Mental Models for Any Time

If you’re like me, your mind has been overloaded by information recently. As a result, I’ve been trying to use this pandemic to build better mental models and become a better thinker overall.

You can think of mental models as simply a way to understand what’s going on in the world and make sense of complexity. The goal is to make better decisions when your mind would otherwise be overwhelmed by details.

My go-to resource (for a long time now) for becoming a better thinker and developing helpful mental models is Farnam Street. They recently published a post titled “Mental Models For a Pandemic” that’s honestly useful anytime but especially right now. I’d encourage everyone to give it a read and try to really grasp the concepts.

Two concepts, in particular, stood out in the piece—inversion and “Black Swan” thinking.

Finally, on a day-to-day basis, trying to make small decisions with incomplete information, you can use inversion. You can look at the problem backwards. When the best way forward is far from clear, you ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, and then avoid doing those things.

Farnam Street in Mental Models for a Pandemic

Regarding “Black Swan” thinking, this is particularly top of mind as I’m reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, the author that popularized the term “black swan.” As Taleb defines it, a black swan event has three characteristics:

  1. It is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
  2. It carries an extreme impact
  3. In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Specifically on the third item, there will undoubtedly be many post-dictions (explanations after the fact) that attempt to rationalize COVID-19. The more useful approach isn’t to try to predict the next pandemic. It’s to understand the fragilities that COVID-19 has exposed and attempt to move towards antifragility.