In this episode we discuss how you can understand the world with powerful clarity. What makes other people behave in certain ways? What are the most important concepts and ideas in the business world? Do you often feel like you’re looking for a magic bullet or paint-by-numbers approach to solving your problems? The solution to all of these questions lies in the powerful framework that we explain in-depth and show you how to apply with our guest Josh Kaufman.
Why Mental Models are so important and one of the best thinking frameworks you can use to organize information and understand the world.
Mental models are universal, important, and flexible concepts that describe how the world works in some key way
Charlie Munger - The Godfather of Mental Models
Mental models - for me - come from a fundamental place of curiosity - I'm obsessed with understanding HOW and WHY things work - businesses, humans, success etc - and I find mental models to be a very helpful tool for organizing the reasons that things happen in the world
Mental models are cognitive tools to approach any situation and understand it better
How does the world work?
What makes other people behave in certain ways?
What are the most important concepts and ideas in the business world?
Mental models are one of the defining factors that separate ultra achievers from people who plateau in their lives and careers
People overcomplicate it and often misunderstand what mental models are - or they waive it off and say “yeah I’ve heard a lot of people mention that, I just don’t have time to dig into that right now - what would you say to them?
Mental models are powerful and systematically underrated and studying mental models is one of, if not the most, high leverage activities you can do with your time
You usually search for a magic bullet or a paint-by-numbers approach to solving the problem you are currently facing - but mental models shine light on the underlying reality and the issues and gives you a more robust and useful way to understand and solve problems again and again.
We often fall prey to having too narrow of a focus and ignore the bigger picture, we often under-value versatility and a broader persecutive - which mental models give you.
Key pieces of a mental model
Why it is that way (why it works
How to apply it
What are the most useful mental models to start with? What mental models does Josh frequently apply over and over again?
“The 5 Parts of Every Business"
Value Creation (business model)
Attention of Prospects (marketing)
Convince Prospects to Pay (sales)
Deliver Value (ops)
Analyze Efforts (finance)
“4 Methods to Increase Revenue"
Increase # of Customers
Increase Avg Transaction Size
Increase Frequency of Transactions Per Customer
“Standard Operating Procedure”
In this situation - what are we supposed to do to solve this problem?
Checklists are a great subset or example of this
Checklists are extremely powerful - even for very smart and highly capable people - they create a major shift in outcomes - “wash hands with soap” example
How do you start with mental models? How do you begin to implement them into your life?
Do you want to start implementing mental models into your life? We share specific tools and resources
What do people often get wrong about the 10,000 hour rule?
The “status malfunction” mental model and how it often skews our thinking about how the world works
Have you ever said “I would really like to learn how to do something new” but felt like you didn’t have the time?
The “Law of Practice” - the early hours of practice at a skill lead to an extremely rapid improvement and development in skills
What’s the method or framework for rapidly learning any skill in 20 hours or less?
Step One - Decide What You Want To Learn - Get Specific and Get Clear
How will you know when you’ve reached that particular level of skill?
Step Two - Deconstruct That Skill Into Smaller Sub Skills
Many of the things we think of as “skills” are actually bundles of lots of smaller skills
Work on practicing and drilling down into the smaller sub-sets of skills
Step Three - Learn Enough About Each Sub Skill to Self Correct
Don’t get stuck in over-researching before you jump in - this is a form of procrastination
Step Four - Remove Barriers To Practice
Physical, Mental or Emotional
Step Five - Pre-Commit To Practicing At Least 20 Hours
Precommiting is a KEY COMPONENT
40 mins per day for a month
If you aren’t willing to precommit this skill probably doesn’t have enough value or interest for you
This pre-commitment helps overcome frustration of the first 3-5 hours or so
The major barrier to learning isn’t intellectual - it’s emotional
Adult learners often struggle when they compare their skill level with that of other people. Your job is not to compare yourself with others - it's to compare yourself AFTER the 20 hour framework to yourself BEFORE the 20 hour framework.
How to fight a hydra is a story of - Ambition, Uncertainty, Risk, Fear of the Unknown
How do you act in the face of fear and uncertainty?
What’s the best way to handle scary or uncertain situations?
The power of showing people instead of telling people.
How do you deal with the difficulties and self doubts of whether or not you are doing the right thing?
Where do most people go wrong with their approach to uncertainty and fear of the unknown?
Most people wish uncertainty would go away - they think that if the uncertainty is still there that they are doing something wrong and that they need to change course - but it’s the opposite - you have to be willing to tolerate, accept, and live with uncertainty.
Uncertainty will always be there, it will never go away, and that’s not a problem - it’s part of how the universe works.
Fiction is a powerful way to shape people’s thinking - and can be more impactful than non fiction - because people can internalize the lessons and ideas as a lived experience.
Homework: 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.
Homework: 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?
