In the past year, one of the most transformative practices I’ve found is to be more intentional about my own and other people’s mental models. It provides clarity of thought, changed how I learn, and improved my decision making.

A mental model is a simplified representation of the world around us. It can come in the form of an assumption, generalization or even an image. We use models to understand the world around us, and our models directly influence our actions.

Here’s how I’ve found them valuable:

  • Learning with the intention of “collecting mental models” is easier and more practical than learning through fact. Learning a new model is like getting a new tool in a toolbox that can be easily used in different situations.
  • It provides a more complete picture of the world. People from different disciplines and backgrounds provide ways of looking at the world that helps us better understand each other and make better decisions for everyone.
  • We act implicitly through mental models, so understanding how others use mental models is critical to building relationships.

There are probably countless mental models in the world, and a good place to start is to understand the broadest fields of study and the key models for each one. For example, for economics the model of supply and demand is critical. In biology, evolution is a central model.

There are some excellent resources mental models here, here and here.

I am also writing about the practice of building a latticework of mental models to become a better leader. The Fifth Discipline is an excellent resource about mental models in the context of leadership.