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Mental Models and the Possibility for Skill Synergies

This is another companion piece to my previous post Ideas on the Synergy Between Seemingly Unrelated Skills or Hobbies. I want to expand more on Charles Duhigg's concept of Mental Models and how developing a strong mental model in one field can possibly help you in a different one.


    1. What Are Mental Models?

    Mental Models is a concept from Charles Duhigg's book, "Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity." A mental model is a story that you tell yourself about yourself as you go through your day. Mental models tell you what you need to focus on and what you can safely ignore. As you perform your job or do an activity during your day, you generally have certain routines and expectations that you run through in your mind as you do them. If you have a robust mental model, you will learn what distractions you can safely ignore. Conversely, any unusual differences or exceptions to your routine will signal that you need to pay extra attention to either exploit an opportunity or avert a potential crisis.

    Duhigg suggests if you want to get better at your job or whatever it is you want to do, one thing you can do is take a few minutes a day to visualize yourself doing that job and try to make that visualization as detailed and vivid as possible to create a stronger mental model.

    2. Examples of Mental Models

    An example that Duhigg writes pertaining to Mental Models is firefighters. Specifically why some firefighters are much better at their jobs than others. The following is a quote from an interview from Next Big Idea Club https://nextbigideaclub.com/magazine/conversation-habits-expert-charles-duhigg-dives-into-the-science-behind-productivity-hacks/17819/ :

    'The best firefighters, when they walk into a burning building, they tend to start telling themselves a story right away about what they see. They walk into a room and they say, “Okay. In this room, I expect to see that the flames are big in that corner. There’s a staircase over there, and I expect to see the staircase have a lot of flames on it because stairs burn faster than other parts of a building.”

    As a result, when they walk into that room and they’re telling themselves that story and they look at the stairs and the stairs have fewer flames than they expect, it makes them think to themselves, “Okay. Pay attention to those stairs. There’s something going on there that might be worrisome or that I just need to pay attention to. I can ignore the other corner because it looks basically like what I expected.”'

    Another example Duhigg writes about is about Nurses who work in NICU units. The best nurses were the ones who told themselves stories on what a healthy baby was supposed to look like. These nurses were able to act quickly to save the lives of infants who looked and behaved just a little differently, almost miraculously detecting serious problems less observant nurses would miss.

    3. Mental Models in My Own Life

    I only got my first smartphone two years ago. For some reason, people kept coming to me with their smartphone problems asking me to solve them even though I didn't have one myself at the time. I admit they were relatively simple ones like trying to find the shutter button on the camera app or closing an app that was frozen. Even though I had never owned a smartphone in that point in time, I had decades of experience using desktop computers. After a brief initial panic, I reminded myself that smartphones are just computers that were designed to be as user friendly as possible and I was usually able to find a solution to their problems.

    In those situations, I took the mental model I had for working on desktop computers and moved it over to the smartphone, something that was essentially a tiny computer that can also make phone calls.

    4. It May Be Possible to Transfer Mental Models Between Different Fields

    As you learn, practice, and perform a skill, hobby, or job, you are creating a mental model in your head. In this mental model, you are learning certain fundamentals that are essential to performing an associated task successfully. There are fundamentals that only apply to a specific field, but there are also fundamentals that can be transferred to a different field.

    In this case, having a strong and robust mental model in one field can be transferred to a related field or even a completely different field. At least to some extent.

    5. Possible Flaws and Drawbacks

    Someone who is a an expert in a certain field tends to look at everything through that lens. If you go to a cardiologist complaining about back pain, the first thing he'll want to do is check your blood pressure. And if you go to your barber complaining about a personal crisis, he'll likely suggest a haircut.

    In this case while mental models can transfer between fields to some extent, you need to be careful and note the nuances that are unique to the fields you want to master as well.

    6. Some AI Suggestions

    The Power of Priming

    By understanding how mental models influence our decisionmaking, we can prime ourselves to make better decisions.

    The Ripple Effect of Mental Models

    Our mental models have a ripple effect on the people around us.

    The Pervasive Nature of Mental Models

    Mental models are pervasive in all aspects of our lives.

    The Importance of Mental Models

    Mental models are important because they help us make sense of the world.

    The Possibility for Skill Synergies

    By understanding mental models, we can create synergies between different skills.

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