Use the “PICS” to help specify and clarify what you want to do:
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
Josh’s website JoshKaufman.net
The First 20 Hours Book Site
The Personal MBA Book Site
Medium - “Josh Kaufman: How To Learn Anything From Scratch” by Louis Chew
Forbes - “Josh Kaufman: It Takes 20 Hours Not 10,000 Hours To Learn A Skill” by Dan Schawbel (2013)
Poets and Quants - “Why Josh Kaufman Thinks Business School Is A Waste” by John A. Byrne (from 2010)
[Podcast] Accidental Creative - AC Podcast: Josh Kaufman on The First 20 Hours
[Podcast] Bookworm - (Book Reviews) 21: The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman
[Podcast] Pharmacy Leaders Podcast - Ep 184 Personal MBA Author Josh Kaufman Part I
The Psychology of Human Misjudgement - Charlie Munger Full Speech
The first 20 hours -- how to learn anything | Josh Kaufman | TEDxCSU
I Will Teach You to Be Rich - How to learn any skill rapidly, with Josh Kaufman and Ramit Sethi
Olivier Roland English - The 4 BEST business books, chosen by Josh Kaufman (author of the Personal MBA)
Streamed event: RSA Replay - How to Learn Anything...Fast
Productivity Game - The 5 parts to every business: THE PERSONAL MBA by Josh Kaufman
Bulldog Mindset - How To Fight A Hydra (Book Review)
[Amazon Author Page] Josh Kaufman
[Amazon Author Page] Atul Gawande
[Book] The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman
[Book] The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! By Josh Kaufman
[Book] Worldly Wisdom: Collected Quotations and Aphorisms by Josh Kaufman and Carlos Miceli
[Transcript] A Lesson on Elementary Worldly Wisdom by Charlie Munger
[SoS Episode] How To Stop Living Your Life On Autopilot, Take Control, and Build a Toolbox of Mental Models to Understand Reality with Farnam Street’s Shane Parrish
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss how you can understand the world with powerful clarity, what makes other people behave in certain ways? What are the most important concepts and ideas in the business world? Do you often feel like you’re looking for a magic bullet, or a paint by numbers approach to solving your problems? The solution to all of these questions lies in the powerful framework that we explain in-depth and show you how to apply with our guest, Josh Kaufman.
Do you need more time? Time for work, time for thinking and reading, time for the people in your life, time to accomplish your goals? This was the number one problem our listeners outlined and we created a new video guide that you can get completely for free when you sign up and join our e-mail list. It's called How You Can Create Time for the Things That Really Matter in Life. You can get it completely for free when you sign up and join the e-mail list at successpodcast.com.
You're also going to get exclusive content that's only available to our e-mail subscribers. We recently pre released an episode in an interview to our e-mail subscribers a week before it went live to our broader audience and that had tremendous implications, because there is a limited offer in there with only 50 available spots that got eaten up by the people who were on the e-mail list first.
With that same interview, we also offered an exclusive opportunity for people on our e-mail list to engage one-on-one for over an hour with one of our guests in a live exclusive interview just for e-mail subscribers. There's some amazing stuff that's available only to e-mail subscribers that's only going on if you subscribe and sign up to the e-mail list. You can do that by going to successpodcast.com and signing up right on the home page.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how you can find your purpose in life, especially when you're lost or confused about what to do next. We heard some incredible stories and unforgettable lessons from people who were fighting through life-threatening illnesses and looked at how to really push yourself beyond what you thought was possible to achieve what truly matters to you. We discussed all of that and much more with our previous guest, Jon Vroman. If you want to find your purpose in life, listen to our previous episode.
Now, for our interview with Josh.
[0:02:56.2] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Josh Kaufman. Josh is a researcher and author of three best-selling books; The Personal MBA, The First 20 Hours and most recently, How to Fight a Hydra: Face Your Fears, Pursue Your Ambitions and Become the Hero You're Destined To Be.
Josh has been featured as the number one best-selling author in business and money. He's ranked on amazon.com. His website joshkaufman.net was named to one of the top 100 websites for entrepreneurs by Forbes and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and much more. Josh, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:27.9] JK: Thanks, Matt. Great to be here.
[0:03:29.1] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on the show. As I was telling you in our little pre-show conversation, Personal MBA is one of my all-time favorite books and a book I highly recommend to people all the time. I actually recommended it to someone yesterday. One of my most dog-eared and note filled books.
I think the thing about Personal MBA, it might have been one of the first books that introduced me to mental models as a toolkit, as a thinking framework. As longtime listeners will know, Charlie Munger is a huge intellectual hero of mine. I'd love to start today and dig into a little bit how you uncovered your own personal journey of using and thinking in mental models and the importance of using mental models.
[0:04:11.9] JK: Sure. Super glad to hear that the book has been useful to you. That's really the reason that I wrote it. It came out of a personal project that I wanted to learn all of this for my own use, to use in my own career and my own businesses. The idea around the book is that putting everything that's important to understand about business in one central place where someone can pick it up and learn a lot and be able to use it whatever their career, or industry happens to be. That was the purpose of the book, so I'm very happy to hear that it worked for you.
The genesis of The Personal MBA came around this idea of mental models. Mental models are these universal, very important and flexible concepts that describe how the world works in some important way. This is something that unconsciously as I was going through the process of learning about business that I was searching for, but the term yet as you mentioned, I first came across mental models in the work of Charlie Munger, who is not very well-known, aside from investment circles. He just happens to be the long-term business partner of Warren Buffett, whom a lot of people have heard of.
Charlie is an interesting guy. He is an investor and a businessman, but he didn't start that way. He started his career as an attorney and as a meteorologist of all things, and decided that he wanted to learn a lot more about business. He started looking for these critical, universal, very important principles that would help him understand what a business was and how it functioned on a very deep level. Then his application of that is being able to take this knowledge and look at an existing business, or look at a business opportunity and figure out both, does this make sense? Is this working the way that I expect it to work? Is there funny business going on here?
In his investing career, Charlie would often use these sorts of concepts to figure out – so think of a business like Enron, it looks really great on paper. Something about it, if you dig into it just doesn't make sense. Both on the identifying opportunities and identifying potential mistakes, or traps, or things that you could avoid, mental models are a very useful orienting framework about both what you should learn and the types of things that you should pay attention to, versus others.
It's very easy to get bogged down in the minutia of techniques that apply to only one area of business, or a very specific approach to a very narrow problem. Mental models are our way of going above that to understand the totality of what it is that you're trying to do and then have a wide variety of tools, for lack of a better term, to approach any situation in business or entrepreneurship that you would be likely to face.
[0:06:52.7] MB: For me, I think mental models fundamentally stem from a place of curiosity. I'm obsessed with understanding how and why things work, whether businesses, other people, what makes people successful, I've personally found mental models and through Personal MBA in many ways to be a great way for organizing all these different facts in some structure that's coherent and helps explain the reason that things happen in the world.
