This is a comprehensive summary of the book Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Summary printable: Download this summary to read offline.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
Super Thinking is exactly what the title entails – a big book that lists a wide variety of mental models. What exactly are mental models? Set of frameworks, thinking scripts, that promise to radically reduce the time you need to make a decision. Gabriel Weinberg, who happens to be the CEO of DuckDuckGo, does a wonderful job explaining these frameworks. He adds context and real-life examples to make it easy for readers to “get” what they’re reading.
The Core Idea:
You don’t have to be Superman to make smart, thoughtful choices in your life. Simply do what the smartest people on the planet do – take advantage of the already established mental models. The main goal of the book is to introduce you to a lot of thinking concepts. This way, by upgrading your mental toolbox, you will have everything needed to think better and make better decisions in life. Your ability to find insights, quickly, in difficult situations will increase – helping you become a master problem-solver.
- Not every problem is a nail that you can beat with a hammer. Add more tools to your mental toolkit.
- There’s a huge difference between what you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know at all.
- Reading about mental models is just the starting point. To actually get them you need to practice.
5 Key Lessons from Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models:
- Lesson #1: To Be Right More Often, You Need To Be Less Wrong
- Lesson #2: Understanding Other People is Key Component in Making The Right Choices
- Lesson #3: If You Want To Achieve Amazing Things You Must Spend Your Time Wisely
- Lesson #4: Understanding Nature and How Society Evolves is Crucial
- Lesson #5: Making Decisions in Uncertain Times is Of High Value
Lesson #1: To Be Right More Often, You Need To Be Less Wrong
What to have for dinner? What movie to watch? What color scarf to buy?
You’re facing a ton of decisions on a daily basis. Naturally, you want to be right most of the time. You don’t want to hear the nagging “I told you so” from your wife.
However, being right all the time is not an easy task. The world is full of moving parts and every living thing on the planet has a plan on its own. Usually different from what you want.
The following mental models are here to help you be right most of the time:
- Inverse thinking: Don’t focus on being right all the time. Focus on being less wrong. When you think about a problem, always consider the inverse perspective. When you play sports, don’t focus solely on gaining a point. Concentrate on not losing a point – on making fewer mistakes.
- Argue from first principles: You can’t create new solutions if you don’t understand the founding parts. Or as the author writes, “Understanding how molecules fit together enables you to build new molecules.” The idea of this mental model is to help you figure out what’s definitely true. What is unchangeable? What are the main materials? Once you know, think of clever ways to combine them.
- De-risking: This is the process of testing your assumptions. You think that your product will generate profit? You need to be sure. To de-risk this statement, you need to be more specific. You need to be certain that the gains will be higher than the costs in order for a product to be profitable. Being specific. Considering all the possible options about a concept will help you find loopholes and fix (de-risk) them.
- Ockham’s razor: Don’t use a complicated explanation when a simpler one will do the job. Ockham’s razor is a thinking concept stating that the simplest explanation is always better. The main idea is to find the simplified version of a tricky situation/problem. By “shaving” the redundant data you force yourself to think on the core issue.
- Frame of reference: A lot of times we make mistakes because we assume that other people know what we know. The frame of reference theory explains that you see life from your perspective. If you’re inside a train, you’ll see everyone next to you still. But for the people outside, all the folks inside the train are moving. Meaning that there’s a difference between your frame and other people’s frame.
Lesson #2: Understanding Other People is Key Component in Making The Right Choices
People are not the same. We all have differences.
It’s vital to take into account what others might think or feel.
Because we can’t thrive in the world if we don’t maintain good relationships with other people. To flourish emotionally, you rely on outside folks – your family members, spouse, kids, friends, etc. To make progress financially, you need clients – once again people you need to understand better.
The following thinking concepts will help you cope with individuals and increase your empathy skills:
- Third story: There’s a gap between what you know and what someone else knows. To elegantly close the gap and convey your message clearly, always try to explain things as taking a third-person approach. This will allow you to be impartial in situations and reduce the chances of being misunderstood.
- Most respectful interpretation (MRI): You emailed a colleague 24 hours ago and you still don’t have a reply? Don’t immediately assume that he’s disrespecting you. The MRI theory will state that he’s simply busy. This approach will help you build trust in other people which is always a good long-term strategy.
- Learned helplessness: A state of mind that prevents you from trying because you convinced yourself that you’re helpless to make a difference. This usually happens if someone is/was experiencing difficulties over a long period of time – abuse, failure, unsupportive peers. To emerge from this state, a person needs to see that their actions can make a difference.
