15 min read

18 Mental Models for Success and Satisfaction

18 Mental Models for Success and Satisfaction
Feature image brough to you by Dall-E AI. Pretty shitty, but she's trying!

Version Suck.1 published under the interplanetary License to Suck™️.

Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, is one of the GOATs of operating system design, if not computer science and invention altogether.

This is what he says about his greatest inspiration, Unix, a predecessor to Linux:

It is a clean and beautiful operating system.
It avoids special cases.

Pretty much everything you do in Unix is done with only six basic operations...

You don’t need to have complex interfaces to build up something complex. You can build up any amount of complexity from the interactions of simple things.

An ugly system is one in which there are special interfaces for everything... Unix is the opposite. It gives you the building blocks that are sufficient for doing everything.

That’s what having a clean design is all about.

Following in his footsteps, as we design our Life OS, we want to have a clean, streamlined set of mental operations to parse the infinite complexity of life and the universe.

These are our core mental models.

While I may not be as prodigious an OS designer to have whittled it down to 6, below I offer you my top 18 mental models with which to navigate life for success and satisfaction. And like Linux, this is a living work, refined by ongoing research, experimentation and feedback from you, the users and community.

Model Description Source
What is, is. What is not, is not. Nothing is or can ever be missing.
All matter is energy (e=mc^2). Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Therefore, everything in the universe is here now. By definition, nothing is or can ever be missing. Therefore, the perception of an incomplete or imperfect state of the universe, one where something is “wrong,” is a cognitive error. Our minds perceive/create lack by imagining a state other than the one that is and convincing us that something is missing because the actual state doesn’t match the imagined one.

Once we understand this, we can begin to catch this error and use it as a cue to remind ourselves that it’s all here now, it's all grace, we get to find peace in the present, to be here now.

Most of my journals end with the same 4 statements. "Everything's ok. Always has been. Always will be. The only way it can be."
Synthesis of Naval & Ram Dass, verified by personal consideration of Einstein & Newton
Life cannot be won or optimized, only lived.
"A life spent looking for shortcuts is a long road to nowhere." - Naval Ravikant

Life is the longest long game you'll play. The longest dance you'll dance. So unless you're trying to end it ASAP, there's nothing to win or optimize. No final boss to beat. No gold stars to earn.

Remember, the universe is complete in every moment. It is only our perception that creates lack. In the grand scheme, there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. It's all here now.

Therefore, to live a kind life, use intention and mindfulness to be here now.

Use rationality and strategy as tools in short games. Use presence, curiosity, acceptance and gratitude to find peace and beauty throughout the longest long game.
Ram Dass, Naval, Buddhism, Personal Inquiry
Desire is suffering. Intention is relief. It's all grace
Read this essay.

In short, a life lived as the subject of our desires is brutally unkind to ourselves. In the words of Naval, "desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want."

If there is an ultimate want, it is probably to not want (welcome to embracing paradox :) )

Don't worry. None of us get there. Desire is built into our survival drive. And that's fine.

In the interim - we can ask better, kinder questions. Don't ask "what do I want," "how do I get it?" Both yield limitless unsatisfactory answers. Instead, ask "What's my intention? What's essential? How can I make it easy? What's the kind path?"

I can consult my desire to set my intention, but intention returns me to autonomy. Selecting an intentional path releases me from the eternal tug-of-war of competing desires.

Whenever possible, act/choose intentionally. Make living intentionally a default. Develop intention setting habits throughout your life.
Ram Dass + Buddhist Teaching
Focus on Leading Indicators. Allow Lagging Indicators to Happen.
Focussing on the score cannot make the score go up.

How you practice, take each shot, defend and refine all of the above are what produce the score.

Therefore, focus almost exclusively on leading indicators and let the score "take care of itself" - Bill Walsh.
I got it from Cal Newport, who got it from Clayton Christenson’s 4 Disciplines of Execution. Once you learn it, you see it in the thinking of nearly any achiever. Atomic Habits is basically a bible on mastering leading indicators.
To achieve happiness, do not try to be happy.

There is nothing negative about negative feelings. There is nothing positive about positive ones.
Happiness is not a thing that exists. And it is certainly not permanent.

Therefore, pursuit of enduring happiness is quite literally a path to dissatisfaction, a road to nowhere.

Happiness, if we insist on using the term, is a category of temporary experiences. These experiences are probably better described as peace, equanimity (”ok-ness”), connectedness/belonging, transcendence, flow, self-realization, contribution, etc. Regardless, they are lagging indicators of behaviors and events that cause them. Therefore, if you want anything, want to do what will produce these experiences, rather than to "have" them. Remember, you can actually influence leading indicators.

