You know the sayings: “follow your heart” or just “stay positive?” While they are nice in their intent — they are utterly useless and lack any true meaning.
If we lived in a magical world where our desires came to fruition simply because we wanted it bad enough, maybe clichés would do more for us in terms of helping us to visualize our goals.
Sadly, clichés aren’t effective tools for change.
If we want to do something, we not only have to get off our asses and take action — we need to create a mental model on how we plan to attain it.
Like the hero or heroine who embarks on an epic quest to find hidden treasure in a distant land, we need to create or resource an epic mental framework to slay our fears and master our chosen skills.
Mental models are one of the defining factors that separate the ultra-achievers from people who plateau in their lives — they are powerful and are one of the highest leverage activities you can use to understand the world in some important way.
This is why Josh Kaufman, researcher and author of three best-selling books including The Personal MBA, dedicates his work to uncovering the importance of developing mental models to help others become more successful in business, entrepreneurial, and personal endeavors.
Kaufman offers two mental models to create new ideas in business and five easy steps to master a skill we can use right now.
Mental Models—What are they good for? Absolutely Everything
Mental models come from a place of curiosity.
“If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” – Thomas Jefferson
Are you naturally curious about the way the world works? Do you find yourself reflecting on the why’s and how’s of human behavior? What values or concepts are fundamental in cultivating a business environment, growing one’s customer base, or imprinting our brand distinction in the minds of customers?
Mental models are universal, flexible tools we can use for organizing anything that happens in our world and allows us to make sense of it.
They help us to identify the things we need to know — how to create new ideas and approach new opportunities; interact with certain kinds of people; work more effectively; be more productive; make better decisions; and generate better ideas.
Kaufman says it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutia of techniques that apply only to specific situations in business.
Like using a high powered telescope to see and experience the vastness of the galaxy, mental models allow us to understand the totality of our task and the clarity to see the way forward.
How do we create a mental model?
Kaufman advises us to read as much as possible and to always pursue learning and exposure to new ideas — we should be insatiable in our quest for knowledge.
One of the benefits from reading a lot is most ideas you’ll come across are repetitious — you see them over and over again.
Kaufman says, the more mental models you collect, the more cognitive tools you have at your disposal, even if they are stored in the far reaches of your mind.
When you are trying to think through a new opportunity, you have a repository of mental frameworks you can resource and choose from.
Reading not only helps to expand your roster of mental frameworks, but it keeps you current and creative.
Let go of the magic bullet
A futile quest for those who seek a framework to either improve their personal lives or elevate their businesses is “the search for the magic bullet.”
In other words, they are hoping to stumble upon a miracle elixir of an idea that is directly applicable to their problem or situation and will offer a paint-by-numbers approach to achieving the result they want.
Well, sorry to break it to you, but the Tooth Fairy isn’t real — and neither is the idea that you will solve a problem overnight with a snap of your finger.
Kaufman says that looking for magic bullets have real opportunity cost.
For starters, they don’t exist.
Instead of spinning our wheels looking for a needle in a hay stack, he goes on to say that we can spend our time and energy in becoming skilled and versatile in our thinking about how we can solve our own puzzle.
Versatility is key
One of the other important components to developing a mental model is the importance of developing a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world.
Whatever industry, market, or discipline we operate in, it’s very easy and tempting to narrow our focus and only play in the sandbox in which we are most familiar.
For example, an architect may decide that the easiest thing she can do to improve is focus solely on the skills directly applicable to architecture — such as drafting, structural engineering, or materials science. What if instead of focusing on those skills, we diversify our skills and exposure through other mediums?
For the architect, maybe she takes up photography or social documentary and uses this as a means to understand the global challenges of marginalized people in the world. Such versatility positions her to create a building that fosters inspiration, creativity, and hope, and promotes health, family, and conscious community.
Kaufman says that while it is important to develop an expertise, focusing on an area exclusively to the abandonment of everything else is a sub-optimal approach.
True learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills through study and experience. It’s about understanding systems — what they are, how they work, how to look at them, how active are they in our lives, our fields, and whether we are able to analyze and improve them over time.
Versatility is a true asset — it gives you options that others may not have and see opportunities that others won’t see.
Our goal is to bring together our skills, businesses, people, systems, and tools to understand and uncover various interplays that apply to real life situations. Kaufman says this gives us an enormous advantage.
Make a Mental Model List, and Check It Twice
Kaufman says that the key pieces of a mental model are the idea, why it works, and how to apply it.
There are two models that Kaufman commonly refers to when engaging in business with C-Level executives and even when just pitching an idea to a friend.
The Five Parts of Every Business
Kaufman says, in every business, there are five parts that any business should concern themselves with:
Value Creation: to create something, a product or service, of value.
Marketing: to get the attention of prospects
Sales: to convince prospects that something is worth paying money for
Value Delivery: to deliver the value that was promised to customers
Finance: how much are we spending
You may be wondering, why these five parts?
Kaufman says these five components allow you to evaluate existing business processes as well as identify new business opportunities.