[0:07:19.4] JK: Yeah. Part of the models that I talk about in The Personal MBA, it came out simultaneously out of both research and practice. At the time that I started the project, I was working at one of the largest corporations in the world, Procter & Gamble, doing product development and marketing. On the side, I was starting my own businesses. I had this interesting experience of working in the largest of the large and the smallest of the small, literally just me, and trying to figure out okay, what are the things that I need to know? How do I need to approach new opportunities, or new ideas? How should I interact with other people? How can I learn to work more effectively, to be more productive, to make better decisions, to have better ideas?
Early in my career, one of the things that I’ve decided to do very strategically was to read an enormous amount of business training material; books and resources and courses. The thing that you realize very quickly when you start reading a lot of business material is you see a lot of the same ideas come up over and over and over again. That's no accident. It's because those ideas, or those ways of thinking about this thing that we're all trying to do happen to be very useful and applicable well beyond some very specific narrow situations.
The more of those mental models, the more of those cognitive tools that you can pick up and just maybe you don't use them every day of your life, but having them in the back of your mind when you see something new, or you're trying to think through a new opportunity, being able to think about, “Oh, that reminds me about this thing that I learned,” and have a framework, or have an approach to how to look at this particular opportunity, it makes an enormous difference. I think that's what separates the people who do really well in their careers and in their life long-term, versus people who might do very well in a narrow sense and then just fizzle out over a couple of years.
[0:09:08.3] MB: I think that's such an important point. I feel when I bring up mental models, a lot of people either over complicate it, or misunderstand what they are, or even almost roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, yeah. I hear all kinds of people talking about that. I just don't have the time and energy to dig into it.” What would you say to someone who has a reaction like that?
[0:09:29.0] JK: Yeah. It feels this big, nebulous abstract thing. I really wish that there were a better term. I've used the term cognitive tools a couple times. I think that is moving in the right direction. It's something that you learn that you're going to be able to pull out and use in certain situations to think about certain things.
I think in general, concepts and resources around how to think about fill in the blank are really systematically underrated. A lot of people when they search for either business training, or ideas, or books, or whatever, there's this incredible impulse to search for a magic bullet. I need something that is directly applicable to my situation, in my situation only, that's going to give me a paint-my-numbers approach to getting the result that I'm looking for.
I think the more people can look at that and say – there's a legitimate desire there, right? It would be really nice to come in and solve a problem overnight, or to be able to snap your fingers and have the result that you're looking for. In terms of how you think about how you invest your time and energy in getting better, looking for those silver bullets has a very real opportunity cost; A, those silver bullets usually don't exist. B, you can invest the same amount of time and energy and practice becoming very skilled and very versatile about thinking about the entirety of this set of things that you might like to do.
As you're getting better at entrepreneurship for example, or getting better at communication, or leadership, you can either focus on the narrow and the super practical, but not very versatile. Or you can just take one step higher than that and learn things that are going to be useful for the rest of your life and the rest of your career. Making that invest has the best long-term return of anything that I can think of.
[0:11:15.0] MB: I truly believe that studying mental models is one of, if not, the most high-leverage activities that anyone can participate in.
[0:11:22.5] JK: Yeah, absolutely agreed.
[0:11:24.1] MB: One of the other really important components of mental models that Munger talks about and I think Personal MBA is a great example of as well is the importance of having a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
[0:11:39.6] JK: Yeah. It's very easy for us in all – whatever industry or market or discipline you happen to know a lot about. It's very easy to have to narrow a focus. For example, if you're a doctor, or an architect, or a programmer, or think of any professional skill that you would use on a day-in day-out basis, the easiest thing to do is to just focus on learning more about that thing. Yeah, to a certain extent, developing deep expertise in the topic that you used to create and provide value to other people is a good use of your time. Focusing on that area exclusively to the abandonment of everything else that you're going to interact with on a daily basis, that is a very sub-optimal approach.
Learning just a little bit and it doesn't have to be deep expertise, but learning a little bit about business and how businesses work, learning psychology, so communication and personal productivity and all of the things about how to interact in a positive, productive way with other people, you can get enormous benefits from that. Understanding systems, what systems are, how they work, how to look at the systems that are active in your life or in your field or discipline and be able to analyze and improve them over a long period of time; that's a tremendous asset that will serve you well no matter what you do in your career.
It's very common to see people who at the beginning of their career go very deep on one particular discipline to the exclusion of everything else. Then they decide for whatever reason, maybe it's a change of heart, or a desire to enter another field. Maybe it's a layoff. Some unexpected event happens and you're no longer in that field anymore, or you want to explore something else for a while.
Undervaluing versatility and being able to operate well in different environments whatever those environments might be, that versatility is a very real asset. You have options that other people won't have and you will see opportunities that other people won't see. Training yourself to think about what you do in a multidisciplinary way, bringing together your skill and business and people and systems and thinking about all of that at once and having the tools to think about all of the various interplays between those topics in your particular field, that gives you an enormous advantage.
[0:13:53.6] MB: You mentioned psychology in many ways. That's why our show has such a focus on psychology, because and I think Munger is probably the one who showed me this, the mental models from psychology are so relevant. It seems almost esoteric or 20,000 foot, or too big picture to be studying or thinking about all these obscure cognitive biases, or things that cause humans to behave in certain ways or do goofy things. The reality is that the mental models from psychology are so relevant, because they apply in everything you do in every single interaction that you have.
[0:14:26.8] JK: Absolutely. Yeah. If you're marketing and you don't understand what social proof is and why it's important and how it's potentially useful and how it can be abused, you're going to have a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to figuring out how to market in a way that's going to work. In the same way, selling things, if you don't know how authority works, you're going to have a really hard time.
