Category Archives: Mental Models

Be curious about the strengths of flawed people

When I was younger I would focus on the weaknesses of successful people.

I would think: “this person is very successful, and it’s clear to me they are doing X wrong, so if I do X right I’ll be even more successful than they are.”

This is a wrongheaded way to think about things and it’s taken me years to adjust my mental model.

Now when I meet a successful person I think: “this person is very successful, and it’s clear to me they are doing X wrong, so how are they still so successful?”

This is a small shift in a mental model that has had big impact in how I think.

A few takeaways from having made this shift:

I find it very pleasant to spend more time thinking about why people are amazing rather than why people are flawed. This is not a reason in and of itself to think this way, but it’s a nice bonus.

It’s clear that being very very good at a few things that are aligned with one’s role can lead to tremendous output. Specialization rules the day.

It’s clear that being very very good at a few ways of thinking and behaviors can be lead to tremendous output even if coupled with major flaws in ways of thinking and behavior.

A common flaw I see in successful people is that they are just as stubborn about the things they know a lot about as they are about the things they know a little about. This is a major flaw that has little repercussions so long as they stay specialized. But it can blow up in their faces if they branch out. This is a major risk in philanthropy.

Anyways, I suggest you give this way of thinking a try. Anytime you meet someone who’s done something amazing, try to be curious about why they were able to accomplish amazing things despite all their flaws.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

When should you use first principles thinking? When should you avoid it?

“First principles thinking”is a fairly popular phrase out here in the Bay – and for good reason: it’s a powerful mental tool.

Many of the most effective people I work with are exceptional first principal thinkers.

It’s also an area of growth for me. See below for some reflections on the idea.

What is first principals thinking?

The best description I’ve heard is that is it reasoning by root cause rather than reasoning by analogy.

Instead of trying to figure out how something is like another thing, it is more about keeping on asking “why” about the specifics of one thing.

For example, if I were trying to build a cheap rocket to get to Mars, I could look at the price reduction trajectories of other similar complex machines, or I could do a part by part analysis of each component of a rocket.

The first is reasoning by analogy, the second is reasoning through the specific issue at hand.

Yes, Elon Musk is a major proponent of first principles thinking.

Why is first principles thinking useful?

Thinking by analogy is useful in that it is efficient: it quickly allows us to make guesses about unfamiliar issues by comparing them to familiar issues.

However, thinking by analogy is also noisy: the things you are comparing – especially in the case of really hard problems – will never be truly the same. So you are inevitably losing information by making erroneous implicit assumptions.

Ideally, first principles thinking will increase the amount of accurate information at hand, which will help with sound decision making.

Why is first principles thinking dangerous? 

It takes a lot more mental energy to think down to the root causes of every issue you face.

Moreover, the ability to execute sound first principles thinking will most likely require some subject matter expertise. While it’s possible to get to root causes without being a content expert (this is what junior strategy consultants often attempt to do), I’m skeptical that you consistently identify all root causes without deeply understanding the content.

Often times, I catch people who pride themselves in first principles thinking making major mistakes. This is especially true when they are talking to me about education, which happens to be something I know a lot about.

The world is an ever complicated place, and if you don’t have a handle on research and a broad set of real life facts, you can end up with high confidence in first principles that aren’t anchored in reality.

When should you use first principles thinking?

My hunch is that using first principles thinking is most useful in areas where: (1) you have subject matter expertise (2) you have time to devote to thinking about the issue (3) you have external feedback mechanisms that will tell you if you’re right.

I think reasoning by analogy and / or trusting experts / or simply not having an opinion (an under used option!!!!) is best in situations where you don’t have the requisite expertise, time, or feedback mechanisms to conduct first principles thinking.

How can you getter better at first principles thinking?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; here’s some suggestions:

1. Get into friendly arguments with people who are good first principle thinkers and watch them work through issues. I have 3-4 great first principle thinkers in my life and I’ve learned a ton from watching them think. If you don’t have them in your life, listen to podcasts and read blog posts by people who excel at first principles thinking.

2. Use thinking devices such as getting to root causes by asking “why” 5+ times before you settle on viewing something as causal or true.

3. Cultivate anxiety about not being a good first principal thinker. Whenever I’m confronting a thorny issue in education, I always pressure / chastise myself to take the time to do first principles thinking before voicing an opinion.

Good luck.

