Mental Models — September Grey Swan Guild All-Stars

20 Experts & 486 Mental Models Helping People Understand the World

Sean Moffitt, Founder Grey Swan Guild, MD, Cygnus Sprints & Futureproofing

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything except our thinking. Thus, we are drifting toward catastrophe beyond conception. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Albert Einstein

always, the genius of geniuses sums it up quite well. Technology, science and progress is outpacing the decisions, actions and manner in which we think. It’s not about adding more and more data into our thought processes. Although helpful, it won’t be about changing the practices, policies and power that surround us either. The most sticky part of our systemic challenges actually happen to be inside us — the mental models that run the flywheel of our brains.

Mental Models Defined

Mental models are simply personal, internal representations of external reality that people use to interact with the world around them. They are constructed by individuals based on their unique life experiences, perceptions, and understandings of the world.

Mental models are inordinately helpful (although can be admittedly flawed depending on the situation, application or exception) in our fast-paced, super-caffeinated world:

  • they help us understand the world and provide shorthands in order to not be overwhelmed by it
  • they shape connections and opportunities that we see, and then, can realize in the world
  • they provide simpler understandable representations of how complex things work
  • they give on ramps and off ramps to producing new things of value
  • the best ones incorporate multidisciplinary connections and associations allowing their stewards to generate new breakthroughs via fusion & combination
  • they help us communicate effectively and transmit knowledge to others, particularly to the new, novel, risky or foreboding futures

In essence, you are how you think.

Mental models can take on the form of maps, frameworks, paradigms, heuristics, processes, rules of thumb or well-known adages and there are literally thousands of them, baked by experience, observation, or vicariously through evidence.

Mental Models and Lifelong Learning Source: Philip Barker & Paul van Schaik

Mental Models — The Challenge Ahead:

The imperative for any thinkers using mental models in our current world is four fold:

  1. Some models are flawed and dated — mental models can be improved and progressed upon based on further insight & wisdom. You constantly have to apply them, but not take them blindly at faec value. Periodically, thought architects need to change their underpinnings when their models are no longer correct for the age that they are in (many are not based on scientific irrefutable evidence but dependent on mercurial perceptions and value shifts).
  2. Some models are incorrect or inappropriate for situations that confront you — mental models need to be picked and chosen for the environments and dispositions of the actor or decision makers involved. As has been attempted with some of the people and posts below, keen thinkers need to build a brain of brains in choosing the ripest fruit of a mental model for what harvest of need in front of them. In the Guild, we call it ‘comfort with ambiguity’ and we impress upon our Guild members and apprentices this need ad nauseum.
  3. Some models are better than one model — over and over, we see people that have found success through the application of a very narrow sense of mental models. These thinking specialists need to widen their range of mental models to avoid being blindsided by the complex dynamics of our sped up world. As a billionaire pioneer in the space Charles Munger mused about their interdependence: “you’ve got to have models in your head and you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — onto this latticework of mental models.”
  4. Some models need to be consciously considered before applying — tools are only as good as their application. The carinal rule of sensemakers is to be aware of what thinking, assumptions and potential biases you may be looking at before applying them to a specific situation. One of our Cygnus Ventures below “Compendium & Compass” is focused on becoming the Rosetta Stone of sorts, collecting, connecting and finding ways to use models and frameworks for making sense of the world. The caliber of our ingoing thinking matters…let’s value it.

Standing on the Shoulders of Mental Model Giants — Twenty Posts, Twenty People

We have given credit where credit is due in this post. We have provided our Guild’s monthly view of all-stars that have distinguished themselves in dissecting, playing with and synthesizing some well above-average smarts about mental models. We’re humbled by their intellect and geekery on this subject, and would welcome them into our orbit on some of our future Guild content, events, intelligence, learning efforts and ventures. Let’s tumble through their works and add them to our latticework.

I) Gabriel Weinberg — Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful

Author: Founder of DuckDuckGo and Co-author, Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models.

Quote: “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldlywise person.”