The nice thing about these particular ideas, entire books have been written on most of them, but really the parts of the mental model that carry most of the weight is the idea and why it is that way and how to think about applying it to real life situations. If you understand that, you're going to be able to use that to think through whatever it is that you happen to be facing right now.
[0:15:08.9] MB: Are there any mental models that you frequently either find yourself applying, or constantly referencing, or even that you think are vital for people to understand and internalize?
[0:15:19.6] JK: Yeah. There are a couple. In The Personal MBA, these are the more framework or checklist these sorts of mental models. There's one that I use all the time and I've used this everything from having a conversation with a friend about this idea that they want to explore, all the way up to conversations with C-level executives about setting their corporate strategy for the next five to 10 years.
I call it the five parts of every business and it’s really simple. Every business creates something of value, so that's value creation. They get the attention of prospects, so people who might want it, that's marketing. They convince those prospects that this is something worth paying money for, which is sales. They deliver the value that they've promised to their paying customers, which is value delivery, and then they analyze their efforts. For value creation and marketing and value delivery, typically the business is spending money, so you need to track how much you're spending.
In sales, that's the magical point in the business where money flows in, you need to pay attention to how much. Then you analyze how much is coming in versus how much is going out and you answer two very fundamental questions; A, is more money coming in than going out? Because if not, you're in trouble. B, is it enough? Is it enough to make this business an ongoing, sustainable concern long-term? That's the essence of finance.
Just that framework of five ideas; value creation, marketing, sales, value delivery and finance, gives you a tremendous amount of leverage when it comes to both evaluating new business opportunities and analyzing existing businesses. You can take any business in the world and try to figure out okay, how does this business fulfill this critical function that every business must have?
You can use it to do everything from create a new business plan to look through some of the public records for publicly traded company. You can do the same analysis. How are they creating value? How are they spreading the word? How are they selling? How are they delivering? Then what do the financials look like?
As a general purpose framework, it's the smallest possible set of things that you need to think about when you're thinking about a business in any way, shape or form. It's a really handy tool to have when new opportunities make themselves known to you. There are some similar things, so on the finance side. A lot of conversations that I have with business type folks is around well, I want to make more money. How can we bring in more revenue than we are right now?
It helps that when you dig through the literature, there are really only four ways to do that. I call this in a very straightforward way, the four methods to increase revenue, because that's what they are. The four things that you can do is you can increase the number of customers, so more people in the door. You can increase the average transaction size. Get the people who are buying to buy more in each instance that they're buying. You can increase the frequency of transactions per customer. Get your customers to buy more often than they are right now, or you can raise your prices. Those are the four options that you have open to you.
It might look very different in terms of how individual businesses in different markets actually do these things. When it comes down to it, if you want to make more money, those four things are the things that you need to think about. It's a very handy checklist of I know the outcome I want. I'm not exactly sure how to get there yet, so let's go back to these four fundamental approaches and just generate some ideas of how we might apply those tools in this particular circumstance.
[0:18:39.7] MB: You mentioned checklist a couple times, which I think is also a really great way as you're beginning your journey into understanding mental models, even if you haven't internalized, or deeply thought about, or studied the huge array of them, you can often find just googling checklist of mental models, or even finding mental models for specific activities is a great way to when you're encountering a particular problem, let's say with sales, right, is a good example. You can run through a checklist of some of these models and say, “Oh, does this one apply? Does this one apply? Etc.
[0:19:10.2] JK: Yeah, exactly. Checklists are a great example of there's a meta-concept on top of checklist, which is standard operating procedure. In this type of situation, how are we going about solving this thing, or analyzing this thing in the moment? Checklists are really great for things that you do over and over and over again that you know what approach or process should be. I'm sure you have a checklist every time before you record one of these episodes of I need to turn on my microphone and put on my headphones.
For me, I turn off the heat and air conditioner, so there's not a low-pitch rumble in the background that the mic is going to pick up. Setting phones to silent. All of those things that you would need to do, a checklist just helps you – instead of in the moment having to remember to do all of these things and very often, our memories are imperfect, or we're in a hurry so some critical things are skipped. A checklist is just a way of getting that process out of your head onto paper in a way that lets you go through and just say, “Yup. Done, done, done, done, done. Okay, ready to go.”
There are all sorts of different industries that use checklists to really great effect. Every time a commercial, or shoot even individual pilot takes off, taxis to the runway to fly an airplane, they go through a pre-flight checklist and there's a really good reason for that. It helps make sure that the flight is going to go according to plan and that the aircraft is in good condition and ready to take off and then the pilot knows what they need to do in order to get the airplane off the ground and then back on the ground safely.
[0:20:40.8] MB: Without going too deep down the checklist rabbit hole, obviously Atul Gawande’s book is a great resource on that. It's funny, because people also think, “Oh, I don't need a checklist. I've got it down. I don't need to look at one.” Even people who are high-level and obviously checklist manifesto has some great examples of this, but there's so much research around the medical establishment and the inclusion of bare-bones, extremely basic checklist for things like washing your hands over time have a tremendous impact on infection rates and even mortality in hospitals.
[0:21:12.2] JK: Yeah, that's one of my favorite examples. I think the study if I'm remembering right, was done at a hospital in Detroit. One of the big problems that they were having is when an IV is inserted into a patient, the site where the IV tube is inserted, you obviously use a needle for that and there's a tube sticking out of your arm. The longer that tube stays in, the higher the probability that that line will become infected over time.
This hospital was just having atrocious problems with over the course of, I think it was 10 days. There were a high number of people whose IV lines were getting infected. They established a – I think it was a five-step checklist. The steps were very simple. Step one was wash hands with soap. You hope that you don't need to remind the doctor to do this before, but it was on the checklist and a lot of doctors didn't like that.