In other words, this mental model was designed to help its user understand how does this business fulfill it’s critical function, where is it thriving, where are its pain points, and are there any blue ocean strategies we can tap into?
It’s an invaluable tool we can use to make known any new opportunities available to us — including paths to increasing our revenue.
The Four Methods to Increase Revenue
After combing through the literature, Kaufman found that there were only four ways to increase revenue.
Increase the number of customers
Increase the average transaction size
Increase the frequency of transactions per customers
Raise your prices
Short answer—If we want to make money, Kaufman says that these are the four areas we need to think about.
So, why does he share these two models with us?
Mental models are not only tools for thinking through or about a situation, they are also very handy checklists.
Memorizing the four ways to increase revenue gives you a framework of questions to explore and new ideas to investigate. Whenever you are faced with a problem this checklist provides a quick way to evaluate your current situation and the options in front of you.
Think of a mental model checklist as a standard operating procedure.
In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explores common mistakes made by professionals because of one simple reason — they didn’t review their checklists.
Gawande notes that checklists can help to mitigate errors of ignorance (mistakes we make because we don’t know enough), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes we made because we don’t make proper use of what we know).
Kaufman reminds us to use our mental models to check over items we may have overlooked or forgotten and to review the situation over and over again so that you know what the process should be.
Law of Practice in the First 20 Hours - Master Any Skill
Some of us may be familiar with Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule — the idea that in order to truly master a skill, you must spend a minimum of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
Kaufman considers this model a status malfunction.
The 10,000 rule is great for top performers in ultra-competitive industries. But what about the average Joe who simply wants to learn the guitar because he’s passionate about playing?
His passion doesn’t mean he aspires to be like Tenacious D and create The Greatest Song in the World. Conceivably, he aspires to play because it’s fun.
The problem with the 10,000 hour rule is that most people would use it as an excuse to not get started in the first place.
Kaufman offers an alternate approach called the law of practice, which basically says when you start practicing, you tend to improve at an extremely rapid pace.
The First 20 Hours is a very simple framework. It’s the process of deciding to learn something new and then approaching it in a systematic way in those early hours of practice as efficiently and effectively as you can make them.
Kaufman breaks this down in four easy steps:
Step One: Become clear and more specific about what you want to do.
Clarity is power. The more clear you are about exactly what it is that you want, the more your brain knows how to get there.” - Unknown
Kaufman says we need to force ourselves to be specific.
Contrary to true belief, skills aren’t just one thing — they’re bundles of smaller sub-skills and may have very little to do with each other.
Step Two: Deconstruct that skill into smaller, sub-skills.
For instance, suppose you’d like to develop your skills as a writer. It’s not enough to simply free-write every day. It’s important to compliment your writing with other sub-skills like reading other beautifully written works, which in turn help you expand your mental model of how to approach writing more effectively and cogently.
Step Three: Learn Enough about each sub-skill to self-correct
Kaufman advises us to not get stuck in over-reaching before you jump in — this is a form of procrastination. If something isn’t working, go back to the drawing board and try a different approach.
Step Four: Remove the barriers to practice.
Barriers can be physical, mental, or emotional.
The major barrier to learning isn’t intellectual, its emotional” – Josh Kaufman
If there’s anything blocking your way to mastering a skill, Kaufman advises us to either move it, or get rid of it entirely.
Step Five: Pre-commit to practicing the most important sub-skills for at least 20 hours.
Kaufman says pre-commitment serves two purposes:
A) if you’re not willing to pre-commit for 20 hours a month (roughly 40 minutes a day), then this could be a sign that this skill doesn’t hold enough value or benefit for you, and
B) to accept that the first 20 hours of any skill you pursue will suck.
Kaufman says that we should be honest with ourselves and say, “Ok, I’m not good at this and yes, this is frustrating. I’m going to be terrible at this for the first 20 hours. But once I reach the 20 hours I can decide one of two possible routes — either I stop, and try something else, or I see improvement compared to where I was 20 hours ago, and I am not going to stop until I’ve mastered the skill that I’ve decided is important to me.”
Additionally, Kaufman urges us to not compare ourselves with others.
“The more you focus on your own sense of development and worry less about what other people are doing…the more emotionally happy and well-adjusted you are [going to be]” – Josh Kaufman
To start creating our own mental model repository and begin mastering our skills, Kaufman offers two homework assignments to help us accomplish such ends:
Do some research on mental models and do some reading and learning around mental models. Start filling your mental model toolbox. A practical way to do this - choose to read or listen to something that is dramatically outside your area of expertise.
Broaden your intellectual landscape as much as you can.
If you were going to invest 20 hours into learning how to do something that is either personally fulfilling or very helpful for work - if you invested 30 to 40 mins per day for a month - what skill would you focus on first and why? Is that skill really worth committing 20 hours of practice?
When doing both reflection exercises, Kaufman encourages us to use “PICS” to help specify and clarify what you want to do: Positive, Immediate, Concrete, and Specific