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Hackernoon logo2020 Why Mental Models Matter: 10 Lessons and Two Startups Later by@amirsan-roberto

2020 Why Mental Models Matter: 10 Lessons and Two Startups Later

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@amirsan-robertoAmirsan Roberto

Serial Entrepreneur |Blockchain 4 Social Impact |Sharing/Subscription Economy Researcher|

2020 will be something unforgettable for a lot of us. There are so many things to digest and reflect on this year: so many jobs and lives were lost, hundreds of industries had to adjust to new realities, leadership was redefined, values were reimagined, office work was questioned, and the list goes on…

But if there’s one thing I learned from 2020, it’s that nothing is permanent—except for change.  

Uncertainty at its peak.

Even before the pandemic hit, life seemed to be so hectic, overwhelming, and destructive. Focusing on something in particular and trying to be and stay creative was becoming a challenge.

Meditation was helpful in trying to calm down, but even then, I still had a hard time thinking creatively. During this time, I was also close to completing my contract at Genaro, so I was thinking of my next move. 

Then at the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 hit China and turned the world upside down. 

Social distancing, panic, and quarantine made millions feel like they were stuck somewhere in life. For some, it was a great time to rethink things, while for others it was a time to complain. Meanwhile, I decided to use this time to dig deeper into myself to deal with some of my insecurities and vulnerabilities. 

And so I started to explore Charlie Munger's “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement”, a lecture that I postponed for ages.

I had no expectations and no plans to take on the world or to challenge myself. I was simply trying to discipline myself during this pandemic and utilize my free time wisely.

What came out after reading and listening to the lecture was eye-opening, jaw-dropping, eyebrow-raising, and mind-boggling. 

That was my "aha!" moment. This was something I never learned at school and something I was never told or even thought of myself. My life changed after discovering “mental models,” which Charlie Munger used to make his choices and fateful decisions that made him one of the most successful partners of Warren Buffet over at Berkshire Hathaway

Reading, analyzing, and making sense of mental models indeed reshaped my lifestyle; thanks to mental models, I was able to start two companies, question aspects of life I never thought of before, and think of new strategies I never even considered until then. But wait:

Just what is a mental model and why does it matter?

Mental models are frameworks that we can use to make sense of the world around us. In a reality as complex as ours, we need mental models to simplify concepts, make connections between ideas, and identify important information from the surrounding sea of noise.

To give an example: Let's think of a forest. What a botanist will think of might differ from that of an environmentalist; a botanist might focus more on the ecosystem of it while an environmentalist will see the impact of climate change on it. Following this comparison, a forestry engineer is likely to analyze the state of tree growth in the area, and a business person will probably think first of the value of the land. 

Nobody among them is wrong, but on their own, none of them are able to describe the full scope of the forest. Sharing knowledge, or learning the basics of the other disciplines, would lead to a more well-rounded understanding that would allow for better initial decisions about managing the forest (as explained on Farnam Street).

In other words, mental models are about looking at the same object, idea, concept, or problem that different experts have different thoughts about, and then using those variations in mentality to identify and solve their problem(s).

The purpose of this article is not to explain Mental Models in detail—if you're here for that, you might want to check out The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (109 Models Explained) here first. 

With this article you’re reading now, I want to share the 10 lessons I learned and am still learning. These lessons are what I apply in delegating activities, making important decisions, and developing my short and long-term strategies, partnerships, and operational workflows. 

Ever since I started applying mental models to my life, my perspective on many things improved drastically. I started looking at issues, challenges, problems, tough cases, cultural cases within a team of members, partners, and even clients more broadly.

In less than 9 months, I was able to build a team of 30 in China and across 20 countries, implementing Holacracy (a method for decentralizing management and governance) remotely for the first time and built Sinofy Studio and Instamasks, which increased productivity and interactive teamwork beyond expectations. 

So, what are the 10 lessons  I  learned since my encounter with mental models?

There is no “perfect timing”

Prior to the pandemic, I used to have a plan good enough to last me and my goals for 12 months. However, I also used to think that I would start my new venture in mid-2020 but always delayed conducting research and I would come up with lame excuses to avoid doing something.

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, my contract with Genaro Network was finished. After that, I gave myself a 72-hour deadline to come up with at least an idea, any idea. The idea became Sinofy Studio, which evolved into a PR entity that helped tech startups access the most digitally connected market— China.

Giving myself a deadline and wanting it bad enough helped me to apply mental models and I simply just did it. 

2. Become a “smart generalist”

Reading, testing, and exploring mental models also helped me think bigger and better than I used to. 

It's no secret that the world is evolving fast. If I had anything that needed solving, I can just search for an expert on Linkedin, Upwork, Freelance, and dozens of other boutique solutions available to help me out.