I think step two was clean the site with antiseptic, put sterile drapes over, wear gloves and put a dressing over the IV insertion site after it was in. Really simple, not even Medicine 101, like common-sense things. The doctors when they were like, “Okay, we're doing a study. Everybody has to follow the checklist.” The nurses were empowered to stop the doctor and make them follow the checklist if they weren't following the checklist, which doesn't happen very often.
The doctors nearly revolted, but eventually they said, “Okay, we're going to do this for the study.” I actually just looked it up. By using this five-step checklist, the 10-day IV line infection rate dropped from 11% hospital-wide to 0% and it saved the hospital over two million dollars in medical costs, just for using this very simple, very straightforward common-sense checklist.
[0:22:58.8] MB: That's amazing. I'm so glad you looked up the numbers, because it shows you that even very smart, highly capable people who's – we're getting into some other mental models, but whose ego can sometimes get in the way of following these instructions that they feel are even too basic, or too simple for them, create – in 10 days, created a two million dollar shift and a massive reduction in infections.
[0:23:20.6] JK: Sure. Or even think of an ER doctor. Someone comes into the operating room about to die, there's a lot going on. It's really easy to skip a step, or forget to do something when there is chaos all around you. Just having in the midst of that chaos, having some systems and having some procedures to follow, even basic checklist like these, they make a world of difference.
[0:23:45.0] MB: For somebody who's listening to this conversation and they say, “Okay, I'm sold on mental models. That's starting to make sense to me.” What would you recommend as a beginning point to start down that path of really understanding, learning and beginning to implement mental models into your life?
[0:24:00.8] JK: Yeah. The two resources that I would recommend – actually three. The personal MBA was essentially written as a central repository of mental models, specifically for business and management. If you're interested in starting a company, or you’re in your career now and you want to get better and improve your business skills regardless of what you do for a living; Personal MBA was written specifically for that purpose.
There's also a really wonderful speech by Charlie Munger that he gave many, many years ago, where he talked about essentially his high-level rough cut of the mental models that he thinks about, which has some overlap with The Personal MBA, but also quite a bit if you are interested in investing as a topic. Munger is definitely an investor by experience and by trade, and so his application focuses way more on the investing side of things than Personal MBA.
Also, Shane Parrish from Farnam Street has a wonderful post that he is continuously updating on all of the different models and he is crossing both; business management, decision-making and investment. If you're going to look at three resources, those are the three to look at first.
[0:25:10.3] MB: Great, great list of resources. Shane's a previous guests on the show, so we'll make sure to include his episode where we also go deep into mental models in the show notes and the speech. I don't know if it's exactly the one you're referencing or not, but there's one where Munger shares the 27 mental models from psychology that have been really impactful for him. I've probably watched that YouTube video over a hundred times. I would just watch it on repeat again and again and again, until I had drilled and distilled every single one of those biases, those cognitive biases into my head and I had a really good understanding of all of them.
[0:25:43.0] JK: Yeah. The speech that I'm thinking of is a lesson on elementary worldly wisdom as it relates to investment management and business. It's a wonderful, wonderful speech. It was to the USC Business School in 1994.
[0:25:58.0] MB: Well, we'll make sure to throw that one in the show notes as well. Munger obviously, I could sing his praises all day. You have so much other work. I mean, mental models is incredibly vital and important topic, but I want to explore some of the other themes and ideas that you've previously researched and written about. One of the other ones that has come up with previously on the show that I think you have a really unique take on is the 10,000 hour rule, which is a convenient example of to some degree a mental model, right? I'd be very curious for you to share with the listeners why, or what people often misunderstand, or get wrong about the 10,000 hour rule.
[0:26:36.4] JK: Sure. One of the things that I think about a lot and is one of the newer models that I see coming up over and over again, and I wrote a post on this a while back. I call it status malfunction. When something is very flashy or high status in some way, shape or form, so imagine everything around celebrity culture, or following executives of large companies, people, billionaires, things like that. The higher status something is, the more people tend to both pay attention and wait that particular source of information, or advice, or perspective.
I think that that can very often lead to us allocating our attention and waiting certain factors way more highly than we should. What's interesting about the 10,000 hour rule, everybody – it seems like everybody has heard of this, came out of Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, based in large part on the research of K. Anders Ericsson of I think it was Florida State University. In general, the 10,000 hour rule as paraphrased by Gladwell is top performers in ultra-competitive industries, so think professional sports, think chess grandmasters, violinists at super prestigious – in super prestigious orchestras, things like that. How much practice did it take for them to get to that point?
The answer was to a general order of magnitude, 10,000 hours over the course of about 10 years. In as far as the research is concerned, that's great. If you want to be a top performer in an ultra-competitive field, that's probably what you should expect in terms of the effort you're going to need to invest to get to the top.
I was really interested in this as an example potentially of status malfunction. Most of the time when we go about deciding to learn something new, the motivating factor is not, “I am going to demonstrably become the best in the world at this particular thing. No one can stop me. Ha, ha, ha, ha.” It's we want to learn a skill, either for our own practical use, maybe we have a use for it in our professional life, or in our personal life. Or maybe we're interested in it for fun. This sounds something new and engaging and interesting to explore, so I want to figure out what this is about and if this is right for me.
What I was noticing as the 10,000 hour rule became more and more popular, I was noticing a lot of people would use it as an excuse for not getting started in the first place. Like, “Oh, I would really like to learn how to play the piano,” to take a random example, “but I just don't have 10,000 hours to invest, so I'm just not going to get started.” That really bothered me, because I think that it was applying the wrong standard to a situation to which it just didn't apply.
Part of what I was trying to do is figure out okay, let's constrain it to the common problem. You want to learn how to do something new and potentially something that you have absolutely zero knowledge or expertise about. What does the process look like from going from nothing, to being pretty good, like demonstrably much better than you were when you began? What does that process look like, to go from nothing to really good?
