Entrepreneur, Hacker and Future Mad Scientist 🚀☕

Category: Book Reviews

The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts by Farnam Street

Rating: 5/5

Link to Goodreads

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The core ideas from all fields of study contain principles that reveal how the universe works.
  2. Making better decisions comes down to understanding which models to use — simple processes that help us work through problems.
  3. By using mental models, we’re able to reduce the risk of making terrible decisions by better understanding reality.

🎨 Impressions

The book was a very quick read. Although it was written to be a reference guide to General Thinking Concepts, at least as it pertains to mental models, I thought it could go a bit deeper. The biggest question I came away with was if a framework existed for knowing exactly when to use each model. The author does prescribe a practice of keeping a log of your mental model usage as an effective feedback loop though.

Secondly, I continue to wonder how to really discover new models myself… Shane mentions a method for finding First Principles using either Socratic Questioning or The Five Whys technique, but I wanted to go deeper — I feel like I’ve been given a fish but not quite taught how.

How I Discovered It

I’ve been reading the Farnam Street blog and listening to The Knowledge Project podcast for about a year now. This was Shane’s first book on Mental Models.

Who Should Read It?

Anyone who is in a position to make important decisions or wants to eventually become that person. Additionally, someone who is quickly realizing how terrible their “gut” is at making important decisions over the long run.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • Added a few new tools to my arsenal for making important decisions or viewing a given situation
  • Helped me to put things into perspective — mainly seeing where I truly lack (acting too confident while outside of my Circle of Competence for example)
  • Gave me a better understanding of Mental Models as a whole — what they are, how and when to use them, etc.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  • Circle of Competence — “If you don’t have at least a few years and a few failures under your belt, you cannot consider yourself competent in a circle.”
  • Circle of Competence — “Learning from the experience of others is much more productive”
  • Inversion — “Instead of aiming directly for your goal, think deeply about what you want to avoid and then see what options are left over.”

📒 Summary + Notes

The key to better understanding the world is to build a latticework of mental models.

Introduction: Acquiring Wisdom

Mental Models and what they are

We humans tend to struggle when it comes to thinking rationally. Our failure to update our methods of thought come down to three major things:

  1. Not having the right perspective or vantage point
  2. Ego-induced denial
  3. Distance from the consequences of our decisions

Because we tend to ignore the all important feedback loop that is reality, we make bad decisions. As Confucius said, “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.” By avoiding this feedback loop we end up optimizing for short-term ego protection over long-term happiness and progress.

This is where Mental Models come into play: they allow us to find simple processes to work through problems from multiple dimensions and perspectives. The degree to which our models accurately explain reality is the degree to which they improve our thinking.

In every situation, we need to figure out which models are reliable and useful. We must also discard or update the unreliable ones, because unreliable or flawed models come with a cost: sometimes making good decisions boils down to avoiding bad ones.

The Map is Not The Territory

In other words, your perspective of reality is not reality: even the best maps are imperfect as they are reductions of what they represent. The abstraction is not the abstracted.

In order for a map or model to be as accurate as possible, we should take three important consideration into account:

  1. Reality is the ultimate update
  2. Consider the cartographer
  3. Maps can influence territories

We can use maps to guide us, but we must not let them prevent us from discovery new territory or updating our existing maps. If the aim becomes simplification rather than understanding we start to make bad decisions.

Circle of Competence

When the ego and not competence drives what we do, we operate with blind spots. A Circle of Competence is an area of true expertise, which requires at least a few years of practice and failures.

While in our Circle of Competence we are able to make decisions quickly and relatively accurately. We know what is knowable and what is unknowable and can easily distinguish between the two.

There are three key practices needed in order to build and maintain a Circle of Competence:

  1. Curiosity and a desire to learn
  2. Monitoring
  3. Feedback

While building a Circle of Competence does take time, learning from the experience of others can be a more productive use of time.

There are three parts to successfully operating outside of your Circle of Competence:

  1. Learn at least the basics of the realm you’re operating in, while acknowledging that you’re a Stranger, not a Lifer.
  2. Talk to someone whose Circle of Competence in the area is strong.
  3. Use a broad understanding of the basic mental models of the world to augment your limited understanding of the field in which you find yourself a Stranger.

In any given situation, there are people who have a circle, who have put in the time and effort to really understand the information — lean on those people. “Ignorance more often begets confidence than knowledge.” — Charles Darwin.

First Principles Thinking

If you know the first principles of something, you can build the rest of your knowledge around them to produce something new. The idea is to reduce something down to its most basic piece of truth, then building your knowledge from there, rather than arguing from analogy.