Substance : 189 mental models broken down by frequency and 28 categories from agnosticism-to-zero sum: explaining, modelling, physics, brainstorming, experimentation, interpretation, deciding, reasoning, negotiating, mitigating, managing, developing, business, influencing, marketing, competing, strategizing, military, history, sports, market failure, political failure, investing, learning, productivity, nature, philosophy and the internet. Link

II. Brandon Chu — Product Management Mental Models for Everyone

Author: General Manager. Shopify Platform

Quote: “You shouldn’t rely on one or even a few mental models, you should instead be continuously building a latticework of mental models that you can draw from to make better decisions.”

Substance : Sixteen product management mental models that figure out: Where to Invest; Designing and Scoping; and Shipping and Iterating. From Key Failure Indicators, Experiments (vs. features and platforms) and Working Backwards. Link.

Expected Value (Brandon Chu)

III. James Clear — Mental Models: How to Train Your Brain to Think in New Ways

Author: Author Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break and 3–2–1 newsletter.

Quote: “Every Ph.D. student at Princeton and MIT is brilliant. What separated Feynman from his peers wasn’t necessarily raw intelligence. It was the way he saw the problem. He had a broader set of mental models.”

Substance : After researching more than 1,000 different mental models, Clear has narrowed it down to about 50 that matter most in economics, psychology, thinking, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and math. Here’s his list. In this article, he defines mental models, unlocks it as a secret to great thinking, calls for an expansion of models & pursuit of liquid knowledge and tools for thinking better. Link.

Atomic Habits — Visual synopsis by Dani Saveker

IV. Jayme Hoffman — Thirteen Mental Models Every Founder Should Know

Author: Founder of Newzip

Quote: “Mental models are to your brain as apps are to your smartphone. Just like apps, there are a ton of mental models. They help you make decisions, solve problems and see the world in an entirely new way… they basically make your brain more useful.”

Substance : Entrepreneur-friendly models that are a founders’ best friend: Regret Minimization, The Idea Maze, Schlep Blindness, Jobs to be Done, Minimum Viable Product, Confirmation Bias, Product-Market Fit, 100 People Love, AARRR, Network Effects, Economies of Scale, Disruptive Innovation and Conjoined Triangles of Success. Link.

Jobs to be Done — Clayton Christensen

V. Shane Parrish — Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions : 100 Mental Models Explained

Author: Founder/Chairman, Farnam Street Media

Quote: “The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have — the bigger your toolbox — the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions variety matters.”

Substance: A definition of mental models, learning to think better, a latticework of models and 100 different mental models in the following categories: Core Thinking Concepts, Physics & Chemistry, Biology, Systems, Numeracy, Microeconomics, Military & War and Human Nature & Judgment. Link.

The Map is Not The Territory (Source: Farnam Street Media)

VI. Scott Young — The Top Ten Most Useful Mental Models

Author: Author of the book Ultralearning

Quote: “Being shown a new mental model isn’t enough. To get real value out of them, you need to understand them deeply. You need to see them in many contexts and get a feel for how they work. But, if you hear an abstraction come up again and again, and you don’t understand it well, that’s a good sign there’s a hidden mental model waiting to be unlocked.”

Substance: A great top ten list of mental models: The Margin, Natrual Selection, Signaling, Potential, Compounding, Bayes’ Rule, Common Knowledge, Feedback, Incentives and Nash Equilibria. Link.

The Margin —Source: Scott Young

VII. Tom Connor — 12 Mental Models I Frequently Draw On

Author: Chief Content Curator 10x Engineer and Advisor, Queensland Alumina

Quote: “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” Helsinki Bus Theory

Substance: A wide array of great mental models: Survivorship Bias, Helisnki Bus Theory, Until It Sticks…, WRAP Decision Making Model, FRESH Knowledge Worker Excellence, Black Box Thinking, the OODA Loop, Know your Domain — Cynefin, Three Critical Gaps, Theory of Constraints, Serendipity &The Adjacent Possible and Boundaries of Failure. Link.