I decided to start researching that directly. It turns out, there's an enormous amount of research, including one of the longest-standing effects in all of cognitive psychology. It's called the law of practice, which basically says that when you start practicing, you tend to improve at an extremely rapid rate. Those early hours of practice are the most effective in terms of skill building. I started doing a lot of research and experimentation around testing this particular hypothesis and that research turned into my second book, The First 20 Hours, which was about the process of deciding to learn something new and then approaching that in a systematic way in order to make those early hours of practice as efficient and effective as you possibly can make them.
[0:30:33.8] MB: I really enjoyed, for listeners who want to go deeper on this, Josh has a wonderful TED talk, where he shares – where you share your own experience with learning the ukulele, which I thought. The end of the TED talk was phenomenal. I really enjoyed it.
[0:30:48.2] JK: It was such a fun talk.
[0:30:49.6] MB: We’ll leave the listeners to be surprised about what happens. In that talk, you – and obviously in the book as well, you break down a really simple but useful framework for thinking about how do we practice intelligently and make use of those first 20 hours, so that we can rapidly learn new skills.
[0:31:09.0] JK: Yeah, that's right. The framework is just like the hospital checklist that we were talking about earlier. It sounds very simple, but following the checklist makes it much more likely that not only are you going to make progress, but the process is going to be both effective and not as frustrating as it otherwise might be. Because one universal about learning new skills is that when we try to learn something new, the early hours of practice are always the most frustrating.
Anything that we can do to tune down that frustration is very much win. The general process is step one, decide what you want to be able to do, which is the part just like step one, wash your hands with soap, is something that you would expect nobody would skip over, but it happens more often than you would expect. A lot of times, we just have these vague notions of I would like to play the piano, to use the earlier example. I would like to speak Italian. These very general, ambiguous, sometimes very lofty things that are very nonspecific and ill-defined.
The first step is to force yourself to become more clear and more specific about exactly what you want to be able to do. What does that look like? How are you going to know when you have reached that particular level of skill? Once you've decided on that – the second is to deconstruct the skill into smaller sub-skills.
The idea here is that many of the things we think of as skills aren't just one thing, they're actually bundles of smaller sub-skills, and all of them may have very little to do with each other. A good easy to visualize example is playing golf. I want to be good at playing golf is not very specific, because when you look at what you need to do to drive the ball off the green with the big driver club – I'm not a golfer, so apologies to anybody if I'm getting my terminology wrong. Driving off of the tee, versus putting the ball into the hole on the green are two very different skills. You practice them in different ways. There are different approaches to getting better at those particular sub-skills.
Instead of trying to practice golf, you can say, “I'm going to practice driving this week and here's what it's going to look like, here's how I'm going to know I'm getting better at it.” Assign some criteria to it. It's way more effective that way. Then the earlier part, this is step three, is learning enough about each sub-skill to self-correct during practice.
One of the things, essentially a subtle form of procrastination that I am particularly prone to is wanting to over research before you jump into trying to do the thing. The more you can do enough research to self-correct, to know when it's not going the way that you want it to or needed to, to be able to take a step back and say, “Okay, this isn't working. I need to go back and I need to try a different approach.”
An interesting, practical use of – my daughter Lila is learning to play the piano right now, and so the particular method that she's using actually has her listening to all of the songs that she is trying to play many times a day before she tries to play them. As she's playing and she makes a mistake, she's able to instantly recognize that she's made a mistake. Go back and try it again. That loop of being able to recognize something didn't go right and then go back and self-correct is how you make the practice itself more efficient.
Step four is removing barriers to practice. Those barriers can be physical, mental or emotional. Sometimes, I think the example I use in the book is if you're trying to learn how to play the guitar and the guitar is in its case in the back of a closet on the other side of your house, there's a physical barrier to you doing the thing that you want to do. Get it out of the case, put it on a stand right next to your favorite chair, or your desk, or wherever you tend to frequent. Then deciding to practice is just a matter of reaching out and picking it up.
The same goes for mental and emotional barriers. Anything is holding you back, identifying what those barriers are and get rid of them as much as possible. Then the last step, which is where the title The First 20 Hours comes from is to pre-commit to practicing the most important sub-skills for at least 20 hours. That pre-commitment is the important bet. It serves two purposes; A, if you're not willing to pre-commit at least 20 hours of practice, which for visualization is about 40 minutes a day for about a month. If you're not willing to make that pre-commitment, it's probably a sign that this particular skill just doesn't have enough value or benefit to you in order to keep going.
You're far better off investing that time and effort in something that is going to give you enough benefit. It'll be way easier to practice that way. Then the 20 hour pre-commitment solves the problem of the early frustration. It's much easier to say to yourself when you start and you're terrible, because you probably will be, to say to yourself, “Okay, I'm not good at this. This is frustrating. I'm going to be terrible and frustrated for at least 20 hours. Then after that point, I have permission to stop, but I'm not going to stop until I've invested at least as that much time into the skill that I have decided is important to me.”
From a psychological standpoint, it really helps with should I continue, or should I not continue decision. You've already made that decision. What happens in practice is the first, anywhere between three to five, six hours are very frustrating and then you start to get better. Then those later hours of practice are way more effective and very beneficial, because you've gotten over that initial frustration barrier.
After the 20-hour mark, you will be much, much better than you were than at the beginning and you'll be in a much better position to figure out, “Should I continue investing in the skill, or is this something that I am good enough based on my purposes and I can move on and learn something else?”
[0:36:44.7] MB: One of the ways that you framed this entire process, which I think is a great and really actionable framework for learning anything is that the major barriers to learning aren't intellectual, they're emotional.
[0:36:57.4] JK: Absolutely.
[0:36:58.3] MB: I think that's a critical thing for listeners to understand is that it's not about the – I mean, it is in some ways, but it's not necessarily the lack of knowledge isn't what's going to stop you. It's the emotional components of the challenge of learning these new skills.