Bad news. This approach still keeps the elusive, enduring “true happiness” out of reach. It keeps us trapped in the desire loop.

Remember, we do not want to live as functions our desires. We want to use desire to inform a few essential intentions.

I believe the following essential intentions worth living by: releasing desire, fostering self-love, pursuing equanimity, learning to be here now.
Mark Manson + Ram Dass
Understand the explore/exploit tradeoff. Remember to exploit.
You need to explore to make sure you’re doing the right thing.

You need to exploit to experience compound growth over time.

It’s important to respect both. Do not exploit until you’re confident that you’ve adequately explored so that you do not spend years getting to the top of the wrong hill. Do not distract yourself with excess exploration if you’re working your way up the right mountain.

Remember, the purpose of exploration is to find what you want to exploit. This may include more intentional exploration, but you don't want to get stuck endlessly scrolling through life.

To be "happy," discover defaults you love and exploit/enjoy them.
James Clear, Greg McKeown, Buffet and Munger
All Outsized Returns Are the Product of Compound Growth
This is a mathematical fact.
1% compounded weekly over 10 years is 176x growth. 1% grown linearly over 10 years is just 5x growth.

This applies to every major pillar of our lives - money, relationships, "happiness," skills, knowledge, business, etc.

Time is the primary input of compounding. The more time you give it, the more drastic its effect.

Leverage is the mechanism by which compounding occurs.

Therefore, figure out the long game where you intend to develop leverage. Once you do, don’t interrupt the compounding by a) surviving, b) persisting.

TL;DR - Find what you love and let it kill you.
Charlie Munger & Naval Ravikant.
Create maximum leverage and employ maximum leverage in doing so.
Leverage is anything that allows you to produce more than your current direct effort. It is the mechanism by which compound growth occurs. It takes different forms, namely education, trust/time/knowledge/effort from relationships, capital, media, technology and survival/ability to sustain over time.

Most problems can be solved in ways that create and employ leverage.

How to create leverage.
-I can read you this document. No leverage.
-I can write it down and email it to you. You can then re-read and share with others. Little leverage.
-I can publish it, giving access to humanity until the end of the internet. Substantial leverage.
-I can go on Joe Rogan to promote to millions. Mountain of leverage.

-Similarly, if I write “Mental Models for January 2023,” I am solving for the short term. Little leverage.
-If I write “Mental Models for Life,” I’m solving for the long term. Lots of leverage.

How to employ leverage
-I can create a workout program.
-I can go online and download a professionally crafted one.
-I can employ a professional to custom tailor one for me, monitor my progress and optimize over time.
-I can employ a team with cutting-edge knowledge of biochemistry and access to the most advanced technology to turn me into Lebron James (See: Jacked Bezos).

For a life of outsized returns, figure out where you can create and get access to maximum leverage. Follow through. Allow compounding to happen. Don’t interrupt.

Mastery: The highest form of leverage is a flywheel, where your leverage creates leverage. This is where the Bezos's of the world operate. If serious about mastering leverage, study them.
Naval Ravikant + Erik Jorgenson, Jim Collins
Defaults > Exceptions
Full essay here.

A “cheat day” will not make someone that lives a fit life fat.
A lottery win will not make someone with poor financial habits enduringly rich.
A fight will not break a healthy relationship.
A giant gift will not mend a broken one.

Over a lifetime, exceptions simply aren’t very important.

We are our defaults, the building blocks of our lives.

Therefore, if we put any effort into improving ourselves, it should primarily be at the level of defaults and their resulting habits. Exceptional wins that are not the product of winning default systems are not worth over investing in. Exceptional losses that are not the symptom of flawed default systems are not worth overanalyzing.

The brownie itself is more important than the frosting or the nuts.
Personal Experimentation & Synthesis. Inspired by Naval Ravikant + Cal Newport. Later confirmed by James Clear.
View, develop and debug all behavior via the habit loop.
Exceptional behavior isn't very interesting.
Default behavior is.

Default behavior is the product of our habits.

I believe James Clear wrote the the bible on habits.
I read it >30 times the year I discovered it. I intend to reread it 10-15 times a year going forward. If you read one book on "self-improvement," this should probably be it.

The habit loop is 1) cue, "I smell doughnuts," 2) craving, "I want doughnuts," 3) behavior, "I eat doughnuts," 4) reward "I taste doughnuts."

Therefore, the levers we have to affect behavior are 1a) make the cue more obvious, 1b) hide the cue, 2a) make it more desirable, 2b) make it less desirable, 3a) make it easier, 3b) make it more difficult, 4a) make it more rewarding, faster, 4b) make it less rewarding, slower.

