George Mack: Mental Models 101 (How To Make Better Decisions) – Modern Wisdom

Key Takeaways

  • Instead of focusing on how to become successful/happy, just figure out what you need to avoid in order to do so
  • Walking through a hospital makes you realize how lucky you are if you have your health
  • A first principle that George thinks about often – optimizing for time and energy
    • For every opportunity, try to ask yourself- “Will this give me more time or energy?
      • If the answer no for both, don’t proceed
  • It’s important to be able to hold two opposing views in your head at the same time
    • “You want black and white thinking, It’s the shades of grey where you go to die.”
  • Consume more content that has stood the test of time and less of what was produced in the last 24 hours
  • Systems > Goals
  • “High agency behavior is THE MOST IMPORTANT personality trait out there”
    • Being high agency = being extremely resourceful 
  • Look for asymmetric opportunities in life and business (where the upside is limitless and the downside is almost negligible)
    • One of George’s favorite asymmetric actions – DM’ing people on Twitter
  • Look specifically for situations in life where the first-order consequences are negative, but the second and third order consequences are positive
  • EMBRACE being weird
    • In order to get anywhere worthwhile in life, you need to stand out
  • Doing > reading about something
    • The fastest way to learn is in the arena

Resources Mentioned


  • Host – Chris Williamson (@ChrisWillx)
  • George McGill (@george_mack) is DEFINITELY someone you should follow on Twitter

Mental Models 101

  • Mental models serve as the basis of your decision-making recipe
  • A great analogy:
    • If your consciousness is the operating system, mental models are like apps, which you can use to help make decisions based on whatever situations you find yourself in

Mental Model – Inversion

  • Some quick background:
    • Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet‘s right-hand man, popularized the idea of having a “latticework of mental models” in your head
      • He famously describes this latticework as being made up of mental models from a variety of disciplines (physics, biology, investing, etc.) which he can then draw upon to help solve problems when need be
      • A Podcast Notes recommendation – for more on Charlie and how he uses mental models, check out Poor Charlie’s Almanac
  • One of George’s favorite mental models, which he picked up from Charlie – the concept of inversion
    • (AKA turning a problem on its head)
    • An example:
      • If you were to ponder the question of how to become happy, just reverse it – here’s how you make a happy person, depressed:
        • Deprive them of sleep 
        • Mess with their nutrition
        • Put them in a shitty job
        • Isolate them from their friends
        • Take away any form of meaning from their life
        • So to become happy, just avoid the above
    • Another example – “Instead of trying to seek excellence, focus on avoiding stupidity”

Applying the Inversion Mental Model in Real Life

  • George, in preparation for making the second half of his 20s as great as possible (he’s 24 now), came up with a list of things he should try to avoid:
    • Comfort
      • “If you’re comfortable in your 20s, you’re absolutely screwed”
    • Hanging around/working with people he doesn’t admire
    • Doing easy things 
    • Neglecting his health
    • Getting in debt
    • Toxic relationships
    • Feedback-less environments
  • So instead of setting huge goals or targets, George is only focused on avoiding the above
    • “It’s so easy for people to get caught up in chasing big goals, but they forget about the dogs at the door which are coming to eat them”

Mental Model – Contrast

  • “Contrast is probably the most important thing for human happiness”
    • We live in the BEST time to ever be alive, and people are still miserable
  • George has a great Twitter thread about the principle of contrast
    • One key point – Walking through a hospital is like the reverse of using Instagram
      • When you browse Instagram, you’re scrolling through everyone’s highlight reel which has the effect of making your own life seem worse than it actually is
        • You’re comparing your “8/10 life” with someone’s “10/10 life”
      • By walking around a hospital, you’re looking at real people who would very likely do ANYTHING to change positions with you
        • This really makes you realize how lucky you have it
  • Related to this, a book recommendation from George – The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart

Mental Model Resources

Mental Model – Thinking From First Principles

  • This model is all about breaking things down to their core, asking “Why?” until you get to a concrete answer that can’t be broken down further
  • Many people reason from analogy (the way things are/have always been done)
    • But instead – break things down into first principles (deconstruct everything to the core)
  • Related – check out Paul Graham’s essay Why to Not Not Start a Startup
  • A first principle that George thinks about often – optimizing for time and energy
    • For every opportunity, he asks himself – “Will this give me more time or energy?”
      • If the answer is no, he doesn’t pursue it
    • “That’s all you’ve got at the end of the day and all you should really be optimizing for. When you break something down into its core components, what’s really more important than time and energy?”
    • Related – in Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, he talked about how: Work Done = Time x Intensity

Mental Model – Doublethink

  • This is the ability to hold two opposing views in your head at the same time
  • George has another excellent Twitter thread about this
  • “You want black and white thinking, It’s the shades of grey where you go to die.”
    • Examples:
      • Doing deep, focused work + intense serendipity and socialization (“All that stuff in the middle is where you go to die”)
      • During training, a MMA fighter should obsess over improving their weaknesses, but as soon as it’s time to fight, they should switch gears and begin thinking of themselves as completely invincible
      • Before a golfer decides which club to use, they likely have extreme self-doubt. But as soon as they make their choice, they need to switch to a state of complete and total confidence.