[0:37:12.8] JK: Yeah. I think the two places where that shows up most, you'll often and maybe you can think back to a point in your life where you've tried something and you spend maybe 10 minutes on it and it's like, “I'm just not good at whatever the thing is.” That's not a rational cognitive assessment. That's an emotional reaction to you having an image in your mind of what you want to be able to do and the reality of where you're starting in terms of this particular skill.
Just learning to diffuse that, I'm not good at X, into okay, the early hours of doing anything are frustrating. That's expected, and so I'm going to push through that to get what I want, is a very constructive way of approaching it. The other thing that adult learners tend to have a really difficult time with is comparing their performance versus the skill level demonstrated by other people. This happens in drawing and art a lot.
You go online and you just see these amazing pieces that are created by other people. Then you go to do it yourself and you're barely on the level of stick figure doodles. The gulf between I want to be able to do this really highly developed thing and where you start is often very wide. The best thing that you can do for yourself is to say that early in this process, your job is not to compare yourself against other people, your job is to compare yourself after the process to what you were able to do before the process. If you're going to compete with anyone, compete with yourself and judge your process based on how far you've come based on the investment that you've made.
[0:38:48.8] MB: In many ways and it's almost a cliché life lesson, right? That you should always compete with yourself and not with others.
[0:38:56.4] JK: Yeah. I think there are times and places for competition. I think we tend to over compare ourselves versus other people and anything that we can do to rein that back in and really focus on what do you want to be able to accomplish? What does that look like? How do you need to develop and how are you going to go about developing in the ways that are important to you?
The more you focus on your own sense of development and worry less about what other people are doing, generally I think the more you get done and the more mentally and emotionally happy and well-adjusted you are.
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[0:41:26.7] MB: I want to segue and talk a little bit about How to Fight a Hydra. What inspired you, because obviously a little bit different than your other books, what inspired you to write that and to put it into the narrative frame that you wrapped it around?
[0:41:41.5] JK: How to Fight a Hydra is a story about ambition and uncertainty, risk and fear of the unknown. It's in a narrative story format, which is brand-new for me. I've never written any fiction before. It came out of a couple things. The first is that it came out of some of the responses that I was getting to both Personal MBA and First 20 Hours.
On The Personal MBA side, it was things like, I have this business idea but I'm not sure if it's going to work. Can you tell me it's going to work before I invest all of this time and energy in this particular business idea? Or I want to switch industries, but I'm not sure it's a good idea. Can you please provide me some assurance that I'm on the right track? Or in The First 20 Hour sense, I really want to learn this thing and I want to get to a certain level of skill, but I'm not quite sure if I'm going to be able to get there. Is this a good idea? Should I invest my time and energy in this way?
There's this persistent undercurrent of fear and anxiety and risk of if you're starting a business, or investing your time and learning something new, there's a genuine chance that you might not get what you want, or it might not turn out the way that you want it to turn out. Many times, the risk or the fear of the unknown, not knowing what the process is going to look like, not knowing if the rewards are going to be worth it, or if in a very real sense if there are going to be any rewards at all, this is something that humans have struggled with for thousands of years. It's that uncertainty and ambiguity and variability and complexity are features of the world that we struggle with on a daily basis. We would like to be guaranteed of outcomes before we invest.
How to Fight a Hydra is a head-on examination of those very real features of reality. How do we choose to invest in something that we know is going to be difficult from the beginning? Or that we don't know if it's going to be as rewarding as we might want it to be? When you look at the people who accomplish great things and who develop high levels of skill and are able to make their lives into what they make it, you see a lot of people who choose to take on risks and choose to pursue things, knowing full well from the beginning that it's going to be difficult and not everything is going to work and they're going to need to adjust as they go.
All of this was just rattling around in my mind for several years. Part of the challenge in writing about things like uncertainty and risk and variability and complexity and fear of the unknown is if you approach it from a research-based, nonfiction standpoint and you cite a lot of studies, you very quickly start writing a book that nobody wants to read, because the reality of these effects in our daily lives is uncomfortable enough. Reading about it and reinforcing it is very uncomfortable.
That's when I started examining what would it look like to show someone who is doing this in an interesting and fun universal thing that the people could relate to? I started writing a story about someone who sets off to fight a mythical monster. Instead of citing research and studies, it's telling the story and showing the process of a person who decides to do something difficult that they're probably not capable of when they set out for. The story involves watching that person deal with these very mundane, everyday difficulties in a particularly skillful way.
You watch them practice to get better. You watch them recognize challenges and then prepare to face them. You watch them deal with things that don't go the way that they expect to. Then you watch them as they deal with some of the difficulties of and self-doubts of am I doing the right thing? Is this worth it? What is the result of this going to be?
The goal with How to Fight a Hydra is hopefully A, telling an interesting and engaging story, but then also being able to communicate some things about how to deal with these universal human difficulties in a skillful way that you can apply to your own life and help you reexamine how you think about things like uncertainty and risk.
[0:45:43.8] MB: Where do most people go wrong with their approach to uncertainty?
[0:45:47.8] JK: That's a really good question. I think the base way to answer that is most people wish uncertainty would go away. They think that if the uncertainty is still there, that means that they're doing something wrong and that something needs to change, or that it's a sign that they shouldn't be doing this thing that they're doing right now and they should do something else.
This is where you'll read stories of entrepreneurs, or people who have created great works of art, or movements, or whatever. There's always a period where this person is toiling away in obscurity doing something weird that nobody else understands. I think there's just really grokking down to the marrow of your bones that the uncertainty is always going to be there. It's never going to go away and that's not a problem. It's actually just part of how the universe works and is something that you can think about and prepare as much as you can.
