their potential, believe that they can fix this. But as a friend of mine says, “you can never out give a giver, but you can never give a taker enough.” 

You could also call my overconfidence “optimism bias” – essentially a “mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers.” It’s like being a teenager – you just don’t quite understand that one mistake behind the wheel of a car can, in fact, leave you vulnerable.  

Anger – or anxiety – could help me double-check that impulse. But I don’t have those, so I need to put other safeguards in place. 

My safeguards

There’s this “negative Nelly” on my team. He’s the one that always spots the problems, the red flags. I never want to hear them. I’m not anxious or suspicious; I always think the deal will go through. But I need him to do that, as much as I tease him. And he needs me, to be confident when it’s warranted. That’s one safeguard.

I also have a coach. Two, in fact. (Need one? Drop me a line and I’ll recommend you.) I pay them to help me think through these mental models, to help me understand where I need to watch for potholes. I also have a mentor, and I can’t recommend that enough. 

And I read. I’ve taken to heart Munger’s advice from his famous commencement speech, and I’m trying to understand as many of the “big ideas” – the mental models – as I can. (You can find my “starter reading list” at the bottom of this blog.)

“What I noted since the really big ideas carry 95% of the freight, it wasn’t at all hard for me to pick up all the big ideas from all the big disciplines and make them a standard part of my mental routines. Once you have the ideas, of course, they are no good if you don’t practice — if you don’t practice you lose it.”

Charlie Munger, 2007 commencement speech

What about you? What “big ideas” have helped you process the world, or understand your own foibles better? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear your favorites. (Also, if you subscribe to our newsletter, I often include a link or two about a mental model I’m currently reading up on.)

 

Reading List:

Robert Greene’s “Laws of Human Nature” (a true classic)

Shane Farnam’s “Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts” (also, follow his blog!)

Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-suasion”

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