[YS Learn] Top takeaways on decision making from Super Thinking - The Big Book of Mental Models

In their book Super Thinking - The Big Book of Mental Models, authors Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann touch upon topics like making decisions, conflict resolutions, and evryday steps that help us make decisions.

[YS Learn] Top takeaways on decision making from Super Thinking - The Big Book of Mental Models

Friday December 11, 2020,

7 min Read

While talking about mental models, it becomes important to realise that we end up using cognitive shortcuts in our everyday life without even realising it. 

In their book Super Thinking - The Big Book of Mental Models, authors Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann take you through topics like making decisions, conflict resolutions, and everyday steps that help us make decisions. 

In the book, the authors organise the different models into nine chapters, and each of these focus on conflict time management, organisational behaviour, resolving conflicts, and making decisions. 

Here are some of the top takeaways from the book that can aid entrepreneurs. 

Inverse thinking

Whether we realise it or not, we make several decisions in a day, whether it is having cereal or eggs for breakfast, or answering your emails at work first. Some of these decisions are of higher magnitude, while others are a part of everyday life. And it is a human tendency to want to be right rather than wrong. 

“However, consistently being right more often is hard because the world is a complex and ever-evolving place. You are steadily faced with unfamiliar situations, usually with a large array of choices. The right answer may be apparent only in hindsight, if it ever becomes clear at all,” say the authors. 

Quoting the 19th century German mathematic Carl Jacobi, the authors emphasise on - Invert, always invert. What they mean is that thinking about a problem from an inverse perspective can give both new strategies and solutions. 

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For example, investing from the perspective of not losing money, versus investing from the perspective of making more money. 

“The concept of inverse thinking can help you with the challenge of making good decisions. The inverse of being right more is being wrong less. Mental models are a tool set that can help you be wrong less. They are a collection of concepts that help you more effectively navigate our complex world.” 

Another model that can help in being wrong less is unforced error, a concept that emerged from tennis. The authors explain that it occurs when a player makes a mistake not because the other player hit an awesome shot, but rather because of their own poor judgement or execution. 

“Start looking for unforced errors around you and you will see them everywhere,” say the authors. There are many other similar concepts highlighted in the chapter. 

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong 

Actions have consequences - and sometimes these are unexpected. “On the surface, these unintended consequences seem unpredictable. However, if you dig deeper, you will find that unintended consequences often follow predictable patterns and can therefore be avoided in many situations,” say the authors. 

They say there is a class of unintended consequences that arise when a lot of people choose what they think is best for them individually, but the sum total of the decisions creates a worse outcome for everyone. 

One example is a tragedy of commons - any shared resource, or commons, is vulnerable to tragedy. Overfishing, deforestation, and dumping waste, and it extends beyond environmental issues. Each additional spam message benefits the spammer who sends it while simultaneously degrading the entire mail system.

The tyranny of small decisions - where a series of small, individually rational decisions ultimately leads to a system-wide negative consequence or tyranny. It’s a death by a thousand cuts. 

Long-term vision

The authors say - If you want to head north, simply orient yourself toward Polaris. In the business world, there is a mental model that draws on Polaris for inspiration, called North Star, which refers to the guiding vision of a company. It is okay if your North Star evolves as you progress towards it. You may discover greater clarity about what you want to accomplish. A north star is a long term vision, so it is okay if you don’t reach it anytime soon. 

There is power in incremental progress. As Bill Gates in his book The Road Ahead said: “People often overestimate what will happen in the next two years and underestimate what will happen in the next.” 

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Society changes over time

The book explains this as beyond biological evolution, natural selection also drives societal evolution, the process by which society changes over time. In any part of society, you can trace the path of how ideas, practices, and products have added to ever-changing tastes, norms, and technology.

If you magically transported successful companies, movies, and books from 50 years ago to the present day, and released them now for the first time, most would not be as successful because the society has evolved so much since their heyday. 

As the CEO of a fast-growing company, your job and the job of your team looks different from what they looked even 18 months ago. This is because companies grow, and what is required of its leadership changes with time. 

Data, statistics vs mental models

Data, numbers, and statistics now have an everyday role in most professional careers, not just engineering and science, say the authors. However, there are no straightforward answers to most of these questions. They usually end up giving conflicting messages, and there always will be people on both sides with ‘data’ to back up their position. 

This doesn’t mean you dismiss all data and statistics. It means you need to use mental models to get a deeper understanding of an issue, inducing its research, and then determine what information is credible. 

Pros and cons 

The go-to framework for most people in order to make decisions is - build a pro-con list, where you list all the positives - the pros, and the negatives - the cons. 

“While useful in simple cases, this basic pro-con methodology has significant shortcomings. First, the list presumes there are only two options, when as you just saw there are usually many more. Second, it presents all pros and cons as if they had equal weight. Third, a pro-con list creates each item independently, whereas these factors are often interrelated. The fourth problem is that since the pros are often more obvious than the cons, it can lead to a grass-is-greener mentality, so you mentally accentuate the positives and overlook the negatives.” 

It is inherently difficult to create a complete pro-con list when your experience is limited. 

Dealing with conflict 

“In adverbial situations, nearly every choice you make directly or indirectly affects other people, and this can play a large role in how a conflict turns out,” say the authors. 

Citing an example of the arms race, they say it is prevalent in our society and everyday life as well. For example, many employees in the US have increasingly required college or even more advanced degrees as a condition of employment, even though many of these jobs don’t use the knowledge acquired from these degrees. 

Avoiding arms means not getting sucked into keeping up - like differentiating yourself from the competition, etc. 

Unlocking people’s potential 

In the book, the authors say, “Joy’s law is a mental model named after Sun Microsystems Co-founder Bill Joy, who remarked at an event in 1990 - No matter who you are, most of the smart people work for someone else.” 

What this means is organisations hardly ever have perfect resources, nor can they always afford to wait until they have better ones moving forward. Great people are unlikely to be concentrated in a single organisation. 

“With the right leadership, a well-constructed team can accomplish great things.”

In the last chapter, the authors talk about ‘Flexing your market power.” The authors say, having market power individually or organisationally is an attractive position because you can use your advantages to sustain profit for a long time. That’s why it is called a sustainable competitive advantage. Nothing lasts forever though. New technologies arise that disrupt the old. Monopolies fall. Patents expire. Regulations evolve. New job skills crop up, supplanting the way things were done before. 

The book gives entrepreneurs an overview of how one can look at different mental models in order to grow and thrive. 

Edited by Megha Reddy