Navigating Mental Models, How to Use Them for Yourself and Get Around Them in Others

Mental modeling can be both automatic and analytical. Learn how to recognize, harness, and get around this powerful tool.

Mental modeling is an awesome tool. Typically, people don’t even know they’re doing it. I never knew I was doing it until I read the book, Smarter Faster Better years ago. Once I learned this existed, I started asking people to describe what they saw when we talked about various concepts, ideas and plans. 

At the time, my husband and I were neck deep in arbitrage and drop shipping. We were talking about getting an overseas warehouse and I stopped to ask him what he saw. He instantly described a scene in which a short, stocky man in a blue work jacket and hat walked around a stack of packages with a clipboard inside of a clean, well-lit warehouse. That was how I found out that he also is a mental modeler. 

My whole life, I’ve imagined scenarios. What if someone busts into this restaurant with a gun and tries to rob us? What if that car decides to turn across the lanes in front of me? What will this client say in response to this proposal? How will I answer a difficult question that might come my way? What’s the worst that could happen – like, the really really worst thing? What happens after that? 

Turns out this can be a good thing. Just ask Charles Duhigg.

Types of Mental Modeling

I don’t know if this is what the world believes, but this is what I believe. The way I think about it is that there are two branches of this concept of mental modeling. 

One that’s just how we (or at least some of us) automatically operate and prepare inside the world. It’s about forming pictures in your mind, running scenarios, and being ready to act, react, win. 

The other is about the framework or “schema” of modeling. It’s about making use of models to help you learn, develop efficiencies, make decisions, and win. I like both of my imagined branches because I like winning. 

The Lattice Work of Theory

The “schema” side of mental modeling is well documented. The idea here is that you can leverage models (leverage is actually a model in and of itself) to make better decisions, learn more effectively, etc.  

Apparently, Elon Musk explained that he’s able to keep track of details and learn complex things rapidly with “semantic trees” – I heard this some time ago and can’t find a legit reference. Maybe it’s all a lie, but I still like the concept. 

It is important to view knowledge as a sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to. – Elon Musk (Maybe?)

Elon’s “semantic trees” are basically a reference to the lattice work. Humans are capable of adopting existing models or creating their own lattice work. Typically an individual’s lattice work is created as they develop expertise. I personally refer to this concept as “shortcuts,” but they’re not really shortcuts. You just don’t have to practice every step along the way. If you’ve already got the tree, you don’t have to grow it from a seed every time. 

How Mental Models Can Screw You

I’m kind of obsessed with preventing screwage. In fact, since our inception 12 years ago, our “unofficial” tagline has been “keeping people from getting screwed.” So it’s not that surprising that we’ve identified the potential pitfalls of this generally positive concept. 

I try to warn people before they surprise me. The solution presented could easily be better than what I’ve accidentally constructed in my head, but the fact is, if you see something that isn’t what you expect, there’s a period of friction. If that friction isn’t dealt with properly, it can slow you down, stop you altogether, or land you with a suboptimal outcome. 

As with essentially all behavior (at least in my experience), knowing why you act a certain way doesn’t necessarily stop you from acting that way. Just look at the classics like loss aversion, anchoring, and sunk costs and you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, being aware of the inevitable friction that comes from presenting your prototype to someone who has developed their own expectations means you can decrease that friction in yourself and in others. Here’s how I deal with it. 

Avoid Screwing Yourself

It’s so easy to let friction redirect or limit you. Richard Koch, a smart and wealthy investor/author refers to “toxic beliefs” – which I think are essentially poor or warped mental models. His example of a personal toxic belief was thinking not just that he “needed to be successful” but that he needed to be successful in a very specific way – namely as a partner at Boston Consulting Group. He wasn’t and that sucked. But he was capable of success, he just needed to be more open minded about where he was going to be successful. 

The keys to successfully preventing your mental model from screwing you? Recognize it and decide up front that you’re not going to let it warp you or limit your success. I try to:

  1. Recognize what I have in my mind
  2. Determine my level of trustworthiness / expertise
  3. Let people know that I have a mental model and that I still want their best option… but I may have a moment of friction or resistance while I let their idea sink in
  4. Think about how I’m going to react (or not react) when I see someone else’s idea

Avoid Getting Screwed by Others

Here’s what I do when I’m at someone else’s mercy. I’m sure there are a lot of other things you can try, if you’ve got an amazing method, please send it my way!

  1. Ask them to describe what they imagine / expect / are anchored to. Get as much detail as possible. Usually once someone has gotten this far, they’ll automatically make room for alternatives, saying things like, “it doesn’t have to be exactly like ___.”
  2. “Paint done for me.” I first heard this annoying expression from the world’s favorite empath Brene Brown. Figuring out the goal posts and agreeing that the solution will address the specific requirements provides some flexibility in what the solution is – as long as it solves the problem.
  3. Talk about how they’re going to react when they see something they didn’t already imagine (ya, it’s that meta – mental modeling the reaction to a mental model). Talking about how they’ll feel, what the steps are, how it’s going to work, etc. up front takes the sting out of the friction as well. That’s kind of the point of modeling – optimizing outcomes by imagining potentialities and having a plan. 

Exercise Your Mental Modeling Muscles

Now that you’ve gotten my limited take on mental modeling, try to harness it. Find out if people around you are mental modelers, look for opportunities to prepare them to have their minds blown. Identify where you model and where you don’t. If it’s valuable to model (and I think it is), start actively adopting it. At best, it will make you smarter and more creative. At worst, it’ll help you shock your friends with weird potentialities or counterfactual stories. 

Our most popular articles

Asana Review from a Project Manager’s Perspective

Communicating Creative: First Round LAX

Working on the Road is Work

Have any thoughts to share? We love challenging conversations.
Reach out to discuss this article.

Related articles

Effectively communicating “subjective” creative can be tough. But is it really subjective? Here are some tips to get out of analysis and into action….
We live in a time when you don’t have to have declared yourself a digital nomad to live like one.  A huge percentage of the…


Reach out to discuss this article.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.