12 Mental Models Infographic — Source: Tom Connor / 10 Engineer

VIII. Sean Kim —The Science Behind Smarter Decision Making: 7 Mental Models You Should Know

Author: Host, Growth Minds Podcast

Quote: “Every one of us make dozens, if not hundreds of small to big decisions on a daily basis. Some don’t impact our lives at all, while some can change the outcome of our entire lives. Whether it’s trying to figure out which job you should take, deciding to quit your job to start a business, move to a new city — these decisions are never easy. Yet there are people who we can learn from who make highly impactful decisions on a regular basis, and they’ve developed mental models to help them make smarter decisions.”

Substance: Seven great decision-making models: 10/10/10 Rule, True Fans, Pareto’s Law, Regret Minimization Framework, Eisenhower Matrix, Parkinson’s Law and Circle Of Competence. Link.

Eisenhoweer Matrix — Source: Sean Kim

IX. Andrew James Walls— Using Mental Models to Understand the World

Author: Founder, Boardroom Labs

Quote: “Anytime you think about anything you’re using a mental model. Your understanding of how the public transit works? A mental model. It’s a simplified abstraction which your mind creates to plot the most relevant data points to create optimized understanding without wasting brain power. Sort of like the equilibrium point in an economy between complexity, and compression of information..”

Substance: Ten great decision-making models: Myers Briggs, Business Models Canvas’s, Hofstede’s 6 Cultural Dimensions, Enneagrams, Classical and Operant Conditioning, CQPPRT, PESTEL and Lean Startup. Link.

Myers Briggs, Source: Andrew James Walls

X. Chris Sparks —Systems Thinking — The Essential Mental Models Needed for Growth

Author: Founder, Forcing Function

Quote: “We always have the capacity to rewrite the goals we align ourselves (and our systems) towards. One level of abstraction higher, we can change the system we use to generate and select between potential goals At the highest level, we can even rewrite our utility functions: our mental models, belief structures, deeply-held priceless values, and assumptions about objective reality.”

Substance: Systems thinking served up as the multi-tool which makes the analysis and improvement of all parts of life possible — the paradigm that shifts all other paradigms through three key mental models: bottlenecks, leverage, and feedback loops. Link.

Botlenecks — one of three mental models Source: Chris Sparks

XI. Art Smith— 30 Mental Models (excerpted from Peter Hollins)

Author: Book reviewer, this time of Peter Holins, Mental Models: 30 Thinking Tools that Separate the Average From the Exceptional. Improved Decision-Making, Logical Analysis, and Problem-Solving.

Quote: “Mental models are blueprints to draw your attention to problem at hand, They define context, background and direction. Help you make optimal decisions. They provide predictable results of future. life heuristics or guidelines to evaluate or comprehend. Mental models should come from various disciplines, as wisdom of the world cannot be confound to one academic department. The more tools you are familiar with the better you can handle different situations.”

Substance: 30 mental models on how to think: Review of Decision Making for Speed and Context, Visualize the Dominoes (Second Order Thinking), Make Reversible Decisions, Seek Satisfaction or Law of Diminishing Returns, Stay within 40–70% (Powell Information Model), Minimize Regret, Ignore the Black Swans, Equilibrium Points or Law of Diminishing Returns, Regression to Mean, What would Bayes Do? Or Play by Probability, Do it like Darwin or Beware of Confirmation Bias, Think with System 2, Peer Review Your Perspectives, Find Your Own Flaws, Separate Correlation from Causation (Five Whys), Storytell in Reverse, SCAMPER, Get Back to First Principles, Avoid Direct Goals or Invert Thinking, Avoid thinking like an Expert, Avoid Your Non-Genius Zones, Avoid To-Do Lists, Avoid Path of Least Resistance, Murphy’s Law, Occam’s Razor, Hanlon’s Razor, Pareto’s Principle, Sturgeon’s Law, Parkinson’s Law of Attention to Trivialities and Parkinson’s Law of Work Expands to Time Given. Link.

Fishione Diagram, Source: Srt Smith

XII. Alex J. Hughes —Top 4 Books for Better Mental Models

Author:Writer . Product Manager. Author — 7 Strategies to Navigate the Noise

Quote: “When you position yourself at the intersection of multiple disciplines, you develop the ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots in a way that the vast majority are otherwise incapable of discovering. It’s here where true creativity and the most innovative solutions are found.”