- Semmelweis reflex: Even if new evidence is presented, most people will still hold tight to their old beliefs and keep doing what they are doing.
- Confirmation bias: People rarely question their own assumptions. When exposed to new information, most folks interpret it in a way that best works for them – confirming what they already know, not questioning it. The older you get, the harder it will be to change your thinking.
“Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to succumb to confirmation bias. Correspondingly, it is hard to question your own core assumptions. There is a reason why many startup companies that disrupt industries are founded by industry outsiders. There is a reason why many scientific breakthroughs are discovered by outsiders to the field. There is a reason why “fresh eyes” and “outside the box” are clichés. The reason is because outsiders aren’t rooted in existing paradigms. Their reputations aren’t at stake if they question the status quo. They are by definition “free thinkers” because they are free to think without these constraints.” Gabriel Weinberg
Lesson #3: If You Want To Achieve Amazing Things You Must Spend Your Time Wisely
You don’t have to go outside to get lost. The nearest wood is no longer the most dangerous place. There is something else much more threatening we’re all using on a daily basis – the internet.
Spending your time wisely is essential if you want to make progress. You want to make sure that your actions are not sporadic and focused on a clear goal.
By applying the following mental models:
- North star: You need to set a plan. To devote your life towards a well-defined goal that remains unchanged even when everything around you changes – exactly like the star Polaris. When you know where you’re going, you can design your life towards this desired place.
- Eisenhower Decision Matrix: This is a two-by-two grid that allows you to properly prioritize tasks. The idea is to categorize projects in order to decide how to spend your time. The top section lists the important activities. The bottom is for the not important tasks. The idea is to focus mostly on the important, not urgent tasks and respond properly to the important urgent tasks – crisis situation. Everything else you can skip, delay, or delegate.
- Parkinson’s law of triviality: When amongst others, humans tend to spend too much time discussing trivial issues. Don’t let unimportant topics rob your time. When in a meeting, set a clear agenda of what will be reviewed and move fast.
- Opportunity cost: In the book Getting Things Done, David Allen said, “You can do anything, but not everything.” Everything you do comes with a cost. Even if you’re working on a project, this costs you the opportunity to work on another project – which can be more profitable. To spend your time wisely, consider also the costs that are not clearly visible.
- Present bias: This mental model explains why people spend hours a day playing video games or making lists to start a project – i.e. procrastinating. We focus on short-term rewards, and we misjudge the importance of making daily progress on a long-term goal – even if it’s small. Or in other words, we’re mostly interested in what we’re going to get today out of life and not so interested in what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Lesson #4: Understanding Nature and How Society Evolves is Crucial
As some authors say, the only certain thing in life is change.
Even if your organization is 100 years old, you still need to make adjustments if you want to survive and thrive.
On a personal level, you should constantly make updates to your daily routines based on what’s happening in the world.
Consider the following mental models to stay flexible – and think more clearly – in the ever-changing environment:
- Strategy tax: Committing to a certain goal comes at a certain cost. If your north star is to become a modern monk, the tax you’d have to pay is not going out on Friday night. On another note, drug dealers face lifetime sentencing because their money-making strategy involves illegal activities that can get them in jail – that’s their strategy tax.
- The Lindy effect: In short, this means that if a product has lasted 20 years on the market, you can expect it to last for the next 20 years. This effect explains why Mozart and Shakespeare are still popular.
- Activation energy: The minimum amount of energy needed to ignite some sort of action/reaction. For example, if you share something online, for this post to become viral, you simply need one person (catalyst) to start the virus-like spreading. If you want to make a positive change in your life, start small. The tiny actions will “activate” you and soon you’ll find yourself tackling bigger tasks.
- Luck surface area: Increasing your luck surface area is the secret component of finding economic opportunities. Since life is chaotic and you can’t accurately predict what will happen next, by engaging with the world – putting yourself in more unfamiliar situations – you’ll be more likely to meet more opportunities. This is how you make your own luck.
- Entropy: Everything tends towards disorder – chaos. Consider your office. To have a clean room, you should carefully position all of your things in their designated places. This means that there are only a few possible ways to have a tidy office compared to the possible ways in which the room may look like a murder scene from a movie.
Lesson #5: Making Decisions in Uncertain Times is Of High Value
You want to start selling miniature toys but you think the market is too small?
Just search online. The world wide web is full of data that will support your decision – no matter what it is.
