Scott Page on Becoming a Model Thinker – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Mental models serve as a framework that you use to make sense of the world
  • To make sense of complexity, use a variety of mental models
    • “By looking at the world through an ensemble of logically coherent lenses, you can actually make sense of the complex world”
  • It’s valuable to have a group of people with diverse backgrounds
    • Different people have different assumptions of how the world works (they have different mental models), so they’ll see different parts of a problem
  • The Wisdom Hierarchy
    • At the bottom there’s data
    • On top of the data is information (how the world is structured)
    • On top of information is knowledge (understanding either correlative or causative relationships between pieces of information)
    • Then there’s wisdom (understanding which knowledge to bring to bear on a particular problem)
  • Think of yourself as a toolbox – you have the capacity to accumulate tools (mental models/ways of thinking)
    • You could become the world’s expert on a particular subject and have a ton of mental models in that specific area
    • Or you could spread out – have an awareness of a bunch of models which cover a variety of topics
  • “In a complex world, your ability to contribute and succeed is going to depend on you filling a niche that’s valuable”
  • Probably the most important mental model mentioned:
    • Try to consider what a problem looks like through the lens of each person involved

Books, Resources, and Products Mentioned

Intro

  • Scott Page (@Scott_E_Page) is a Professor of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan

What are mental models?

  • They’re a framework that you use to make sense of the world
  • Scott’s book – The Model Thinker – explores mental models in depth

A Multiple Mental Model Perspective

  • To make sense of complexity, use a variety of mental models
    • One model might make sense of 20% of a situation, another 40% etc. 
    • “By looking at the world through an ensemble of logically coherent lenses, you can actually make sense of the complex world”
  • Each individual person has a set of mental models for how they think the world works
    • Collectively – humans are able to make sense of it
    • Individually – our mental models just aren’t enough to make sense of the complexity
  • “You yourself can’t solve the obesity epidemic. You yourself are not going to create world peace. You yourself are not going to solve climate change.”
    • Your brain just isn’t big enough
    • But think collectively – a collection of people who have different ensembles of mental models create a larger ensemble of models that have a hope of addressing those problems

Cognitive Diversity

  • Scott explored this topic in his book – The Diversity Bonus
  • It’s valuable to have a group of people with diverse backgrounds
    • Different people have different assumptions of how the world works (different mental models), so they’ll see different parts of a problem

The Concept of the Wisdom Hierarchy

  • At the bottom, there’s all this data
  • On top of the data is information (how the world is structured)
    • For example: You might say “Unemployment is up” (this is information drawn from data)
  • On top of information is knowledge (understanding either correlative or causative relationships between pieces of information)
    • For example – The physics equation, Force = Mass x Acceleration
    • This why people read – to accumulate knowledge in the form of how different pieces of information relate
    • We filter the data we look for based on our knowledge 
  • Then there’s wisdom (understanding which knowledge to bring to bear on a particular problem)

Let’s Recap

  • The more mental models you have, the better, but only to the point that they’re relevant to the specific problems you’re facing
    • Having extra models if they’re not useful isn’t good, but the more likely it will be you can accommodate a wider variety of jobs
  • Think of yourself as a toolbox – you have the capacity to accumulate tools (mental models/ways of thinking)
    • You could become the world’s expert on a particular subject and have a ton of mental models in that specific area
    • Or you could spread out – have an awareness of  a bunch of models which cover a variety of topics
  • “Having two models, rather than giving you the average of the performance of the two, often gives you much, much better than the average”

The Benefits of Mental Models

  • “Models force you to get the logic right”
  • Models essentially say:
    • Here’s what really matters in terms of what’s driving people’s behavior
    • Here’s how those behaviors interact/aggregate
    • Here’s how people should respond to that

One of the Big Problems with Education

  • We’re taught one mental model at a time and then given problems based on that mental model
    • For example – you learn about gravity in physics class and then get gravity problems for homework
    • This isn’t how life works
      • In life, we accumulate models and then apply them when and as needed

Great Advice

  • Think about what you’re capacities are:
    • If you’re able to learn something really well, go deep, and it’s something you truly enjoy – then think about specializing
    • Or maybe you’re someone who’s more nimble and able to move across a variety of mental models – that’s fine too
  • Just be aware of your capabilities 
    • Then think about a strategy for utilizing your capabilities to make a difference in society

The Modern Age of Work and Picking Your Field

  • In the economy of 100-200 years ago, your success highly depended on your individual abilities and hard work (being a lawyer, a farmer etc.)
    • Related to this, Scott was a fan of The Rise of Meritocracy by Michael Young
      • The book explores the idea that success = effort + intelligence
  • But it’s different today…
    • “In a complex world, your ability to contribute and succeed is going to depend on you filling a niche that’s valuable”
    • Think about finding something to do in life that combines 3 things:
      • You have to love doing it (specifically the practice of it)
      • It has to be something you have an innate ability for
      • You have to be able to connect it to something useful or meaningful (something that will make the world a better place)
        • The thing you’re going after has to have some meaning, purpose, or value

The below are all mental models which Scott talks about in his book ,The Model Thinker

Walking Through the Power Law Distribution Mental Model

  • What is it?
    • A normal distribution is something like human height
    • A power law distribution is when there’s a bunch of smaller events and one huge event that outweighs them all
      • Like city size – there’s many smaller cities and a few very large cities that outweigh them all (Tokyo, Los Angeles etc.)
      • Or book sales – most books only sell a few hundred copies and a handful of books sell millions
  • Power laws have a bunch of causes
    • Proportionality (preferential attachment) – examples:
      • The probability you move to a city is proportional to the number of other people living in that city
      • The probability you buy a book is proportional to the number of other people buying that book
    • Random walks – here’s what this means:
      • Say a bunch of people start their own businesses
        • At each point in the future, there’s a 50% chance that each business adds 1 more employee, or gets rid of an employee
        • In terms of the lifespan of these businesses, if you happen to grow large – you’ll last a long time, but most businesses will die quickly
    • Self-organized criticality
      • Like traffic in a big city – most of the time things are steady, but one accident can really delay things
  • Why does the model matter?
    • In the book world, there will be a whole bunch of people who aren’t successful and a handful of people who are wildly successful
      • Just because an author is wildly successful, doesn’t mean they’re that much better – luck plays an important role

Walking Through the Concave and Convex Mental Models

  • What are they?
    • We know what a linear function looks like – it’s a constant slope (the next thing is worth just as much as the previous thing)
    • Concavity – diminishing returns
      • The added value of the next thing diminishes
      • Example – Each subsequent bite of ice cream is less satisfying as the previous
      • Example – Adding workers to a firm drops the value of each individual worker
    • Convexity – increasing returns
      • The odds of something happening increase as people do it
  • Why does this matter?
    • Not recognizing something like concavity can lead to flawed assumptions
    • “Linear thinking can be dangerous. There’s diminishing returns to so many things.”

Walking Through the Local Interaction Model

  • What is it?
    • Something that depends on what’s around it
      • Example – your behavior depends on the people around you
        • Like how you greet people – it depends on where you around in the world
        • Or where you store your ketchup (the fridge or the cabinet)
  • Why does the local interaction model matter?
    • “A lot of who we are and what we do comes from these local interaction models”
    • Realize – a group of people (like a business) tends to use the same set of mental models to examine situations (which isn’t ideal)

Last One – The Perspective Taking Model

  • Simple – Try to consider what a problem looks like through the lens of each person involved
    • This is IMPORTANT

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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