How to think about thinking, again.
Mental models for making smart decisions and solving problems.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed this week, it’s that critical thinking (a core component of intelligence, as far as I’m concerned) is a rare trait.
And no, it’s not because I’ve been scrolling on Twitter.
Yet, it’s never really taught.
I had to make some major decisions for Q2 2022 this week and in the usual fashion, I defaulted to the pros-cons list.
But this isn’t only often ineffective, it’s also biased. Truth is that most times, we already know what we want. So we fall for confirmation bias.
I stumbled upon the concept of mental models (how thought processes work) in my search for better decision-making skills.
Here’s what I found.
(Side note: let’s explore 3 because no one likes to feel overwhelmed).
Read Part 1 of this here.
The Use of First Principles
A method I’d often deployed in medical school without knowing what it was, first principle thinking refers to understanding (and hence, thinking) by breaking down to the smallest element.
By definition, first principles can not be deduced any further.
The idea is that this lowest common denominator (is that how that’s used?) is a building block for whatever knowledge is required to make an intelligent decision.
• Asking “why” till there are no more whys left.
It’s why I dislike the “that’s how it’s always been” line. De-construct instead. Not thinking this way is also part of the reasons why myths and superstitions continue to exist.
• Asking how interchangeably.
For example, by considering the why of an unhealthy lifestyle to its most elementary and personal-to-you form, you can then ask how.
The major thing I love about this method is how it strips the problem down, getting rid of (some of) our human biases or assumptions. It also drives innovation because you’re no longer bogged down by what is conventionally considered “possible” once you also understand the rationale for its mainstream conclusion.
The use of first principles helped me back in Uni, once or twice, to correctly guess the right answer in a multiple-choice exam (side-eye, Paediatrics) by going back to the basics and working my way up. At least as much as I could in approximately 90 seconds.
The Use of Second-Order
If you’ve ever wanted to binge all 15 episodes of a show in one night but decided to stop procrastinating and go do something productive instead, then you’ve gotten the mini-gist of this method.
Although more complex than simply deciding to do better, this model uses a similar method of seeking out the consequences of our decisions. It’s going beyond the knee-jerk conclusion of what a decision might yield by taking time to think deeper.
“First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it. Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.” — Howard Marks (Author, The Most Important Thing)
But while it’s called second-order, it’s not about stopping at the second or even third conclusion. Keep going till there are multiple end-point scenarios.
A great decision might be first-order “meh” but second-order “incredible”. Ask some of the most extraordinary people that have lived.
It could even be as basic as choosing to spend a little extra cash in the now to avoid a more expensive solution later down the line.
• Asking “and then what?” to potential decision paths, till we can’t anymore. It’s a rigorous process that requires the removal of biases especially when we’re set in what we want.
• Using the 10-10-10 rule. How will you feel about this 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now? Zoom in, zoom out.
You may find out that decision on what haircut to go with today isn’t worth all that overthinking.
While some decisions are that deep.
Global warming, for example, is an example of a second-order effect. It’s what happens when we don’t see beyond the surface or immediate gains.
But while this might seem obvious enough, we’re wired to easy-way-out of things. It’s why most of us stop on the first page of Google.
Yup. I see you.
My journal prompt for this week was: what does my ideal day (& indeed, life) look like?
An innocent question I found to become more and more complex as I thought about it. I mean, how was I going to live in alignment if I didn’t even know what I wanted?
So I flipped the script instead — what does my ideal life NOT look like? And then avoiding that.
This is essentially what inversion thinking is. Thinking backward to think forward.
• Re-framing the problem/question in the opposite way.
While we mostly think about how to achieve success, what would it be like to consider how to manage failure instead?
This is a great way to clarify your thoughts regarding a problem or decision.
And while I may not be entirely clear on the future, I don’t see pineapples-on-pizza in it. Or…?
Of course, there are many more mental models. But also, not all decisions need to be this rigorous. Only the key ones. Like moving to an entirely new town.
P. S., could you imagine using all 4 methods at once?
Mind-blown (maybe even literally).
🔌 Recommendation of the month!
If you have the chance, read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A dive into our universe, it helped to broaden my mind (and thinking). Astronomy will always be fascinating.