What you think might happen, you can prepare accordingly. You can do scenarios, you can improve your skills to be more flexible, versatile, able to handle unexpected things as they come up. You can do that. There’s still going to be an element of uncertainty and that's okay. That's not a problem to solve.
The problem to solve is you have something that you want to do. You have a direction you want to go, so your energy and mental and emotional capacity is much better served trying to figure out what the next step is to get closer to that.
[0:47:14.1] MB: I also think it's really interesting and something you casually tossed out, but a very important point that the focus of How to Fight a Hydra is about – it's not about telling people what to do, but rather showing them what to do.
[0:47:27.6] JK: Yeah, totally. I think that's one of the things that I really like. This goes all the way back to the ancient myths from all of the traditions that we have that have been passed down to us over centuries and thousands and thousands of years in some cases, is watching somebody make a particular set of decisions and then seeing how that affects them.
I think a really unique thing that fiction can do that is really difficult in nonfiction is that you can step into somebody's shoes and walk with them for a while, and both see what they're doing and how they're thinking in some cases. Then just be able to internalize it more as a lived-experience, and less as a here's a list of things that I learned about how to deal with fear of the unknown today. It enters and sticks in your brain in a much different way and in a way that for this particular project, I really like.
[0:48:18.4] MB: I think it was a great approach. I get a lot of similar e-mails and questions from listeners and I'd never thought about it the way that you phrased it earlier in the conversation, but I think it's so important to realize that uncertainty never goes away and you have to become at peace with it, or accept it, or just operate and live in a world where uncertainty is just a part of the equation, to really achieve any meaningful results.
[0:48:43.8] JK: Now that was one of the most interesting things that I didn't really expect. I was doing business advising and consulting around the time that Personal MBA was published. Had a lot of questions of like, “I'm thinking about doing this. Is it going to work?” My response was always the same like, “I can't tell you whether or not it's going to work. The reality is going to show us very quickly whether or not this is the right direction.”
The biggest thing is let's figure out what you're trying to do and the approach you're trying to take and the actions you're going to take. Then we'll figure out how to assess if you're going in the right direction as you go. No honest adviser can tell you 100% it's going to work or not work before you do it. You just have to try.
[0:49:23.0] MB: In a weird way and I don't want to digress down this path too much, and I think it was largely a fluke of my life, but I'm a big poker player and I think poker is a tremendous framework for teaching you that the world is very uncertain and that no result is ever guaranteed. I think in many ways, that helped me personally shape and understand a very different relationship to risk than most people have.
[0:49:45.0] JK: Oh, yeah. You can have the best odds on a hand that you can imagine and you can still lose. Yeah, just figuring out and also figuring out is the situation that I'm currently in, are the odds in my favor, or are there things that I can do to make the odds more in my favor? Those are all very constructive lines of thought when dealing with something like uncertainty.
[0:50:06.2] MB: For listeners who want to concretely implement some of the ideas and themes that we've talked about today, what would be one thing that you would give them as an action step to start implementing any of the concepts that we discussed today?
[0:50:21.8] JK: Going back to our conversation of mental models, do some research and do some reading and learning specifically around this particular concept and start metaphorically speaking, filling the toolbox with as many different ideas from as many different disciplines as you possibly can. A practical way to do that is to – whatever your discipline, or industry or market is, choose to read or listen to something that is dramatically outside of your area of expertise.
If you are an architect, try to read something about cognitive psychology, or engineering systems design. Just try to broaden your intellectual landscape as much as you can and pay attention and pick out tools or ideas that look particularly useful to you. The other thing on the practical approach is going back to our conversation of First 20 Hours. This is a particularly good thing to do planning for the upcoming year, really to try to think of if you are going to invest 20 hours in learning how to do something that you would – either would be personally fulfilling to you, or something that would be super handy to have in your business and maybe it's directly related to your set of skills, maybe it's a complementary skill, something that would serve you well in your particular area of expertise.
Really try to think about if you invested 30 to 40 minutes a day for a month, what would you invest it in? What would you focus on first and why? What is the benefit and what would that look like when you were able to perform at the level that you desire? Really try to figure out, is this worth me committing 20 hours of practice in?
I think that every single person that I have heard who has come across the 20-hour technique and has actually invested it has not regretted that investment. You learn and grow so much more than you expect you would in that very short constrained period of time. If you've never done self-improvement investment like that, I would highly, highly recommend it.
[0:52:21.1] MB: I think it's really important to underscore in that second piece of homework that you have to get really clear, right? That was the first major piece of the framework for learning any skill. Yet, I feel so many people don't get as specific as they need to be when they're thinking about learning, or determining really what the highest and best skill to be focusing on would be.
[0:52:42.2] JK: Yeah. There's a framework that I really like for that. It's called PICS, P-I-C-S, which stands for Positive Immediate Concrete and Specific. Positive is something you want to do, so not something like I want to stop doing X. You're describing something you're moving towards. Immediate is right now, so what does it look like for you to do this right now? Concrete is you're able to describe it in terms that you can recognize in the real world, not abstract notions like get better at, or be best at. Then specific, a lot of detail around what exactly it looks like to perform at the threshold you want.
If you're thinking about things that you might want to do, that's a really simple way to make it way easier for your brain to be able to figure out how to get that thing that you've decided you want.
[0:53:28.0] MB: Josh, for listeners who want to find you and your work online, who want to dig into more of what we've talked about today, what would be the best place for them to do that?
[0:53:36.6] JK: Yeah, the best place to find me is at joshkaufman.net. From there, you can find links to all of my writing, as well as all of my books; links to Personal MBA, First 20 Hours and How to Fight a Hydra.
[0:53:47.7] MB: Well Josh, thank you so much for coming on the show. As I said at the beginning, tremendous fan of your thinking and your writing and it's been an honor to have you on here today.
[0:53:56.7] JK: Matt, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much. It's been fun.
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