7 Mental Models for Learning To Understand More Than The bare Minimum

Learning these days seems so easy. What you need is a device and internet connection.

Open your browser. Ask your question. And you get immediate results. A page full of articles and videos (with sub-pages), all eager to answer your question.

But the acquisition of knowledge sporadically, without a proper strategy, is not any better than browsing through the never-ending posts of celebrities on social media.

Plainly, it’s wasteful.

Knowing isolated facts about everything won’t positively contribute to your future development.

The point of learning is to choose a topic and progressively study everything there is to it.

The mental models selected below will help you approach learning in a new way (Learn here how to use mental models). Not just understand the bare minimum. But gain knowledge in a coherent way. In a way that will tattoo what you’re learning in your brain.

By showcasing our flaws, and ways to apprehend information quickly. These learning strategies will help us become prolific learners and thus get better at what we’re doing – whether working for someone or for ourselves.

7 Mental Models for Learning:

1. Circle of Competence

The circle of competence is an essential tool to understanding your limitations. Thus, find the best way to learn and improve your knowledge.

Developed by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, this mental model explains that our level of competence is smaller than our perceived level of competence. Plainly, we think that we know a lot more than what we actually know.

Taking the time to define your limitations will not only help you avoid making (bad) decisions about subjects you don’t completely understand. But also show you the path to move forward – what you need to learn further.

Additionally, the circle of competence provides something extra. Not only uncover what you don’t know so you can potentially learn it. But also define what you do know.

Figuring out what’s your edge in a given situation and using it in the best possible way.

2. Thought Experiment

A thought experiment is a way to flex your brain and explore a particular concept in a detailed manner.

The main purpose of a thought experiment is not to solve the presented problem – these are usually unsolvable. Rather, to dig deeper in a given field to improve your knowledge, learn, uncover what you don’t know, and strengthen your understanding about the world.

The “Trolley Problem” is a famous thought experiment we can observe as an example.

The situation is the following: A madman has tied 5 innocent people to a trolley track. A trolley car without anyone on board to stop it is fastly approaching the people. Fortunately, you can pull a lever and divert the trolley to another track. However, there is one more problem. There is 1 person tied to the other track by the madman. What would you do?1

There is no wholly moral action. In both situations, a disaster will happen. This particular problem aims to explain that in real life, we often have to compromise on our moral values.

The idea with the thought experiment mental model is that you actively think about the situation. You consider all possible scenarios, write down your preferred way of moving forward, and study more about what you don’t understand.

All of this, helps you upgrade your own understanding of the world.

3. Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor is a mental model that explains that when we have two explanations for the same thing, the simpler explanation should be preferred.

Named after the scholastic philosopher William of Ockham, Occam’s razor is a philosophical razor that cuts through complicated explanations to deliver clarity.

Mainly used for problem-solving, it’s also a great mental tool for fortifying your knowledge in a specific field.

When you’re learning about a way to operate a complicated machine, for example. Or, if you’re reading a book in a field you are a beginner, you might get lost in all the facts and frameworks. What you can do to quickly absorb the new material and start executing, is to form a simpler explanation. Ask yourself: “Amongst the pile of complicated algorithms and theories, what is the simplest explanation?”

Sure, we can spend more time learning and refining what we know. But time is usually not on our side. The world we live in requires from us to move quickly. Occam’s razor mental model will illuminate the simplest solution amongst the complex facts and propel us forward.

4. Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic, or the availability bias, is something that threatens learning and improving.

In short, the availability heuristic states that we make decisions and conclusions based on the most recent information we have ingested.

For instance, if everybody around you suddenly starts investing in an “innovative” fund, you might start doing this yourself. After all, everything you’ve recently heard supports this new company. However, you fail to make proper calculations. You don’t think about the past of the company nor the potential future. You don’t ask critical questions to see if what they are doing is actually going to get you money. You rely solely on the most recent information that was brought to mind.

The phenomenon of the availability heuristic is important for also the following: What you see is not everything that’s available.

We see the content circling in the news and we think that’s everything. However, news channels have limited time to showcase what’s happening. What they present, is surely not everything. It’s just a summary of what happened.