Substance: Reviews of four key books on Mental Models: 1) Mastery — by Robert Greene, 2) Tools of Titans — by Tim Ferriss, 3) Antifragile — by Nassim Taleb and 4) The Daily Stoic — by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Culled from his starter list of 40 books. Link.

Book Collection Picture : Source: Alex J. Hughes

XIII. Oz Hashimoto —Why do we pay to use a product? Understanding mental models in UX

Author: Design engineer and co-founder of Zypsy.

Quote: “Why is the mental model so important? Applying mental model principles to product design can provide clues for building user connections, empathy, trust, and brands, even for products that are not well known.”

Substance: 10 mental models through the lens of five popular apps: periodic events, conceptual metaphor, recognition over recall, sequencing, gifting, social proof, familiarity bias, feedback loops, framing and loss aversion. Link.

Interaction & Mental Model Source: Oz Hashimoto

XIV. Shailly Kishtawal— Designing for the mental model

Author: Interaction designer, Google.

Quote: “Mental models are usually based on beliefs or assumptions, not facts. It’s about what users know (or they think they know) about a product. Each user would have a different mental model which will gradually change and adjust to reflect their further experience with the product or website.”

Substance: Profiling why products fail with the gap between the mental model of the designer (e.g. the conceptual model) and that of the end-user. The article profiles three leading users’ mental models: Jakob’s Law, Natural User Interfaces and Card-sorting exercise. Link.

Difference between Conceptual & Mental Models Source: Shailly Kishtawal

XV. Krisztina Szerovay Mental Model

Author: UX Designer, Founder of the UX Knowledge Base Sketch

Quote: “A mental model is an internal representation of the external reality based on past experiences, learning and intuition. As Susan Carey defines: “A mental model represents a thought process for how something works”..”

Substance: Sketching out what a mental model actually represents. Link.

Mental Model Defioition Sketch Source: Krisztina Szerovay

XVI. Paras Chopra — Meta Mental Models

Author: Founder and chairman of Wingify

Quote: “My misapplication of the rationality doesn’t make it (mental model) useless. It’s just that I was applying it (mental model) everywhere indiscriminately. This big error led me to think about mental models and how to use them. To clarify, by “meta mental model”, I mean a mental shortcut to help you choose and apply the right mental model, specific to your goals and surrounding context. The aim of any meta mental model should be to assist in choosing the right mental model and minimize chances of misapplication.”

Substance: Hovering above hundreds of mental models and asking three questions: Whenever you come across a mental model (e.g. form of advice, framework, diagram, research result, or anecdote), classify it as either:

  • descriptive or normative. does the mental model tell you how things are or does it tell you how things should be?
  • consider under what conditions should that mental model be applied. If the mental model is broadly applied, ask what underlying reasons make it applicable to wide range of phenomena? If it’s specific (like globalization leads to specialization), think of cases where the mental model breaks.
  • find out whether the mental model has any backing in research- does a mental model do a better job of vetting truths than people’s experiences or gut feeling. Lack of evidence doesn’t mean that experience backed mental models is useless. It’s just that while analyzing experience based mental models (as ship early, ship often), you should be more critical. Link.
Meta Mental Models, Paras Chopra

XVII. Radu Gabriel & Raluca Judele — Implementing Mental models and Maps in your life

Author: Founders of BrainyTab

Quote: “There are many known mental models, but the best ones apply broadly to life and are useful in a wide range of situations. People aren’t born with an owner’s manual. A mental model is how you think something will work, based on your learning and is always based on an individual’s experiences. Cognitive Maps, Mind Maps, and Concept Maps are strategies that help us layout complex ideas, processes and recognize patterns and relationships.”

Substance: A breakdown of maps — cognitive, mind and concept maps and the value of better decision making (with Pareto, understanding of general concepts (Occam’s Razor) and jumping off the bandwagon (rejecting FOMO). Link.

Source; NBrainyTab

XVIII. Anne-Laure Le Cunff — 30 mental models to add to your thinking toolbox

Author: Founder of Ness Labs

Quote: “Remember how I told you that you need to build your own mental gym? Well, let’s talk about your mental equipment. Mental models are some of the most powerful mental tools at your disposal. They can help you think better, and faster.”