But that’s exactly the problem nowadays. Online you can find whatever you want to support your story. That’s why you need to be really careful what you read and learn how to navigate around often manipulative data.
Here are a couple of thinking patterns to make better choices:
- Correlation does not imply causation: When something bad happens, we seek to find what caused this. Unfortunately, our findings are usually faulty. When people get the flu vaccine and get sick after that, they usually blame the vaccine. However, researches show that people are injected with a flu vaccine during a season when it’s more likely to get sick.
- Nocebo effect: This is the opposite of the placebo effect. Meaning that if something bad happens, we can subconsciously convince ourselves that negative subsequent events are unavoidable. For example, eating expired food by accident can convince you that you’re poisoned and eventually visit the restroom more often.
- Survivorship bias: Observing solely the things that survived without taking into consideration the ones that failed leads to errors. Think about the modern entrepreneur movement. More and more people quit their jobs to start their own businesses. “Since these other folks were able to make it big, I’m surely going to be successful myself,” they tell themselves. However, they don’t count the number of people who have gone bankrupt trying to become millionaires themselves.
- Monte Carlo Fallacy: Just because something happened once or twice doesn’t mean that it will happen again. Roulette players believe a streak of reds is more likely to end with the next spin but that’s not the case. The chances are the same with each spin. We’re simply misinterpreting what we see.
- Maslow’s hammer: Based on the phrase, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is a metaphor that implies that most people take a single approach when making a decision. However, different situations deem for different tools. That’s why it’s important to gather more data and to constantly upgrade your mental toolkit.
“IF YOU COULD KNOW HOW your decisions would turn out, decision making would be so easy! It is hard because you have to make decisions with imperfect information.” Gabriel Weinberg
- Don’t mimic the herd: Doing what everyone else is doing won’t lead to extraordinary results – everyone will simply get a smaller piece of the pie. Or as Warren Buffet says, “Most people get interested in stocks when everyone else is. The time to get interested is when no one else is. You can’t buy what is popular and do well.” Find an opportunity no one is betting on but make sure to understand why this option is overlooked to avoid bankruptcy.
- Don’t be a cargo-cult thinker: There’s a difference between knowing the name of something and actually understanding what this thing means. Reading a bunch of mental models might seem like a good way to spend the afternoon but not trying these concepts will make you a cargo cultist. What? A cargo-cult entrepreneur is the type of person who you’ll see on every business event but won’t ever see starting an actual business.
- Conduct a postmortem: A postmortem in medicine is when doctors are examining a dead body to find what caused the death. In real life, the act of conducting a postmortem is when you review a situation to understand what happened and take notes. This simple process after completing a project or a simple task can help you make things better in the future.
- Long-term future is mold by short-term decisions: The decisions you make today form your future outcomes. They steer you towards a specific path while moving you further away from other potential opportunities. It’s vital to ask yourself questions like this when making short-term decisions, “In making this decision, what opportunities am I missing out on?”
- Challenge your own assumptions: Exposing yourself to data that only reinforces what you know is a bad long-term strategy. This prevents you from learning new things and from fortifying what you know. Consider what can go wrong when starting a business. Approach problems from a different perspective. Start analyzing a situation by considering the fact that everything you know might be wrong.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
This book is amazing. So amazing that I hated myself after finishing writing the above.
Well, it was really hard to decide what to include in my summary and what to leave out.
There are more than 300 mental models mentioned inside Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models. While some are just briefly cited, most of the thinking concepts are carefully outlined with enough examples so even a first-grader can get the ideas.
You should definitely read this book. No matter your background or your current occupation. The concepts inside will expand your worldview and give you enough mental tools to become a black belt decision-maker.
Key takeaway: Practice. Reading about how to make better decisions is fun but it can also be deceitful. Reading alone won’t lead to anything extraordinary. Once you get the concepts, start applying them.
“If you apply these mental models consistently and correctly, your decisions will become wrong much less, or inverted, right much more. That’s super thinking.” Gabriel Weinberg
“Once you have the ideas, of course, they’re no good if you don’t practice. If you don’t practice, you lose it. So I went through life constantly practicing this multidisciplinary approach.” Gabriel Weinberg
“A related model to watch out for is the hydra effect, named after the Lernaean Hydra, a beast from Greek mythology that grows two heads for each one that is cut off. When you arrest one drug dealer, they are quickly replaced by another who steps in to meet the demand. When you shut down an internet site where people share illegal movies or music, more pop up in its place. Regime change in a country can result in an even worse regime.” Gabriel Weinberg
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