In the world of knowledge, the best-selling books are the most available. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t others. Others that are better and that can teach us more.

Being curious helps here. If you are not satisfied with what’s available. You seek beyond what’s flooding modern media. Eager to learn the best – not only what’s presented as best.

5. Hindsight Bias

When we look back, we always see past events as being predictable. However, that’s because we now know what happened. Thus, we are biased.

That’s the hindsight bias. Commonly described also as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon.

If you’re giving feedback to a person about something he did a week ago, for example, you know all the facts. You know the outcome. Therefore, how you frame your criticism is heavily distorted. However, if you were in his position at that time, you might have acted the same way.

When you perform a change in your organization. And if that change leads to a positive outcome. You will probably reward yourself. You’ll say, “I knew it all along!” While this gain can surely be related to your skills, a lot of times, this way of thinking blurs our minds. We start to think that our predictions are bulletproof and nothing we decide can lead to a downfall. Therefore, we don’t think that we should learn more. And, we don’t learn more.

Understanding the hindsight bias will equip you with a fresh perspective.

When we look at past events and when we try to predict something in the future. We will pause. Force ourselves to forget everything we know so we can see things objectively. Understand what are the main principles, figure out what we don’t know yet, and see what was previously blocked by our ego. This way we’ll understand what we need to learn extra and approach situations cautiously.

6. Common knowledge

Common knowledge aims to describe the things that everybody knows. The simplest example of common knowledge is money. You are willing to trade your used car to a complete stranger for a reasonable amount of cash because we all agree on the value of money.

Of course, there are other things. We all agree that our planet circles around the sun. That 1 + 1 equals 2. That when a car with blue lights on the roof wants you to stop – regardless of the country – you should obey.

The reason I put common knowledge on this list is because common knowledge – while surely useful – won’t get you far in life.

When looking for a job, you’re competing with thousands of other people. If you want to shine, you need to know more than the common knowledge in this field.

You’re an accountant and you know how to prepare a monthly report? Well, this is something that all accountants know. How are you different?

Outlining the common knowledge in your field and learning extra things will qualify you as rare and unique. Thus, desirable.

7. Feynman Learning Technique

While it’s not “officially” a mental model. I’m taking the liberty of defining it as such.

The Feynman learning technique is a way to approach a subject to learn it faster and better.

The concept is so simple it’s almost insulting.

In short, when you want to learn something, you follow these 4 steps:

  1. Pretend that you’re teaching the concept to a child: Grab a notebook. Write down what you want to learn on the top. Now, try to describe the idea in simple terms without using complicated vocabulary – as you would explain to a child.
  2. Identify the gaps: After you’re done with step 1, go back through what you’ve written down and see how you can make it better. Express yourself clearer. What is missing and what you don’t know yet? The second step is all about refining your understanding by looking at what you already know and checking resources to learn about what you don’t know – online, books, etc.
  3. Organize and simplify: With the extra information you’ve gathered in step 2, you can now create a better way to explain the concept. Write it down again. Read it even. Keep iterating until it’s easy to grasp.
  4. Transmit: This is not required. But if you can communicate your idea to someone – even a child, yes – it will be a great way to get feedback. If people don’t understand something and you can’t adequately address their follow-up questions. This means that you need to go back to the sources and improve your understanding.2

Some Closing Thoughts

Learning about learning is as meta as it gets.

But it’s needed.

We need it to maneuver in our current world full of information where notifications and apps only intensify the lack of focus.

Something I hate about the internet is that there is no framework.

On the surface, your device looks so powerful. The moment you start using it though, you get confronted with an ever-evolving stream of information trying to dominate your attention and steer you towards things that are not contributing to your grand goal.

The mental models for learning are your weapons. A way to block and avoid the financially painful arrows piercing through your wallet and making you poorer.

Because that’s usually what happens. We hop online to learn something but we end up buying something we don’t need.

Hopefully, the concept above will help you better understand your flaws so you organize your learning time to improve faster.

For more on mental models, consider the following:

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  1. From Wikipedia, Trolley problem.
  2. I’ve used the following article as a source to explain this concept: The Feynman Learning Technique.
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