Powerful ways to not make stupid decisions
6 min read

Powerful ways to not make stupid decisions

How mental models can help us think smarter.
Powerful ways to not make stupid decisions

How do you make decisions under uncertainty? How do you asses if something is working well? There is no one way that will help you make the right choice or judgement 100% of the time. But there are ways that can at least help you not make stupid decisions: mental models.

Mental models are frameworks for thinking smarter, reducing complex conundrums into more easily digestible chunks and also helping you better analyse how well systems work - or not.

When approached with a problem mental models can help you cast aside biases, assumptions and plain weird/human thinking.

We all use our own internalised mental models already. We use thousands of models each day to guide the decisions we make and things we do. We need these shortcuts simply because life is complex. If we were to think through everything with 100% of our focus we'd likely never leave our beds in the morning.

But many of our internal shortcuts can be based on faulty reasoning - assumptions not supported by real world evidence.

Consciously building a set of mental models can be a game-changer. They can help you interrogate your assumptions and see problems in more nuanced way.

The king of mental models is Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet's right hand man.

Over his long and extremely wealthy life he has created what he calls a latticework of mental models to help his decision-making.

Since taking the time to learn more about this area, I've been struck by not only how useful they are for my own day-to-day thinking, but also how powerful a few common models could be for communications professionals.

Over the years I have been piecing together learnings from different areas to help me understand my work better, to see patterns and to create more efficient shortcuts in my thinking and decision-making.

For instance, I read books about copywriting, I wrote online articles, I used data and feedback to see what works and what didn't work. In short, I built my own little mental model for what I think a good article should be (note: this doesn't mean it's a good model...)

Often, we feel like we are 'winging it' when in fact we have internalised a system to justify the decisions we make: 'that's just how it is' syndrome.

Creating our own latticework of mental models  makes us more intentional about what we do and why we do it.

Guiding principles

"Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, while strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do." - Savielly Tartakover, Chess Grandmaster

People are drawn to tools and tactics. Tactics offer a sense of 'doing', whereas a strategy feels like 'not doing'. But without a strategy - a guiding principal or framework - there is no direction.

Mental models can help put this in check.

When I started working in the communications field, I'd feel like I would be starting new campaigns from scratch each time. At first I didn't have a list of questions to help interrogate choices, test ideas, or to properly evaluate a strategy.

Mental models can help here by offering guiding principals for decisions, as well as to help you start identifying patterns.

Secondly, mental models help us interrogate our cognitive biases. If you've worked in an office at any point in your life you have likely seen the problem of egos over outcomes.

People want to be correct and will work hard to convince not only you that they are, but also convince themselves that their intuition is right.

Smart people like you dear reader are not immune from this. In fact, smart folk can be more prone to bad decisions because they are better at building strong arguments that favor their position.

In her recent book 'Unchartered: How to Navigate the Future', Margaret Heffernan highlighted the risks of cognitive biases, and indeed bad mental models.

"Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman and Niall Ferguson may once have started as objective truth seekers but, over time, just like Alan Greenspan, they have developed their own ideologies: mental models of how the world works. They cleave to what they know and are loyal to the grandeur and power of their big ideas."

A bad mental model becomes a fixed ideology, good mental models should always help you interrogate your ideas.

Munger himself has an array of ways to do this, one of the most simple being a checklist routine to avoid errors.

So before we have a look at some models, always ensure you can interrogate everything. Even the models themselves.

Three mental models for communicators

Now we know what they are and why we should use them, here are three mental models that I think can be applied to your work, and perhaps even your day-to-day life.


Learning to think through problems backwards as well as forwards can make problems easier to solve. Simply put: think about what you don't want and avoid it.

It can be hard to know what you want exactly, but it's easier to know what you don't want. This logic can help a lot with processes.

When we approach problems, we often seek tools and tricks to make life easier. Instead, inversion helps you look at what's getting in the way.

Let's take a simple example: what will make me more productive?

With inversion the question is, 'what makes me unproductive?'. Based on the answer, I might decided to keep my Nintendo Switch in another room, put my phone out of reach, and add my todo list to my calendar to make the tasks more concrete.

The map is not the territory

I've already plagiarised and distorted this idea on my about page. This was the first mental model I read about and it really struck a chord with me because I think it accounts for many problems we see in the workplace.

Let's start with an example: Tinder.

You're swiping through Tinder, and you match with a profile. They seem to have the same interests, they look nice and friendly, and they wear nice hats. What you see there is the map.

But when you meet them for a coffee, it's like they're a different person. They look nothing like their photos, they seem terribly boring, and they aren't wearing a nice hat. That's the territory - the real thing.

Now let's take this idea into the work place.

We often use maps like communication strategies, strategic plans, and Google Analytics to give us a sense of direction.

These are abstractions of the real world. They don't describe or reveal every nuance, they merely behave as a digestible guide to what is or could be happening.

This is perfectly fine because our brains aren't able to handle every detail - we need maps to navigate the complexity of life.

But the challenge increases over time.

Territories change and if we are not aware of that, not finding ways to reassess what changes are happening around us, we begin to lose contact with reality and the map becomes the goal in and of itself.

Maybe it's time to update that five year old strategy...

First principles

This one is the simplest to understand but perhaps the most difficult for people to do. Elon Musk, another proponent of mental models, gives a good example of how he uses it.

Imagine you come into a new job and a first task is to improve the organization's website.

One approach would be to take stock of what's there, and see how you can reshuffle things to make it better. This is an incremental improvement.

A first principals approach would tackle this a different way.

Instead, you would map out the entire website to allow you to audit every part of it. You would be aware that you inherited this website and avoid the natural inclination to just make it slightly better than what came before.

You would instead deconstruct it, not assume this is the best solution, and with all those parts rebuild it into something better.

Looking backwards through a process can be a powerful way to make a big leap forward.

There are hundreds of such models out there, some work for me and some don't. But they're excellent ways to dig into our own brains and think about why we think about things the way we do. If more people did that, all the better.

Let me know if you tried any out!

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