Why Mental Models are so Important to Thought Leaders

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Posted by The 8 Percent on Sunday, March 25, 2018

Do you know The War of Art by Steven Pressfield?

It’s the epochal manual on defeating resistance in the process of realising your great work. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.

In the book, Pressfield discusses the role of the ‘muse’ in organising the process of our work. The muse is the force that tells us that a part of our novel isn’t working before we’ve consciously questioned it, or makes us realise the problem with our marketing plan while we’re taking a shower.

Recognising the muse is an integral part of what it takes to achieve excellence. What it takes to be 8 Percent.

The muse is our calling. It informs our great work on a higher level than we operate amidst the necessities of our day-to-day lives.

Where I disagree with Pressfield is on the matter of where this muse comes from. Where he argues for the existence of a divine force whispering into the ears of the brilliant and talented, I believe our unconscious mind can only work effectively in this degree when we consciously supply it with the tools it needs.

By tools, I am referring to mental models – psychological blueprints by which we define every element of our world.

We all create mental models in many different forms. Our understanding of people, of politics, of films, of how we work – all are based on the mental models we create.

But what sets thought leaders apart from the rest is how we create them.

An ‘ordinary’ thinker creates a model based on initial insights, and they do so unconsciously. Such reactive modelling is the basis for bias, and bias is the foundation of failure.

Thought leaders actively sculpt these models as they learn and grow. They question their instincts, find new models to adapt and challenge, and recognise that all knowledge is valuable, even if the reason why it’s valuable isn’t immediately obvious.

In a Reddit AMA from 2015, Elon Musk explained a basic principle upon which he learns:

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a 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.”

Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, puts it in a less symbolic perspective:

“Truth –  or, more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality – is the essential foundation for any good outcome.”

Their foundations take various shapes, based on what works best for the creator.

Warren Buffett uses a two-list system to prioritise and make crucial decisions.

Annie Duke, leading poker champion, champions the outcome blind strategy, which reminds us we alone are responsible for the the results of our choices.

Kim Scott, co-founder of Radical Candor, uses her model to reach successful outcomes by challenging directly and caring personally at the same time.

The mental model you choose to employ in your business requires more than just an understanding of how to sell your product. You must consider sales and marketing, finance, HR, stakeholder relationships, and many other elements that will inevitably come into play.

All are important. All feed into each other. And the greater your endeavour, the greater your understanding of reality needs to be.

To ignore this is to set yourself up for failure, or at least to throttle your full potential.

If you do what you do because it is your calling, can you accept that? I think we both know the answer.

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