The Challenge of Separating Emotional and Intellectual Agreeableness

There is a decent amount of research showing that agreeableness (as measured by the five factor personality test) is not always associated with strong professional outcomes.

Specifically, agreeableness can reduce results orientation and create opportunities to be taken advantage of by colleagues who better use power to achieve their desired ends.

That being said, agreeableness need not be all bad: to the extent that it helps cultivate large, loose networks, agreeableness is likely of use to leaders in attracting talent and coalition members, especially in the non-profit sector.


Many times, I’ll be in a conversation with a colleague, grantee, or potential grantee and there will be a small war going on my head: part of me wants to nod my head, smile, and ask probing but pleasant questions – while another party of me wants to dig in very hard on everything that might be wrong about what we’re discussing.

I have a strong desire to be both emotionally agreeable and intellectually disagreeable.

Which begs the question: is it possible to be emotionally agreeable while being intellectually disagreeable?


I’m not sure. But here’s some things I try to do:

  • Utilize processes that create a safe space for intellectual aggression (i.e., assigning someone to be the devil’s advocate in a meeting).
  • Using hedging phrases such as “I might have this wrong, but….” that soften the blows of intellectual aggression.
  • Trying to separate my empathy for a person with my disagreement with her ideas – so that my intellectual disagreeableness does not bleed into full blown personal animosity.

If you have any other tools, let me know.

I struggle to get the balance right.

Sometimes I feel like I’m too agreeable, and sometimes I feel like I’m too intellectually aggressive.

How Big is Your Mental Model Toolbox?

In conversations with Ethan Fletcher, we’ve mulled over taxonomies and uses of mental models.

For me, a mental model is way to understand and solve complex problems.

I think you can get better by increasing the number of mental models in your toolbox, as well a correctly applying the right models to the right problems.

Models I (try to) Utilize

See below for an attempt to loosely and quickly define the models I often find myself using to solve problems.

1. Legal Model: Law is based on logic, analogies, and advocacy. A strength is in its intellectual rigor; a weakness is its narrowness.

2. Entrepreneurship Model: Entrepreneurship is based on risk taking, problem solving, customer empathy, and organizational development. A strength is in its built in humility, innovation, and openness; a weakness is in its systems level limitations.

3. Communications Model: Communications is based on influencing people through any means possible. A strength is in its melding of creativity, psychology, and data; a weakness is that it is morally and substantively neutral.

4. Human Resources Model: HR is based on recruiting, selecting, developing, and promoting or exiting people based on their skills and values. A strength is in aligning organizational and individual needs and desires; a weakness is in its tight focus on what is happening inside of the organization.

5. Leadership Model: Leadership is based aligning the greatest strength of a high-performing individual to an organization, management team, and environmental context. A strength is in its ability to get the most out of extremely talented people; a weakness is that too heavy a focus on this model can lead to neglect of the greater organization and environment.

6. Organizational Design Model: Org design is based on creating internal coherency of mission, strategy, people, culture, tasks, and goals. A strength is its holistic approach to building organizations; a weakness is that it more about design than execution.

7. Economic Model: Economics is based in large part on incentives. A strength is that it lends itself to systems level thinking and policy development; a weakness is that it is social science that too often ignores the other social sciences (psychology, anthropology, sociology, political science, etc.)

8. Political Model: The political model organizes people as ideological tribes, with the liberal conservative, and libertarian tribes being most prominent. A strength is that it accurately defines how different tribes hear and understand arguments; a weakness is that it provides less predictive power of how change and compromise occurs over time.

9. Politician Model: Politician thinking involves building a coalition that can create support for a policy, law, action, etc. A strength of this model is that it understands political chance in terms of psychology rather than rationality; a weakness to the model is that is morally and substantively neutral.

10. Evolutionary Model: Evolution is based on fitness, experimentation, and adaptation. A strength is that operates outside of volition; a weakness is that its explanatory power is more backwards looking than forwards looking.

11. Status Model: Status thinking is based on the idea that status is a prime motivator for human action. A strength is its ability to mine for actual rather than professed rationales; a weakness is that it can be difficult to disapprove and therefor risks being over applied.

In Conclusion

All of the above is a rough sketch. In a few sentences, I tried to define extremely complex subjects that I don’t fully understand.

But you get the idea.

There are numerous ways to understand and solve problems, and using the right mental models can help you solve them.