James Clear in a recent post tells the story of how physicist Richard Feynman developed the ability to solve mathematical problems that most PhD students could not solve. Feynman had developed a different mental model to solve these problems. A mental model is a concept or framework of thought. The supply and demand concept is a mental model in economics for example. Game theory is another mental model. Entropy is a mental model that helps us understand how disorder and decay function in nature.
Though mental models help structure our thinking and can be very helpful they are also sometimes flawed. At the least they can be limiting. Another way of looking at it is that mental models are not perfect. No mental model can answer all questions in a field or solve all problems. Clear argues that the best mental models are those that have the greatest utility. The more mental models you have in your brain the more tools you have to solve problems. One weakness is that the more you master a single mental model the more likely you will be stumped at some point. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer than everything looks like a nail.
You can expand the number of mental models you use by reading good books, studying fundamentals in unrelated fields of thought and learning from people who have widely different life experiences. We tend to think in silos – in individual disciplines: math, biology, economics, philosophy, etc. Creativity and problem solving often does better at the intersection of these disciplines, not merely within them.
Clear argues that you need not master all these disciplines. You need only learn the most important mental models in each silo and then work with them together. Clear has even created a list of the some the more important mental models in a number of disciplines.
This is not a new idea. The foundation of the classical liberal arts education was to learn the basics in a number of fields of study to “round out” one’s understanding of how the world works. The more mental models you possess the more tools you have to think with.
I will write more about mental models in future posts. The more mental models you develop the more versatile and creative your thinking can be.Wishing you well,
Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.