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Simple and well-defined problems won’t need many lenses, as the variables that matter are known. So too are the interactions between them. In such cases we generally know what to do to get the intended results with the fewest side effects possible. When problems are more complicated, however, the value of having a brain full of lenses becomes readily apparent.
The Great Mental Models PDF Book by Shane Parrish
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That’s not to say all lenses (or models) apply to all problems. They don’t. And it’s not to say that having more lenses (or models) will be an advantage in all problems. It won’t. This is why learning and applying the Great Mental Models is a process that takes some work. But the truth is, most problems are multidimensional, and thus having more lenses often offers significant help with the problems we are facing.
Keeping your feet on the ground In Greek mythology, Antaeus was the human-giant son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and Gaia, Mother Earth. Antaeus had a strange habit. He would challenge all those who passed through his country to a wrestling match. Greek wrestling isn’t much different from what we think of today when we think of wrestling.
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The goal is to force the opponent to the ground. Antaeus always won and his opponents’ skulls were used to build a temple to his father. While Antaeus was undefeated and nearly undefeatable, there was a catch to his invulnerability. His epic strength depended on constant contact with the earth. When he lost touch with earth, he lost all of his strength.
On the way to the Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles was to fight Antaeus as one of his 12 labors. After a few rounds in which Heracles flung the giant to the ground only to watch him revive, he realized he could not win by using traditional wrestling techniques. Instead, Heracles fought to lift him off the ground. Away from contact with his mother, Antaeus lost his strength and Heracles crushed him.
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What successful people do is file away a massive, but finite, amount of fundamental, established, essentially unchanging knowledge that can be used in evaluating the infinite number of unique scenarios which show up in the real world. It’s not just knowing the mental models that is important. First you must learn them, but then you must use them.
Each decision presents an opportunity to comb through your repertoire and try one out, so you can also learn how to use them. This will slow you down at first, and you won’t always choose the right models, but you will get better and more efficient at using mental models as time progresses.
We need to work hard at synthesizing across the borders of our knowledge, and most importantly, synthesizing all of the ideas we learn with reality itself. No model contains the entire truth, whatever that may be. What good are math and biology and psychology unless we know how they fit together in reality itself, and how to use them to make our lives better? The Great Mental Models PDF Book
It would be like dying of hunger because we don’t know how to combine and cook any of the foods in our pantry. First principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated situations and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called reasoning from first principles, it’s a tool to help clarify complicated problems by separating the underlying ideas or facts from any assumptions based on them.
What remain are the essentials. If you know the first principles of something, you can build the rest of your knowledge around them to produce something new. The idea of building knowledge from first principles has a long tradition in philosophy. In the Western canon it goes back to Plato and Socrates, with significant contributions from Aristotle and Descartes.
Essentially, they were looking for the foundational knowledge that would not change and that we could build everything else on, from our ethical systems to our social structures. First principles thinking doesn’t have to be quite so grand. When we do it, we aren’t necessarily looking for absolute truths. The Great Mental Models PDF Book
Millennia of epistemological inquiry have shown us that these are hard to come by, and the scientific method has demonstrated that knowledge can only be built when we are actively trying to falsify it (see Supporting Idea: Falsifiability). Rather, first principles thinking identifies the elements that are, in the context of any given situation, non-reducible.
First principles do not provide a checklist of things that will always be true; our knowledge of first principles changes as we understand more. They are the foundation on which we must build, and thus will be different in every situation, but the more we know, the more we can challenge.
For example, if we are considering how to improve the energy efficiency of a refrigerator, then the laws of thermodynamics can be taken as first principles. However, a theoretical chemist or physicist might want to explore entropy, and thus further break the second law into its underlying principles and the assumptions that were made because of them. The Great Mental Models PDF Book
First principles are the boundaries that we have to work within in any given situation—so when it comes to thermodynamics an appliance maker might have different first principles than a physicist. Marshall, in an interview with Discover, recounts that Warren gave him a list of 20 patients identified as possibly having cancer, but when he had looked he had found the same bacteria in all of them instead.
He said, “Why don’t you look at their case records and see if they’ve got anything wrong with them.” Since they now knew stomachs weren’t sterile, they could question all the associated dogma about stomach disease and use some Socratic-type questioning to work to identify the first principles at play. They spent years challenging their related assumptions, clarifying their thinking, and looking for evidence.
Their story ultimately has a happy ending—Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2005, and now stomach ulcers are regularly treated effectively with antibiotics, improving and saving the lives of millions of people. But many practitioners and scientists rejected their findings for decades. The Great Mental Models PDF Book
The dogma of the sterile stomach was so entrenched as a first principle, that it was hard to admit that it rested on some incorrect assumptions which ultimately ended with the explanation, “because that’s just the way it is”. Even though, as Ashton notes, “H. pylori has now been found in medical literature dating back to 1875.”
It was Warren and Marshall who were able to show that “because I said so” wasn’t enough to count the sterile stomach as a first principle. Incremental innovation and paradigm shifts To improve something, we need to understand why it is successful or not. Otherwise, we are just copying thoughts or behaviors without understanding why they worked.
