James Clear | Mental Models (Episode 592)

James Clear | Mental Models (Episode 592)

James Clear | Mental Models (Episode 592)

James Clear experiments with and writes about behavioral psychology, habit formation, and performance improvement through mental models.

“Innovative ideas often happen at the intersection of seemingly unrelated areas.” -James Clear

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Why is decision-making such a fallible process?
  • What are mental models, and how can they help us make better decisions?
  • Why should we collect mental models rather than relying on one as a default to solve all problems?
  • How can we ruthlessly eliminate mediocre results?
  • Where is the Zone of Good Luck and how can we live there?
  • And so much more…


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We make decisions in everything we do — whether it’s taking pictures on the subway, figuring out what’s for lunch, embarking on a new career, making connections, or learning to play the oboe. But if we really want the most out of life, we need to make decisions about how we make decisions. Sometimes we default to a mental model that doesn’t maximize our efforts and we’re left with lackluster results.

James Clear joins us to share the mental models he uses to make better decisions and improve performance. Rather than settling for one default way of solving one particular type of problem, James ensures you have the tools on hand to solve whatever unknown problems might be just around the corner. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

More About This Show

“All knowledge is interconnected,” says James Clear, “so it’s very hard for our brains to fully comprehend just how interrelated the world is and how those forces play on each other. So it makes predictions very difficult to be accurate in the long run.”

This lack of accuracy applies to all of us — even the experts. Because for all we think we know about any given problem set before us, there are missing pieces of information from the overall puzzle that we’re simply unable to consider. One study by psychologist Philip E. Tetlock found that experts in several high-level fields (e.g., nuclear physics) were only correct about future predictions around 33 percent of the time.

“Two-thirds of the time, even the very best, smartest people were wrong,” says James. “So you can imagine how wrong you and I are on a daily basis!”

Using Mental Models for Problem Solving

What can we do about the fallibility of decision making?

“One of the tools that I’ve found most useful — and many people have found useful — is a strategy that’s called mental models,” says James. “It’s just this idea that each individual mental model is a way of seeing the world. A way of looking at the issues that we face and the problems that we deal with in our daily lives.”

James cites the bell curve as one example of a mental model in which an even distribution of outliers and averages can be observed in many aspects of life — height among a given population, for example. This is in contrast to the power curve, another mental model that shows distribution as exponential. James demonstrates what he calls the shoe exercise as an example of how this model works.

The Shoe Exercise and the 80/20 Rule (Pareto Principle)

“You have everybody stand up in the room,” says James. “You say, ‘If you own more than two pairs of shoes, stay standing. Less? Sit down.’ Then ‘Do you own more than four pairs of shoes? Stay standing. Less? Sit down.’ Eight? 16? 32? So on. Gradually, people start to sit down — the bulk of the room is sitting by the time you get to 32, then there are a few people still standing when you ask, ‘Do you have 64 pairs of shoes?’

“I’ve had one woman who was still standing when I got to 512! The point here is that if you get to adding up all of the shoes in a given room, you will find that the top three or five people own 90 percent of the pairs of shoes. This one woman who owns 512 pairs of shoes is accounting for more than the other 90 percent of the room. We have a very uneven distribution. It’s not a bell curve at all. We’ve got one or two or three or five people who account for 90 percent of the results.

“This is true in many different areas. You can have one person on the sales team who brings in 80 percent of the revenue. You can have one hallway in your house that gets 80 percent of the foot traffic. You can have one section of your closet that you wear 80 percent of the time. This is commonly known as the 80/20 rule or the Pareto principle, this idea that a few things count for the majority of results.”

That is, the minority who can gain even a tiny percentage of an edge over competition stand to gain a major percentage of the available rewards.

Collecting Mental Models

In some situations, the bell curve would be an appropriate mental model to apply; the 80/20 rule would best be applied to others. If we only had access to one way of thinking, we’d be missing out on the benefits of the other — and this is why we don’t want to fall into the rut of relying on just one default mental model as the lens through which we see the world.

Ideally, we want to think of mental models as tools in a toolbox. The more we collect, the better equipped we are to solve a larger variety of problems. In the same way you’d find accurate repairs on a delicate pair of eyeglasses difficult armed only with a hammer, trying to understand the complexities of a problem that correlates best to a bell curve will likely confound you if you only have the 80/20 rule in mind.

This is what James calls the Law of the Instrument (derived from The Conduct of Inquiry by Abraham Kaplan). The person with more tools for thinking has a greater chance of finding a solution. If you only have one mental model, you only have one way to solve the problem. To collect mental models, James suggests reading broadly from a variety of disparate fields.

“If you can learn the five to ten principles that carry the most weight in each of these different fields, then you have a really broad, useful set of mental models to look at the world through.”

This allows you to connect the dots between fields that people — even brilliant people — confined to just one area of expertise are bound to overlook. It gives you an edge over those who only focus on seeing the world through one mental model because you’ve got a unique perspective of the big picture.

  • Smart people have mental models and use them consciously.
  • Brilliant people have multiple mental models and select the best ones to use on a given problem.

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm in its entirety to learn more about how the Pareto principle was discovered, what superinvestor Charlie Munger has to say about mental models, the Red Queen effect, the danger of becoming an expert and how confirmation bias tricks us into favoring a one-size-fits-all mental model, the Amazon hacks James suggests for finding good books to expand your toolbox of mental models, the value of running a pre-mortem on goals for developing contingencies against failure, how to identify the fat tail and measure your progress to focus on quantity over quality, the power of tiny gains, focusing on increasing probability of success over prediction (i.e., cultivating “luck”), and lots more.


If you enjoyed this session with James Clear, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

Click here to thank James Clear at Twitter!

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