The idea is to think about how seemingly unrelated developments may interact with one another—something that systems thinkers do naturally. Study how things are connected across different industries and imagine how changes in one domain can affect operations in another one.

A great example of this mindset in practice is the story of Jeff Bezos—instead of focusing on how he wasn't a retail specialist, he looked generally at how the Internet grew. This way of thinking was what aided him in adapting to the environment he was in, helping him seize grand opportunities to grow his business exponentially. 

3. The line between fate and planning

I am not a fatalist, and I have never been one. Obviously, I can never control everything that happens in my life, but I can control my reaction towards it. Similarly, the best decisions I made, people I met, and the "aha!" moments I've had all came to me unexpectedly. I don't know what to call all of this; I don't know if it's fate, coincidence, or something else.

Or maybe it's all just like what Louis Pasteur said: "Chance favors the prepared mind." From this, I learned that to truly prepare for success means preparing your mind and being the person you need to be in order to take action without hesitation when opportunities present themselves to you. 

Today I try to find the balance between both and try to live a life of peace.

4. The (History of ) Literature 

The first time I deprived myself of all gadgets and distractions, I found that reading a book in the dim light was a challenge. But everything changed when I started listening to The History of Literature podcast—the podcast that inspired me and others to live with literature and love literature. 

Now you might be wondering, is there anything in common between mental models and literature? 

Nowadays, when I'm re-reading  Theodore Dreise's Financier trilogy, Jack London's Martin Eden, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky's Idiot, my interest in literature is reawakened, leading me to dive deep into the world of classics and explore the world of morals and my old heroes. I do these things not because I have to, but because I now want to.

The first podcast that got me hooked is here.

5. Breaking routines is the new normal

On a normal day, I always have a perfectly laid-out action plan that I would follow no matter what. During the pandemic though, I tried experimenting with spontaneity in my routine. Don't get me wrong; having a big picture is essential, but sometimes breaking rules is also essential—just don't get carried away with it. 

Use routines as long as they work for you. When they no longer work, or when you’re no longer happy with them, don't be afraid to try out new ones and see what works for you.

6. Not enough time? Bullshit

This is a quite controversial statement, I get it. But for me, I figured that if I want something bad enough, I will make time for it.

I never found time to learn Chinese during the 4 years of my stay. Now, every morning for 3 hours, I spare some time for learning Chinese no matter what. In less than 72 hours, we developed the idea of Sinofy. In less than a week, we made a website. And in less than 15 days, we wrote articles and put a fantastic team together, and this idea of developing a team remotely goes back to this article I wrote. 

History is full of examples that I don't have to comment on, but I remember the quote by an unknown author: “Nothing could stop a man with determination, nothing can help a man with no determination.”

7. Your phone is your enemy (or maybe not)

We all know what I'm going to say: any tool we have in our hands that we get addicted to can either destroy us or empower us. Our smartphones are no exception to this. 

The more I learned about mental models, the more unique of a relationship I developed towards my smartphone. I started questioning every single thing I did and I started thinking just why I was doing what I was doing. However, I dealt with these questions by reminding myself that time is unlimited but life is not, and now this kind of thinking today helps me focus on things that matter. 

8. Practical knowledge acquisition VS just knowledge

The more I studied each and every mental model, the more it dawned on me that knowing one thing and using it in 10 different ways is much more promising, scalable, and practical than having a piece of information that has no value in the short or long term. 

9.Your only limit is You

Just like I mentioned that not having enough time is bullshit, coming up with lame reasons like that you don't come from a wealthy family, you lack fancy education, you aren't in the right environment, or other similar excuses are all limits you put on yourself. 

Today, there are lots of ways to invest in yourself — Youtube is probably the first free and accessible source that you can utilize.

For 30 days non-stop I learned everything about decentralized finance (DeFi) and read white papers that gave birth to new ideas. Yes, these ideas that I am working on may or may not become a hit, but at least my expertise would increase in one of the promising industries—such as DeFi, Blockchain, and more.

When you make self investments, you improve holistically as a human. And when your improvements will reflect in how you carry yourself, your confidence, well-being, potential, and happiness. After all, there will never be any better return on investment than what you’ll get after spending money and time on yourself. 

10. Health is Wealth

I remember I had to go to the local public hospital in Shanghai when my insurance expired.  There, I witnessed an ocean of people falling in line for something, along with a handful of nurses with 4 doctors serving a never-ending line of people.

Indeed, “health is wealth.” This is an old nugget of wisdom that I remind myself of more and more these days during the pandemic, and will possibly continue to think of even after it. 

There is one more thing “bonus lesson” here: experiencing ups and downs is an essential part of life. During one of the crises in my life, I was invited to the world of Vipassana that I believe I greatly benefited from to this day—and a detailed piece of my story is here.

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