First principles thinking helps us avoid the problem of relying on someone else’s tactics without understanding the rationale behind them. Even incremental improvement is harder to achieve if we can’t identify the first principles. To understand it, let’s think about another chaotic system we’re all familiar with, the weather. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Download
Why is it that we can predict the movement of the stars but we can’t predict the weather more than a few weeks out, and even that is not altogether reliable? It’s because weather is highly chaotic. Any infinitesimally small error in our calculations today will change the result down the line, as rapid feedback loops occur throughout time.
Since our measurement tools are not infinitely accurate, and never will be, we are stuck with the unpredictability of chaotic systems. And compared to human systems, one could say weather is pretty reliable stuff. As anyone who’s seen Back to the Future knows, a small change in the past could have a massive, unpredictable effect on the future.
Thus, running historical counter-factuals is an easy way to accidentally mislead yourself. We simply don’t know what else would have occurred had Cleopatra not met Caesar or had you not been stuck at that airport. The potential outcomes are too chaotic. But we can use thought experiments to explore unrealized outcomes —to re-run a process as many times as we like to see what could have occurred. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Download
And learn more about the limits we have to work with. The truth is, the events that have happened in history are but one realization of the historical process—one possible outcome among a large variety of possible outcomes. They’re like a deck of cards that has been dealt out only one time.
All the things that didn’t happen, but could have if some little thing went another way, are invisible to us. That is, until we use our brains to generate these theoretical worlds via thought experiments. Second-order thinking is not a way to predict the future. You are only able to think of the likely consequences based on the information available to you.
However, this is not an excuse to power ahead and wait for post-facto scientific analysis. Could these consequences of putting antibiotics in the feed of all animals have been anticipated? Likely, yes, by anyone with even a limited understanding of biology. We know that organisms evolve. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Download
They adapt based on environmental pressures, and those with shorter life cycles can do it quite quickly because they have more opportunities. Antibiotics, by definition, kill bacteria. Bacteria, just like all other living things, want to survive. The pressures put on them by continued exposure to antibiotics increase their pace of evolution.
Over the course of many generations, eventually mutations will occur that allow certain bacteria to resist the effects of the antibiotics. These are the ones that will reproduce more rapidly, creating the situation we are now in. — Sidebar: Second-Order Problem Second-order thinking teaches us two important concepts that underlie the use of this model.
If we’re interested in understanding how the world really works, we must include second and subsequent effects. We must be as observant and honest as we can about the web of connections we are operating in. How often is short-term gain worth protracted long-term pain? At first glance they seem similar enough. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Free
Common outcomes cluster together, creating a wave. The difference is in the tails. In a bell curve the extremes are predictable. There can only be so much deviation from the mean. In a fat-tailed curve there is no real cap on extreme events. The more extreme events that are possible, the longer the tails of the curve get.
Any one extreme event is still unlikely, but the sheer number of options means that we can’t rely on the most common outcomes as representing the average. The more extreme events that are possible, the higher the probability that one of them will occur. Crazy things are definitely going to happen, and we have no way of identifying when. — Sidebar: Orders of Magnitude Think of it this way.
In a bell curve type of situation, like displaying the distribution of height or weight in a human population, there are outliers on the spectrum of possibility, but the outliers have a fairly well-defined scope. You’ll never meet a man who is ten times the size of an average man. But in a curve with fat tails, like wealth, the central tendency does not work the same way. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Free
You may regularly meet people who are ten, 100, or 10,000 times wealthier than the average person. That is a very different type of world. Let’s re-approach the example of the risks of violence we discussed in relation to Bayesian thinking. Suppose you hear that you had a greater risk of slipping on the stairs and cracking your head open than being killed by a terrorist.
The statistics, the priors, seem to back it up: 1,000 people slipped on the stairs and died last year in your country and only 500 died of terrorism. Should you be more worried about stairs or terror events? Far more probability estimates are wrong on the “over-optimistic” side than the “under-optimistic” side.
You’ll rarely read about an investor who aimed for 25% annual return rates who subsequently earned 40% over a long period of time. You can throw a dart at the Wall Street Journal and hit the names of lots of investors who aim for 25% per annum with each investment and end up closer to 10%. The spy world Successful spies are very good at probabilistic thinking. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Free
High-stakes survival situations tend to make us evaluate our environment with as little bias as possible. When Vera Atkins was second in command of the French unit of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British intelligence organization reporting directly to Winston Churchill during World War II.
She had to make hundreds of decisions by figuring out the probable accuracy of inherently unreliable information. Atkins was responsible for the recruitment and deployment of British agents into occupied France. She had to decide who could do the job, and where the best sources of intelligence were. These were literal lifeand-death decisions, and all were based in probabilistic thinking.
First, how do you choose a spy? Not everyone can go undercover in high stress situations and make the contacts necessary to gather intelligence. The result of failure in France in WWII was not getting fired; it was death. What factors of personality and experience show that a person is right for the job? Even today, with advancements in psychology, interrogation, and polygraphs, it’s still a judgment call. The Great Mental Models PDF Book Free