Noah Brier | May 22, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Mental Model Edition

On advice, instruction, and the value of mental models

Noah here. On Monday I shared a link to “Against Advice” along with a quote about the distinction between instruction and coaching (“Instructions make you better at doing what you (independently) valued, whereas coaching makes you better at valuing”). I also mentioned that it’s something I had a whole email’s worth of things to talk about. This is that email.

Why is this interesting?

Because advice is everywhere and it's not clear how useful any of it actually is. “It would be really nice if information that could transform someone’s values was able to be handed over as cheaply as driving instructions,” philosopher Agnes Callard explains in the article. “In such a world, people could be of profound assistance to one another with little investment in one another’s lives. The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact." When advice is offered without request it’s almost always condescending, and even when its sought out, it’s often so superficial that it tends towards common sense. (Collard opens with a story of author Margaret Atwood offering advice that effectively amounted to “practice writing”.)

That’s not to say that people can’t help others by sharing their experiences, but that’s what instruction and coaching are for. Advice tries to cover both the step-by-step nature of instruction and the emotional value of coaching. Per the piece, “The problem here is a mismatch between form and content. Instrumental knowledge is knowledge of universals: whenever you have an X, it will get you a Y. I can give you such knowledge without our having any robust connection to one another. Knowledge of becoming, by contrast, always involves a particularized grasp of where the aspirant currently stands on the path between total cluelessness and near-perfection.” Advice, in other words, occupies the dreaded middle ground, delivering neither value or instruction particularly well.

This is what’s attracted me to mental models over the last few years. The idea, which dates back the 1940s, is that each of us carries a small-scale model of the world in our head and runs different scenarios and simulations through that model to make decisions. Charlie Munger, who is Warren Buffett's business partner, famously gave a speech to the USC Business School in 1994 in which he explained that he and Buffet run Berkshire Hathaway using only 100 mental models. “You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models,” he explained to the students.

These mental models, which are easier thought of as decision-making frameworks, operate as a kind of meta-advice: they’re the thing that caused someone to make the decision that eventually led to the outcome that you’re now offering in the form of advice. They range from relatively simple concepts like sunk costs in psychology and economics to models that try to wrap up how all civilization functions like Stewart Brand and Brian Eno’s Pace Layers (pictured below).

In the end, advice is like a solid substance while models are refractive, allowing waves to pass through and altering their shape and color on the way out. By working back and understanding the underlying frameworks that led to decisions, you actually have a tool that, when used alongside other frameworks, can help answer both what you should value and how to approach a problem. (NRB)

Model of the Day:

One of the frameworks I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Amazon’s Type 1 and Type 2 decisions. It originated in a 2016 letter to shareholders where Jeff Bezos explained the ways he tries to push the company to stay fast and focused: “Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.” put together a nice visual version. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • Last year I wrote a series of pieces on my blog diving (very) deep into a few different frameworks: Conway’s Law, Known Unknowns, Pace Layers, Parable of Two Watchmakers, Pareto Principle, and the Variance Spectrum. (NRB)

  • Noah and I were commenting about the fabulous lives of F1 stars the other day, all of whom seem to live on the planet Mars of Monaco. So the Onion nails it with this. (CJN)  

  • A five minute CNN international piece about the Last Column project that I’ve been working on with my colleagues at FF and Ron Haviv in partnership with CPJ. (CJN)

  • Tim Sweeney has been doing the incredibly influential Beats in Space radio show for 20 years. I first met him at NYU where he was already super established on student radio, and he still does the show week in and week out. Here the Times writes a nice piece on its influence. (CJN)

  • I’ve been tracking the China/US 5G geopolitics story since our friend Kevin Allison co-wrote an excellent paper on it last year. This week the US announced it was putting Huawei (a major player in 5G) on a list of companies that US tech vendors need a license to sell to. From the Signal newsletter: “But placing Huawei on this list is essentially a death threat against a company that Beijing hopes will give China a competitive edge in the global race to develop the 5G communications technology that will enable everything from more advanced smartphones to smart cities. If Huawei can't buy from US hardware and software suppliers, it can't upgrade its own systems or conduct routine maintenance. It's a blow for virtually all of Huawei's products and its global network of customers.” (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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