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The Great Mental Models

General Thinking Concepts

By Shane Parrish, Rhiannon Beaubien
16-minute read
Audio available
The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish, Rhiannon Beaubien

The Great Mental Models (2019) provides a crash course on how to upgrade your thinking and decision making. Drawing from a wide variety of disciplines, it will equip you with nine of the most essential tools for understanding and navigating the complicated world around you.

  • Decision makers
  • Analysts
  • Anyone who wants to give their thinking an edge

Shane Parrish is a former cybersecurity expert who worked for the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) – an agency of Canada’s Department of National Defence. He is host of The Knowledge Project podcast and the founder of Farnam Street – an online learning community and blog. Rhiannon Beaubien is also a former member of the CSE and writes for Farnam Street’s blog.

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The Great Mental Models

General Thinking Concepts

By Shane Parrish, Rhiannon Beaubien
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish, Rhiannon Beaubien
Synopsis

The Great Mental Models (2019) provides a crash course on how to upgrade your thinking and decision making. Drawing from a wide variety of disciplines, it will equip you with nine of the most essential tools for understanding and navigating the complicated world around you.

Key idea 1 of 10

A map is a simplified representation of a complicated reality.

Mental models are tools that help us navigate reality. The most obvious example is a map. As familiar as it might seem, this classic navigational aid illustrates some of the basic features, benefits, and limits of mental models in general. So it’s a good place to start.

The purpose of a map is to represent the world in a way that’s useful to us. To accomplish this purpose, a map needs to focus on certain aspects of reality while ignoring everything else. For instance, if you’re trying to navigate the London Underground, all you need is a map that shows the overall layout of the subway’s rails and stations – the information that will help you get to your destination. A simple array of lines and circles will do the trick.

The key message here is: A map is a simplified representation of a complicated reality.

Of course, the resulting map – that network of lines and circles – leaves out a lot of details. But that’s unavoidable. To see why, imagine trying to create a map that shows every little detail of the London Underground, right down to the nuts and bolts of the railroad tracks. Such a map would be completely impractical – way too big to fit inside your pocket, and way too complicated to help you get from point A to point B!

So we don’t want a map to include every aspect of the reality it represents. But we also don’t want to forget that it leaves out a lot of details. Sure, many of them are irrelevant to us, like the nuts and bolts of the railroad tracks. But some of them are important to keep in mind. If you’ve ever been so busy looking down at your smartphone map that you walked straight into a lamppost, then you know this firsthand. Or if your GPS device has ever led you to a road that’s closed, then you know the importance of having a map that’s fully up-to-date.

These lessons apply not just to literal maps, but to more metaphorical maps as well. Financial statements, policy papers, parenting manuals, even news articles – they all offer map-like simplifications of reality. A company’s financial statement, for instance, condenses thousands of transactions into a single, easily digestible document.

These simplifications are meant to guide us through the complicated world around us. But if we forget about what they’re leaving out of the picture, and if we fail to update them as the world changes, they can also lead us astray and get us into trouble.

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