Nobel-prize winning physicist and Caltech professor, Richard Feynman, relished solving problems on his own, wanting to truly understand them, before attempting to solve them.
Feynman followed a clear set of thinking tools to drive his thought processes, breaking problems down to their fundamental truths, and then finding solutions from there.
Many of the world’s great thinkers use similar tools. Ray Dalio and Elon Musk call them the principles, while Warren Buffet and Bill Gates refer to them as mental models.
These thinking tools, regardless of what you call them, serve as the foundations for what you get out of life. But they are not just for the Richard Feynman’s and the Bill Gates’s of the world.
Anyone can use these tools. The only thing separating the world’s leading performers from the rest of us is that they put them into action. That’s what gives them their mental edge.
Here are 7 thinking tools used by the world’s leading performers. If you put them into action, they’ll give you a mental edge too.
1. Thought Experiments
Thought experiments are used by many of the world’s great thinkers. Defined as a device of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things, thought experiments help us to envisage real-world problems, enabling us to explore impossible situations and predict their outcomes.
Albert Einstein, the most famous proponent of this thinking tool, used thought experiments for some of his most important discoveries. Whilst exploring the relationship between space and time, he asked himself this question: “What would happen if you could catch up to a beam of light as it moved?” He imagined himself chasing the beam of light, and it was this scenario which played a key role in his development of special relativity.
Thought experiments are powerful because we can learn from our mistakes without real-world consequences. In doing so, they help us to identify answers to our problems, and the best way to get there.
Inversion is one of the most powerful thinking tools. Its origins can be found in the word “invert,” which simply means “turn upside down.” As a thinking tool, it helps us to successfully identify and eliminate obstacles by tackling them from the opposite end of the natural starting point.
For example, say you were struggling with a work project. Instead of asking yourself, “What three things will help move the project forward?” ask yourself, “What five things will hold the project back?”
The idea is, rather than thinking about what you want, consider what you’d like to avoid. Or as Warren Buffet’s business partner Charlie Munger once said, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”
Inversion won’t give you the answer to every problem, but by looking at challenges from their opposing perspective, it will help you identify things you may have missed.
3. First-Principles Thinking
First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complex problems. Often called reasoning from first principles, it’s the act of boiling things down to their most fundamental truths.
This is done by separating the underlying ideas from any assumptions they might be based on. A first principle, therefore, is a basic assumption that can’t be deduced any further.
An excellent example of first-principles thinking comes via entrepreneur Elon Musk. In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk expertly explained how Space X used first principles to innovate at low prices.
In the early days of Space X, Musk was told that “battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be.” Instead of settling for this answer, though, he broke the problem down into its fundamental parts.
First, he identified the material constituents of the batteries. Then, he priced the materials on the London metal exchange and calculated the construction costs. As it turned out, the cost of building a battery from the bottom-up was only 13.3% of the original price.
By reasoning from first principles, Musk was able to cut through the fog of pre-existing beliefs to see opportunities others had missed, and ultimately, send rockets to space.
4. The Two Razors
Occam’s Razor and Hanlon’s Razor are two separate thinking tools, but they complement each other nicely.
Occam’s Razor, which helps us to seek the simplest solutions to our problems, suggests that “among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Here’s a fun example: “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not unicorns.”
In many cases, simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones. So instead of trying to disprove complex problems, you make a decision based on the explanation with the fewest moving parts.
Related to Occam’s razor, Hanlon’s Razor states that we should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by carelessness or stupidity. In a sense, it teaches us to look for the good in others.
Consider this example. A colleague forgets to send you a message about an event. Does this mean that they have something against you? Chances are they don’t, although you’re not alone if that’s your first thought.
Implementing Hanlon’s razor teaches you to first assume this happened because someone made a mistake, rather than intentionally trying to hurt you. Maybe they forgot. Or they simply thought it wasn’t for you.
Utilizing this thinking tool reminds us that people do make mistakes. It also prevents us from making negative assumptions and helps us see the world in a more positive light.
5. Pareto Principle
Named after Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
20% of your effort produces 80% of your gains.
20% of your customers produce 80% of your profits.
20% of your sources produce 80% of your happiness.
The point of this thinking tool is to recognize that most things in life aren’t evenly distributed. As such, to get better results, you should focus on the 20% that provides the greatest gains. In other words, focus on what works and do it better.
For me personally, the Pareto Principle helped me to identify the people in my life that give me the most energy. I then flipped that analysis, and I was easily able to recognise those who were draining my energy. I’ve since implemented my findings, and my energy levels have never been better.
6. Circle of Competence
This idea is simple: Through experience, we’ve all acquired useful information and skills in certain areas of the world. But in some areas — those that require specialist knowledge — we are often lacking.
For example, most people have a basic understanding of car maintenance. You know how to change a tyre and add some screenwash, but if you need to change the oil, you’ll most likely need a mechanic.
This is a basic example, but whether it’s economics, your ability to manage people, or your communication skills, the idea is always the same: you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. If you remain ignorant to these, your ego drives your actions, and then you’re sure to run into trouble.
Understanding your circle of competence, on the other hand, helps you to avoid potential problems, identify opportunities for growth, learn from others, and help you identify where you have an edge over others.
Tom Watson Sr., Founder of IBM, put it best: “I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots — but I stay around those spots.”
7. Second-order thinking
Every action has a consequence, and each of these consequences has further consequences. These are called second-order effects.
Second-order thinking means thinking about these second-order effects. In other words, it means thinking about the effects of the effects.
This is a powerful thinking tool because things are not always as they appear. When we solve one problem, it’s often the case that we inadvertently create another one that’s even worse.
This process is best explained in terms of long-term challenges. Take the current crisis with the coronavirus. A recession at this stage is a given, but other second-order effects include airline bailouts, an increase in racism towards China, and regime changes in countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Uzbekistan, or North Korea.
On a more positive note, people might start reading more, and we’ll likely see a drop in CO2 emissions, for a short time anyway.
With any situation, including the coronavirus, second-order thinking allows us to examine long-term consequences before they occur, thus helping us to make of our decisions before we potentially make a bad call.
If you want to gain a mental edge, look no further than the 7 thinking tools above. They work for everyone, but what separates the majority from the world’s leading performers, is that they put them into action.
Maybe you’ve read about these tools before, but knowledge is not where the game is played. We also have to put it into practice.
What would you do if you had a second chance at life?
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