Studying Mental Models

Several years ago, I went down the rabbit hole of studying Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger and fell in love with the way they approached acquiring knowledge and perfecting their craft. I was searching for more material on their philosophy and struck gold when I discovered Shane Parrish’s Farnham Street. I am extremely grateful for what Shane has put together and continue to learn from his writing every day.

One of the major topics that he covers is Charlie Munger’s concept of developing a latticework of mental models in order to gain worldly wisdom. Shane summarizes this concept nicely on his blog:

Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything.

To get the biggest bang for our buck we can study the big ideas from the big disciplines: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, literature, sociology, history, and a few others. We call these big ideas mental models.

Our aim is not to remember facts and try to repeat them when asked, the way you studied for your high school history exams. We’re going to try and hang these ideas on a latticework of mental models, with vivid examples in our head to help us remember and apply them.

The latticework of mental models puts them in a useable form to analyze a wide variety of situations and enables us to make better decisions. And when big ideas from multiple disciplines all point towards the same conclusion, we can begin to conclude that we’ve hit on an important truth.

Shane has accumulated a wonderful list of mental models that everyone should take the time to study and understand. He has put together blog posts on several of the topics but hasn’t had a chance to get to all of them yet. Building on his work, I wanted to put together a way to study and memorize these models. In order to do that, I combined a few techniques that I have collected from people much smarter than I am.

The first is using the Feynman Technique to understand the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something. Richard Feynman suggests a simple process when learning a new concept:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify

This forces you to have a deep understanding of the concept and to be able to explain it in simple language. You can’t rely on technical terminology to communicate the concept.

The second technique that I am using is spaced repetition that I discovered on Derek Sivers’ blog. As Sivers explains:

Say if you learn a new word in a foreign language, you’d want to practice it again a few minutes after hearing it, then a few hours, then the next day, then in 2 days, then 5 days, then 10 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, 8 months, etc. After a while it’s basically permanently memorized with a rare reminder.

There is spaced repetition software that you can use in order to manage the intervals that you are exposed to the concepts based on your feedback. One great tool for this is the AnkiApp. A great feature of this tool is that it allows you to import sets of flashcards from Quizlet. I am in the process of adding all of the mental models below into Quizlet so that anyone can import them into AnkiApp and follow this process. I will link to each set below when I am finished. (see Mental Models)

One important thing to remember is that the goal is not to remember the technical definition that I have added below. The goal is to use that as a trigger and a reminder of the concept. I have added a note to each card to explain the model in your own words and to provide an example. If you aren’t able to do that, then follow the links below and do a refresher on the model until you know it well enough to explain it to a toddler.

Please let me know if you spot any errors or have any feedback on how I can improve this process. Thanks!

List of Mental Models

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