The real power of first principles thinking is moving away from random change and into choices that have a real possibility of success. To improve something, we need to understand why it is successful or not. Otherwise, we are just copying thoughts or behaviors without understanding why they worked.

If we want to identify the principles in a situation to cut through the dogma and the shared belief, there are two techniques we can use:

  1. Socratic Questioning
  2. The Five Whys

As Harrington Emerson said, “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Thought Experiment

A Thought Experiment is a method by which you can test ideas without the risks.

A Thought Experiment generally has the following steps:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Conduct background research
  3. Construct hypothesis
  4. Test with a (thought) experiment
  5. Analyze outcomes and draw conclusions
  6. Compare to hypothesis and adjust accordingly (new questions, ect.)

What is not obvious is that the gap between what is necessary to succeed and what is sufficient is often luck, chance, or some other factor beyond your direct control.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is thinking farther ahead and thinking holistically. While the first-order consequence of something can be immediate, the second-order is what happens because the first-order happened — following the chain of events.

There are two areas where second-order thinking can be useful:

  1. Prioritizing long-term interests over immediate gains.
  2. Constructing effective arguements.

A little time spent thinking ahead can save us massive amounts of time later.

Probabilistic Thinking

Probabilistic Thinking is essentially trying to estimate, using some tools of math and logic, the likelihood of any specific outcome coming to pass. Successfully thinking in shades of probability means roughly identifying what matters, coming up with a sense of the odds, doing a check on our assumptions, and then making a decision.


As a thinking tool it means approaching a situation from the opposite end of the natural starting point. Combining the ability to think forward and backward allows you to see reality from multiple angles. As an example, instead of aiming directly for your goal, thinking deeply about what you want to avoid and then see what options are left over.

Here’s a process for applying inversion:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Define your objective
  3. Identify the forces that support change towards your objective
  4. Identify the forces that impede change towards the objective
  5. Strategize a solution

Think about not only what you could do to solve a problem, but what you could do to make it worse — and then avoid doing that, or eliminate the conditions that perpetuate it.

Occams’s Razor

Simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones.

Occam’s Razor is a great tool for avoiding unnecessary complexity by helping you identify and commit to the simplest explanation possible. Simplicity can increase efficiency. Focusing on simplicity when all others are focused on complexity is a hallmark of genius, and it’s easier said than done.

Hanlon’s Razor

Never attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity. Failing to prioritize stupidity over malice causes things like paranoia. Hanlon’s Razor, when practiced diligently as a counter to confirmation bias, empowers us, and gives us far more realistic and effective options for remedying bad situations. It’s harder to take advantage of, or even see, opportunities while in this defensive mode because our priority is saving ourselves.

Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Rating: 4/5
Link to Goodreads

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. If you don’t take control of your time, someone else will.
  2. Time Boxing is a method to schedule what you’re going to do and when — Including making time for important relationships.
  3. We’re bombarded with distractions throughout the day, but there are tactics you can use to rid your life of them and focus on gaining traction.

🎨 Impressions

This book was a really nice deep-dive into the world of distraction. Although I was familiar with many of the concepts, this book would be a great primer for someone unaware of how distracted they truly are.

As I mentioned, I knew many of the strategies mentioned in the book — such as time-boxing. But, Nir Eyal did a great job explaining the importance of actually using these strategies. I particularly liked how he handles his email — tagging emails as either “Today” or “This Week” — which helps you focus on those worth your time.

I would also recommend reading some of Nir Eyal’s articles on the Indestractable Tools page of his site, which delve into specific topics like being indistractable with online articles, social media, your phone, etc…

How I Discovered It

I’ve been following all works related to productivity and systems. Nir Eyal is a very popular author in the space, so it was hard to miss this one.

Who Should Read It?

Anyone looking to better understand how to combat distractions in their lives. Additionally, if someone truly wants to add a few new strategies to their arsenal to fight distraction.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

How my life / behaviour / thoughts / ideas have changed as a result of reading the book.

  • Clarified just how bad the problem of distraction is!
  • Offered amazing strategies for handled said distraction — email, meetings, etc..
  • Offered a method of Time-boxing that I’ve actually begun to use, where I previously didn’t.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  • Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do.
  • As is the case with all human behavior, distraction is just another way our brands attempt to deal with pain.
  • The cure to boredom is curiosity. There is no cure to curiosity.

📒 Summary + Notes

What does being Indistractable mean?

