Great Mental Models

By Engr. Carlos Cornejo

A good book on making big decisions, reveal blind spots and come up with creative methods in solving problems is that of Shane Parrish entitled “The Great Mental Models”.  It makes use of the acronym I.F.S to recall the mental models of Inversion, First Principle Thinking, and Second-Order Thinking.

Inversion means if you are having a hard time solving a problem, try to look at that problem in another perspective by solving the opposite problem.  Instead of asking, “How can I make a really good presentation video?” ask, “How can I make a really bad presentation video?”  If you come up with a list of how to make a bad video it might be using a PowerPoint with no images and just pure texts, use a monotone voice that makes the presentation boring and put your audience to sleep, and make it longer than it needs to be.  Since you’ve imagined what a bad presentation looks like you can now come up with the criteria of a good one if you invert the list.  You can then imagine a video with colorful examples with minimal texts, with vocal variety and as short as possible.  Solving opposite problems or deliberately coming up with bad ideas is fun, and it gets your creative juices going. Plus, bad ideas are surprisingly valuable once you invert them.  Author Shane Parrish says, “Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

First Principle Thinking means going into the very roots of a law, theory or nature of things and base your solution on it.  This thinking is famously practiced by Elon Musk the founder of Tesla and Space X.   When Elon Musk had a problem of assembling a rocket ship that was not as expensive as the ones made by NASA which would cost at least a hundred million dollars, he used this principle to ask, “What are the basic components of a rocket?”  The answer is aerospace‐grade aluminum alloys, some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber that were surprisingly just 2% of the cost of a typical rocket.  Elon Musk would then launch rockets that would only cost eight million.

Lastly, Second Order Thinking.  After World War I, the British and French forced Germany to disarm, give up territory, and pay reparations worth roughly $500 billion today. The British and French got what they wanted: a weak Germany that could not wage war again…or so they thought. The British, French, and other Allied powers failed to consider the second‐order effect of their actions fueling the rise of Fascism in Germany and starting another World War. Second‐order thinking gets you to think beyond the outcome you want and consider reactions to that

outcome. It’s important to incorporate second‐order thinking in your decisions to avoid disastrous unintended consequences that come from second‐order effects. If you’re a CEO of a company and you demand everyone to come back to the office after a year working from home during the COVID‐19 pandemic, you might get what you want: renewed sense of belonging and strong culture. However, your actions might have the second‐order effect of getting people to realize how much they hate commuting to work and miss the convenience of working from home. Those people might leave the company.