Substance: Coverage of 30 mental models — Anchoring, Backward chaining,
Classical conditioning, Commitment and consistency bias, Common knowledge, Comparative advantage, Diversification, Economies of scale, Efficient-market hypothesis, Game theory, Hyperbolic discounting, Illusion of control, Loss aversion, Margin of safety, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Mechanical advantage, Mere-exposure effect, Norm of reciprocity, Normal distribution, Operant conditioning, Redundancy, Scarcity, Signalling theory,
Status quo bias, Supply and demand, Surfing (the business principle of “riding the wave”), Survivorship bias and Tribalism. Link.

Ness Labs — Flash cards

XIX. Daniel Borg and Linus Bille — The Architecture of Mental Models

Authors: Partner/Board Member and Founder/Chairman, eicorn

Quote: “The real power of Mental Models as tools for intellectual change and better thinking lies in our ability to take over the control of our Mental Models, make changes to them and use them deliberately. If we stick with food as an example, becoming a vegan is a deliberate change and use of the food Mental Model. However, once a vegan menu is the norm the Mental Model will go back to autonomous mode and work automatically in the background to fulfil your goal. Autonomous or deliberate application modes are not good or bad, they are just different in nature. Some Mental Models are always deliberate; they are simply too rare, too hard, or too unnatural to internalise deeply enough to become autonomous models.”

Substance: Looking at the mental model of mental models and considering making sense of the thousand plus mental models that are frequently practiced enough to be delineated. Some really cool meta analysis of mental models: the five cognitive dimensions to them (visualized below), the evaluation of system, state change or uncertainty, the value of mental models and the components (or fabric) of them. Link.

Five Cognitive Characteristics of Mental Model Source: eicorn

XX. John Kania — Unsticking Stuck Mental Models: Adventures in Systemic Change

Author: Executive Director, Collective Change Lab

Quote: “…identify six conditions at three levels that are part of changing a system. The first level is structural in nature and includes policies, practices and resource flows. The second level is relational and includes relationships and connections and power dynamics. The third and deepest level is the domain of mental models. We identified mental models as the most transformative of the six conditions of systems change.

Substance: Based on a set of webinars and guest panelists, Kania codified six issues to systemic change (visualized below), the key mental models holding the U.S. back from meaningful progress on climate change, the three things you can’t do to change peoples’ mental models and the two things you should do to change peoples’ mental models. Link.

Six Conditions That Hold Systemic Problems in Place (Source: Collective Change Lab)

Cygnus Venture — Compendium & Compass

One of our interests in Mental Models is one of Cygnus Ventures; an attempt to make sense of the world named the Compendium & Compass from a model and systems standpoint aka “The Rosetta Stone for Intelligence, Planning, Change & Impact”.

Cygnus Compendium & Compass (defined) : The Full Spectrum of Making Sense — Mapping All the Essential Models, Frameworks and Domains for Bringing the World Into Better, Clearer View


  • Intelligence, Planning, Change, Impact
  • Past, Present, Future
  • Uncertain/Semi-Certain/Certain,
  • Discipline/Approach/Tool/Variants

Formats: Interconnected Systems Map, Multimedia Master Schematic, Ongoing Data Evaluation, Tools Wiki Hierarchy & Database.

Let us know if you’d like to be involved in the effort.

Craft-Building Series — Identity, Pluralism and Tribalism — Edition #45

Our 45th gathering that brings our groups to learn, relearn and unlearn is a sensitive one — what are the pros and cons or strong personal and group identity in 2022. We’ll explore leading perspectives, burning questions, key debates, helpful resources. Come join us Friday, September 9th 1pm ET/5pm UTC for the smartest hour on Clubhouse:

Come join us:

Guild Feature City of Month:

Every month the Guild celebrates a feature city — September 2022’s is Amsterdam. Come join. us for a Town Hall September 28th, 2022 12pm CEST as we meet and act locally and think globally. Pre-register here:

Join us September 28th for our guild’s Amsterdam Town Hall:

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