Being indistractable means striving to do what you say you will do.

All behaviors — whether towards traction or distraction — are prompted by triggers, internal or external. Our superpower lays in understanding and controlling these triggers.

Traction (read: deep focus) is incredibly important as the jobs of the future are those that require creative problem-solving, novel solutions, and the kind of human ingenuity that comes from focusing deeply on the task at hand.

Imagine the types of jobs that will exist as automation becomes more applied…

Controlling Internal Triggers

When you become distracted, it’s always because you’re running away from pain. Distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality.

Epicurus said, ” By pleasure, we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.”

There are four reasons we seek distraction:

  1. Boredom — we will literally shock ourselves to avoid boredom.
  2. Negativity Bias — Where negative events demand attention more powerfully than neutral or positive events.
  3. Rumination — Reliving an event or situation over and over again, unable to stop thinking about it.
  4. Hedonic Adaptation — The tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction.

Dissatisfaction is responsible for our species’ advancements and faults. To harness its power, we must disavow the incorrect idea that if we’re not happy we’re not normal. In fact, the opposite is true.

When considering your Internal Triggers, there are four steps to reimagine the trigger itself:

  1. Look for the discomfort the precedes the distraction, focusing in on the internal trigger itself.
  2. Write down the trigger.
  3. Explore your sensations — consider the Leaves on a Stream method.
  4. Beware of Liminal Moments — Transitions from one task to another throughout the day. Don’t get caught in the “for just a second” trap that leads to another hour wasted. Instead, us the “ten minute rule”, where you cannot give in until ten minutes has past.

When it comes to being Indistractable with your tasks, forget what “fun” should feel like. Instead, try seeing the task in a new way — rather than running away from your pain, pay close attention to finding new challenges you didn’t see before.

Remember, operating under constraints is the key to creativity and fun. More importantly, remember that the cure to boredom is curiosity, and there is no cure to curiosity.

The greatest thinkers of history made discoveries because they were obsessed with discovery itself. The mystery pulls us in closer and closer to the problem at hand.

The quest to solve these mysteries is what shifts our focus from seeking distraction (to deal with the pain) to an activity we want to partake in.

Making time to be Indistractable

Before you can make time to focus on what’s important, you need to decide what is important. To do that, we need to determine what are values are.

A value is a guiding star in that it’s a fixed point used to navigate our life choices. By neglecting our values, we miserable, which increases the probability that we seek distractions.

Seneca said, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

The most effective way to ensure we’re protecting our time is using a method called Time Boxing — where you decide what you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it.

The trick is that it actually doesn’t matter what you plan on doing. As long as you’re doing what you planned, you’re being successful.

The simplest method for using the Time Boxing method is to create calendar events on your calendar, and decide what will be done when. Then, schedule a fifteen-minute block at the end of the week to review, asking the following questions; 1) “When in my schedule did I do what I said I would do and when did I get distracted?”, and 2) “Are there changes I can make to my calendar that will give me the time I need to better live out my values?”

Remember, The one thing we can control is the time we put into a task…

When looking at the things to add to your calendar, start with yourself, as you’re at the core of everything else in your life — meditation, sleep, etc. There are three Domains to consider; You, Relationships, and then Work. Time Box in that sequence.

Once you’ve made time to take care of yourself (meditate, exercise, read), then you should make time for your important relationships. That’s right, actually schedule time on your calendar for spending time with the people you love, even if you live in the same house.

A seventy-five-year study came to a simple conclusion — “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Waldinger (the author of the study) went on to clarify, “It’s not just the number of friends you have… It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

To have satisfying relationships, you need three things — somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.

Hacking External Triggers to Stay Focused

The author goes into strategies for hacking different types of external triggers, such as email, meetings, articles, etc…

While there are great ideas for each — such as using apps like Instapaper to never read article that come up throughout the day or turning off auto-play next episode on streaming sites like Netflix or using Chrome Extension apps like the Newsfeed Eradicator for social media sites — my highlights only covered the email section.

Rather than replying to every email that comes through, the author has a unique approach — first thing in the morning, tag each email in your inbox as either “Today” or “This Week,” which puts each email into one of the two folders. Then, he schedules a daily time on his calendar to only respond to the emails tagged as “Today.” The “This Week” emails will be handled on Friday at a predetermined time.

Taking things a step further, the author also delays the message to the latest time possible (using a tool like Mixmax in Gmail), which reduces the volley of emails responded to. He asks a simple question, “When’s the latest this person needs to see this reply?”

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