To learn how to parse all human behavior this way, read Atomic Habits. Optionally 30+ times.

The habit loop explains how all habits work, intentional and accidental alike. However, I believe it misses two fundamental factors if you want to shape your habits intentionally.

My Additions
- Set your intention for the defaults and habits you want to cultivate/eliminate. A life filled with habits of little or ambiguous purpose is no better than one without.
- Set defaults that express your intentions. These become your first cues. James calls these "identities," but I think identity is bullshit. Defaults serve us as well or better.

Ex. 2 men "want to stop smoking."

The first gets stuck in a cycle of "wanting to quit," laboring over "trying to quit," getting disappointed when "trying" fails and continuing to "want to quit."

The second sets his intention to quit. His intention informs a new default in his life, "I do not smoke." When he wants to smoke, it immediately clashes against his declared default. He remembers "I do not smoke." This cognitive dissonance makes smoking less attractive. On the other hand, it makes choosing to not smoke more attractive, because it reinforces his intentional default.

Both men may relapse, but one will continue to flounder "trying." The other will study his exceptions and either intentionally ammend his default, or refine the implementation of his default via the habit loop.
James Clear + Personal Contribution
The modern condition is one of trivial many and essential few. Many tasks, few that create value. Many humans, few that are dear. Many opportunities, few that yield outsized returns. Many competing desires, few considered intentions.

Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less, but better. It encourages us to generously explore before committing to exploit. It allows us to quit when we discover something is non-essential and show grit when we confirm that it is.

It is the foundation of an effortless, intentional, enjoyable life with outsized impact.

When you feel overwhelmed, ask “what’s essential here?” Set your intention to pursue those things. Enjoy this gift.
Greg McKeown
Effortlessness (requires essentialism)
If pain, suffering and inordinate exertion are your defaults, your life sucks. These conditions are necessary exceptions that can be navigated gracefully, but should not be treated as mythical virtues.

Virtually any pursuit can be made or approached in an easier, more enjoyable, effort-less way.

This isn't simply more enjoyable, it infinitely more effective.

We want to create a world where the intended essential few behaviors become effortless. This cements them into habit, which allows for compound growth to occur over time.

If my default is to hate the cold and the temperature drops, I can “grit and bare it” as an exception. But if my default is to find the beauty in any situation, I become curious about how I might enjoy a day that I’m inclined to hate. My default spawns a habit of thought that transforms my experience into an easy and enjoyable one. The next time I encounter something I “hate,” I will remember that I was able to find beauty in the cold, which strengthens my ability to repeat my default habit.

This is effortless compound growth in quality of life.

When something feels heavy and difficult, ask “What’s essential here? How can I make it easy and enjoyable?” Go forth and prosper.
Greg McKeown & James Clear
Play positive-sum games to win, while minimizing mistakes, esepcially at tails.
I'm leaning on the License to Suck here. Full explanation pending. In the meantime, enjoy this explanation from ChatGPT - in the voice of Bukowski.

"Listen, playing positive sum games is the key to winning in life. In a positive sum game, both players can win and both can gain, which means that you're not just taking from others, you're also contributing to their success.

Minimizing mistakes, especially at the tails, is important because that's where the biggest losses and gains are made. You don't want to make a mistake that could ruin everything you've worked for. And in this world, mistakes can be costly.

So, stay focused, stay disciplined, and play those positive sum games. And remember, winning is a combination of skill and luck, but you gotta be in the game to even have a chance of winning.
Naval + Personal Inquiry aided by ChatGPT for actual game theory
Placebo is the strongest drug ever discovered. And forgotten.
Most experiments are run against a control of “no action.” However, in medicine, every drug and procedure is tested against a placebo, not “no drug.” Placebo, the belief that you're being treated when actually receiving an innert sugar pill, is such a consistent, dominant effect that it has become our control.

And most drugs, surgeries and medical devices do not beat the placebo.

Therefore, placebo is likely the lowest cost, most accessible and underexploited gift of humanity. By merely believing “I am durable,” I will exhibit greater toughness. By believing “I am capable,” I will demonstrate greater ability to learn and execute. By believing “I’m worthy,” I will behave and communicate in a more worthy way.

By believing “I will win,” I will win more.

The placebo effect, the ability of our beliefs to affect our physiology and psychology, is our birthright. It’s very hard to overdose. When we use it effectively, we inspire others to do the same. It is the only intervention that becomes more abundant with use.

Go forth and deal.