Mental Model – Signal vs. Noise

  • This mental model is all about how to distinguish the high-intensity/useful information (the stuff that actually matters) from the noise
    • If a book has been around for 100 years, you can assume it’ll be around for 100 additional years (this is also known as the Lindy Effect)
      • Contrast with a blog post on BuzzFeed, which will probably be forgotten in a few days time
      • “If something has survived for 200 years, you know there’s something foundational to that material you should look to seek out”
      • Book examples:
    • Keith Rabois, from his appearance on North Star Podcast (Podcast Notes), brought up the point that most (~99%) of the content people consume was produced in the last 24 hours 
      • Judging by pure statistics, this means the majority of what we consume is of low-quality/not Lindy
    • People get seduced by the fact that newer is better (recency bias), but it’s not the case
  • A market analogy:
    • If you look at the price of the S&P 500 every day, most of what you’re seeing is noise
    • But if you only check the value once per year, what you’re seeing can be weighted more towards a signal

Mental Model – Goals vs. Systems

  • Credit to Scott Adams for this one
  • Comparing the two with an example:
    • Goal – I want to get down to 10% body fat
    • System – Something you do every single day (like going to the gym and eating right)
      • James Clear talks more about the value of systems in Atomic Habits
  • If you’re solely focused on a goal, you’ll probably be miserable until you hit it
    • Systems thinking focused more on the process – the results are secondary. As long as actually do what the system entails. there’s no reason to ever be upset.

Mental Model – Direction Over Speed

  • If you’re pointed in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re traveling
    • If you’re locked into your desired destination, all progress is positive, no matter how small – you’ll reach your goal eventually

Mental Model – High Agency

  • Check out George’s Twitter thread related to this one
  • Being “high agency” means having the guts to push pass boundaries/”Nos” in order to get to where you want to go
    • Being high agency = being extremely resourceful 
    • High agency people just figure shit out
  • “High agency behavior is THE MOST IMPORTANT personality trait out there”
  • Related to this, Peter Thiel likes to ask the following question in interviews:
    • “How would you accomplish your 10-year goal in 6 months?”

Mental Model – Asymmetries 

  • Asymmetric risks are ones in which the upside is incredibly large and the downside is almost negligible (or vice versa)
    • Examples:
      • Texting while driving
      • One of George’s favorite asymmetric actions – DM’ing people on Twitter
        • There’s little downside, and you can make great connections
  • Check out this tweet from the Naval Ravikant bot which lists a whole bunch of asymmetric opportunities

Mental Model – Second- and Third-Order Thinking

  • Example: Taking the stairs 
    • First-order consequence – it takes longer than the elevator
    • Second-order consequence – you get some cardiovascular exercise
    • Third-order consequence – you’re actually wiring your brain to take the difficult option (compared to taking the elevator)
  • “Often what gives you the most return in the first order f*cks you in the second or third order, but what screws you in the first order actually provides a good amount of benefit in the second and third order”
    • Like eating junk food or saving for retirement
  • A good way to think about this:
    • Always ask yourself – “Am I doing something that future me would be happy about?”

Mental Model – The Buffet-Franklin Super Stack

  • Let’s explain:
    • Look around your friend group and ask yourself which friends you’d “invest” in (their overall happiness, wealth, and fitness)
      • Then ask why you’d invest in each of those particular people – based on your answer, those are the values you should aim to cultivate
    • Benjamin Franklin used to have a list of 13 virtues he would read through each night, asking himself if he lived in accordance with them on that particular day
      • Make your own list, include things like:
        • High agency – At the end of the day, you’d ask yourself: “Did I express high-agency tendencies today?”

Mental Model – Applying Video Games to Real Life

  • If you’re part of the camp that believes we’re living in a simulation, then society is basically one big video game
  • One key principle from video games applied to life – the idea of fewer parameters
    • Video games have (usually) 1 parameter (or goal)
      • If you’re playing something like Madden, it’s simple – just get the most points to win
    • Most people wake up with 100 parameters (aka things they have to do on a given day)
      • Instead – Pick 1 or 2 things of the highest importance and only focus on those 
  • Video games also utilize the idea of levels
    • Apply levels to your life
      • For example – “Level 10 is making $1,000 online per day, I’m currently at level 0”
  • Another principle – looking at the video game character as a third-person
    • We tend to internalize things that happen to us as it relates to ego
      • Instead – try thinking about yourself as a third-person video game character. This makes it much easier to observe yourself and the world without your ego getting in the way,

Mental Models – Inputs vs. Outputs (Embrace Your Weirdness)

  • “If you want different outputs, you need different inputs”
    • Related – Sam Altman has said, “Extreme people get extreme results and normal people get normal results”
    • “Embracing being weird as a way of life, I think is one of the most powerful things you can do. If you’re not weird, by very definition you’re regressing to the mean.”
      • Check out the video – Why We’re Fated to be Lonely 
        • A quote from the video – “Loneliness is a tax we have to pay to atone for a certain complexity of mind”
  • You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training
    • For this reason, condition yourself to not be embarrassed by your weirdness – EMBRACE IT
      • In order to get anywhere worthwhile in life, you need to stand out

Mental Model – The Map is Not Reality

  • Maps are, by their very nature, an artificial version of reality (whereas the terrain would be the actual version of reality)
    • So when possible – Seek out terrains and avoid maps 
  • A few examples/lessons:
    • Just because you read one book on a subject (a map) doesn’t mean you know everything about it (the terrain)
    • Keeping a gratitude journal is like a map, whereas walking through a hospital ward is more like the terrain
    • Actually running a startup is probably > getting an MBA
    • Actually doing something is better than reading about it
  • George brings up a Nassim Taleb quote – “The only thing you can learn from a life coach is how to be a life coach”


  • Chris recently chatted with Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness and Resilient
    • One big takeaway – many workers nowadays don’t have the necessary feedback loops for whether or not they’re doing a good job, leading to a loss of job satisfaction
  • Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet are huge fans of the book – Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini
    • Another good book on persuasion, Win Bigly by Scott Adams
  • One of the best pieces on writing George has ever read – The Day You Became a Better Writer by Scott Adams
    • “It completely changed the way I write”

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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