NC Weekly 8: Against the mental model circle jerk – How to really learn mental shortcuts you can use

(Note: This post was initially published as part of my newsletter. )

“Benefits > Features” becomes your mental model.

What’s a mental model?

A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.

It can be a shortcut to help us process and simplify information, because reality is too complex to truly be grasped.

Like any shortcut, it doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to go about it.

We should constantly update and re-evaluate our mental models.

In the case of benefits over features, one could argue that it’s not always true. Especially as people experience some kind of sales copy blindness due to being exposed to it so much. So they start skipping over it and only looking for the meat.

At the same time as mentioned, reality is an utter mess. You can’t say benefits don’t work anymore. Obviously it depends. It depends on the context, on the audience and on their level of awareness and intent, on their journey to your site, on the type and price of the product you sell etc.

You can say that metal model is not always accurate or that it doesn’t work for you, but you can’t say it just doesn’t work.

In general mental models work, they might just need maintenance and some fine tuning.

But how do we actually go about learning a new mental model? Not just learning about it, but learning how to use it…

The mental model circle jerk

Mental models seem to have become the new cool thing nerds (myself included) talk about. To the point when even I start feeling a bit nauseated by the whole thing. Almost like when you go for Sunday lunch with family and you eat so fucking much you feel dizzy and could fast for a week after (if you’re Italian you know it).

The thing is, mental models are becoming too cool.

And like anything, when it starts becoming too cool, it means that people are overdosing on it. And it starts losing all its power.

Ever bought an online course promising you a surefire way of doing XYZ? So counterintuitive that NOBODY else was doing it? Chances are you bought into something that was already been used sooo much that the space for that thing was saturated.

It’s the same with all this talk about mental models. They even sell courses on learning mental models!

It’s even the same when it comes to our human biases.

Mark Manson recently observed:

It turns out that the more aware people are of human biases, the more they assume others are more biased than themselves.

It’s a damn vicious cycle.

Dumbing it down (🤔 this is so meta!)

We can’t really learn how to use a mental model by simply reading about it. It’s not (yet) like installing an app into our brain.

We have to use it, practice and mess with it. We have to experience what life is like without that knowledge and then compare it to life with it, to actually understand if/why it’s useful.

The thing that nobody told me while I was nerding about mental models is that you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to acquire some helpful ones. Life is constantly teaching you very valuable mental shortcuts. You just need to be open to them.

And the simpler they are, usually the more helpful.

The most useful shortcuts I’ve learned lately

Cravings and aversions

In Vipassana meditation the main principle you learn is that every single misery in human existence is caused by 2 things: cravings (wanting something) and aversions (not wanting something). With practice and awareness I’ve internalized it so much that now anytime something wrong happens to me or around me, I immediately look for one of the two causes. If I can control it I try, otherwise I try to stay clear of it. Simple and effective.

Fail left, fail right

This is something I’ve learned from Erik Kennedy of LearnUI design. It’s basically the concept that if you want to truly take your design skills to the next level, you always have to try the extremes. Have to add a box between two elements? Try making it 100 pixels and try with only 5. See how both look and then find the sweet spot. This concept has incredible value in almost anything we do. If we only take the first result for good and call it a day, we’ll never get the chance to explore new ways of doing things.

There’s always one better way

Try to do 100 pushups. Can’t do it? Now try and do 2 pushups every minute for the next 50. Manageable right? Guess what, you just got to 100 pushups! If there’s one thing I’ve learned by doing a lot of burpees, is that having a framework for doing something differently, unlocks new doors we didn’t think existed. So when we think something can’t be done, in reality there’s probably an efficient way of doing it.

Negative space

Another good design lesson is that white or negative space is a visual element too. Just like lines, color, and typography. It’s not “nothing”. When we start thinking of emptiness as something more tangible and useful, we start thinking with a more open mind. This is true whenever we are waiting for something or when we just ended something, a relationship, a big project etc. Not having that thing yet or anymore, is in itself an active phase of life and we should consider it as such, not blame ourselves or the circumstances because we feel like we’re doing nothing.

Optimize for learning

Learning new skills has been the single most impactful thing in my life. It’s been what dictated my career path, my circle of friends and how I shaped my character. Whenever I have to decide on a specific direction I always think about what that direction will teach me over the alternative(s).

These are just a few of the mental models/shortcuts I find myself coming back to over and over. What they have in common, which I think is what characterizes useful models, is that they are:

  • Simple: it’s about 1 or 2 easy to recall concepts
  • Flexible: they can be mapped onto any area of life

The problem is that often they are too simple and we overlook them. So we need to dig deeper. What makes them stick is going through intense experiences (like a 10-day meditation retreat, or a month of studying during weekends and evenings or an hour and a half of burpees on a Sunday afternoon…) where we are forced to sit with them.

Start thinking in terms of mental models. Chances are you’re already using some. Defining them helps you integrate them and you don’t need a course or a cult-like circle to do it.


Here are this week’s top finds:

Written

Why designers should be specialized generalists

  • Very insightful article on how to think about learning skills to get an edge in our careers. It’s the opposite of the niching down way which has been popular for a while. Lots of intersect with Scott Adams’ concept of the talent stack.

Audio

Chase Jarvis interviews Austin Kleon

  • I just bought all 3 of Austin’s books on paperback. I love the way he thinks and creates art while instilling lessons in it. Great interview about “stealing like an artist”.

Video

Captain Sinbad – The “Watches once” series

  • Hilarious. Ever watched an inspiring video once and felt like you could take over the world? This is probably how you felt.

Thought bubble

Have an amazing week!

Chris