Be warned, the placebo effect only works if you actually believe, not if you say that you believe. The number one way to make yourself believe is to adopt defaults and prove them to yourself through habitual repetition. Each time you repeat your intended habit, you demonstrate to yourself your adoption of the default allowing placebo to increasingly work its magic.
Personal testing & observation of self-fulfilling prophecy in both high & low achievers, consistently healthy and unhealthy people, ostensibly happy & miserable people.
Love yourself, selflessly.
Read this thread.

(Additional explanation in future versions)
Personal finding.
Focus on your strengths to an "unreasonable" extent.
Everyone is bad at almost everything. Few are excellent at anything.

Excellence is the level of knowledge and ability that yields maximum leverage. It requires foregoing many good, but ultimately trivial pursuits to focus on the essential few where you will develop this leverage.

"Fixing" your weaknesses will often be one of these trivial pursuits.

Few people become excellent, therefore, they will try to dissuade you from pursuing excellence. They will have modest, even commendable outcomes, but well within a few standard deviations of the mean. They will perpetually eat shit sandwiches of varying tolerance and variety. They will attract modest help in their areas of weakness and have to waste energy on these activities themselves. This is life inside the bell curve.

As you move right along the curve towards excellence, you'll attract more help in areas where you're weak, giving you more bandwidth to develop further excellence. You'll begin to produce outsized returns for yourself and others. You'll be disproportionately praised. Therefore, you'll dispropriotionately enjoy your essential pursuits. Since you enjoy them more, you will develop the best habits for excelling in them. You'll still eat shit sandwiches, but very specific ones that you find increasingly tolerable because your excellence entails eating them.

"Find what looks like work to others, but feels like play to you." - Naval

Inversion: "The work that hurts you less than it hurts others is the work that you were meant to do." - James Clear

For a life of outsized outcomes and satisfaction, focus on your essential few strengths to enjoy increasingly effortless and enjoyable compound growth.
Trust in Reciprocity
Smile at a stranger. They'll usually smile back.

In the middle of a conversation, put up your hand for a high-5. Most people will high 5 back and then ask "what was that about?"

The human instinct to reciprocate is so reliable, we can build a life on it.

This means that we can focus on the leading indicator of contribution and let the lagging indicator of return work itself out. Moreover, there's never been a better time to do so. Modern media and technology give our contributions leverage. This means we can justify over-contributing.

Without leverage, we may tell someone, "I can only give you so much," because our impact on an individual is low. With leverage, we can say "I can give this community a lot," because our impact on groups is high.

The magic of (reciprocity x leverage) is that each member of the group gets more from you than they would 1 on 1. Meanwhile, only a fraction of the group needs to reciprocate at a fraction of the level of an individual to create an outsized return for you.

Unleveraged: 1 person x 1 reciprocity = 1 return

Leveraged: 100 people * 25% reciprocating * 25% of what an individual would = 6.25 return
Personal experimentation + Naval.
Invert. Always invert.
Reframing is the closest thing to mental alchemy. And inversion is the ultimate reframe.

Inversion may not solve every problem, but it reveals multiple angles inaccessible from direct approach. It may unravel some, revealing that they are already solved or not problems at all. It may shake others loose, revealing low-hanging fruit previously obstructed by bias and rigidity.

Instead of asking "how do I find the time/get myself to exert the effort to go to the gym?" we may attempt multiple inversions. 1) "how do I make it impossible not to go to the gym?" 2) "What is a reality where I treat my mind/body right without having to go to the gym?" 3) "How do I make it effortless to go to the gym?" Serious consideration of these and other inversions a) clarifies the intent of the original question and b) approaches it free of previous biases, assumptions and constraints.

If you dread something, instead of thinking how to avoid or minimize it, what if you looked for a way to appreciate it?

If you can't convince your friends to join you, what if you made friends with the who's around you?

The 2 questions every job applicant should ask an interviewer are 1) "What makes someone a rockstar in this role?" and 2) "What are the most likely ways to fail?" Some ask the first. Almost none ask the second.

Invert. Always invert.
Charlie Munger + Personal Experimentation

Next Steps: Beta Testers Needed

Congratulations, you just downloaded 18 mental models that took me 37 years to learn.

TO BE CLEAR: You downloaded them.
You HAVEN'T learned them.
You merely learned that someone else has.

If you devour "The Ultimate Guide to Riding a Bike," you're not actually any more able to ride a bike. You just know that the author is. And that you could be.

To actually learn to ride a bike, you will need to get on one.
You'll need to wobble and scrape your knees.
The knowledge from The Ultimate Guide will shorten your journey, but only through application.

So please, take these models, tear up the pavement, and scrape your knees.

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