Mental Models

What is a mental model?

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

A leaf from JOURNEY’s book is that we have to learn about the world if we’re going to live in it so JOURNEY uses mental models to help travelers understand life and the world around them in a practical way.

What are Mental Models when combined?

The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have—the bigger your toolbox—the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions variety matters. That’s where JOURNEY comes in is to help you learn and apply a variety of models in your work and life.

We are going to see in detail about adopting the below 6 JOURNEY Mental Models,

  • First-Principles Thinking
  • Map vs Territory
  • Thought Experiment
  • Second-Order Thinking
  • Inversion
  • Probabilistic Thinking
  • Occam’s Razor
  • Hanlon’s Razor

1. First Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated situations and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called reasoning from first principles, it’s a tool to help clarify complicated problems by separating the underlying ideas or facts from any assumptions based on them. What remains are the essentials. If you know the first principles of something, you can build the rest of your knowledge around them to produce something new.

This framework helps with better understanding the problem and coming up with the best possible solution. 

To adopt first principles thinking follow this simple approach:

  • Define the problem to the best of your ability
  • Break down the problem into its fundamental elements
  • Try to change one or more of the fundamentals
  • Build a new solution from scratch

2. Map vs. Territory

The map of reality is not reality. Even the best maps are imperfect. That’s because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions. A map provides a higher-level view based on a snapshot at a point in time. The territory shows the actual reality.

Korzybski introduced and popularized the idea that the map is not the territory. In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences.

In Korzybski’s words:

A.) A map may have a structure similar or dissimilar to the structure of the territory.

B.) Two similar structures have similar ‘logical’ characteristics. Thus, if in a correct map, Dresden is given as between Paris and Warsaw, a similar relation is found in the actual territory.

C.) A map is not the actual territory.

D.) An ideal map would contain the map of the map, the map of the map of the map, etc., endlessly…We may call this characteristic self-reflexiveness.

Map (Strategy/Guides)

  • The strategy we design based on the experience
  • Recommendations from the case studies or white papers
  • Step-by-step guides

Territory (your Reality)

  • The need for customization based on reality
  • Actual reality
  • Adapting the journey based on the territory

For example, the JOURNEY step-by-step guide to learn about yourself might not work for you. Maybe because of your professional commitments, objectives, and level of expertise. But if you pick the useful insights from this article and adapt them to your plan, there is definitely a better chance of being successful.

Questions to consider:

  • Who created the map? And Why?
  • When was this map created? Is it too old to be used now?
  • What can go wrong with the map?
  • How to make the map more usable?
  • What should be ignored from the map?
  • What are the assumptions considered in the map?

3. Thought Experiment

Thought experiments are like imaginative tools that we use to explore and understand things. Different fields, like philosophy and physics, use thought experiments to learn about what can be known. They help us think in new ways and discover new paths to explore. Thought experiments are valuable because they let us learn from our mistakes and avoid making them in the future. They allow us to think about impossible scenarios, understand the consequences of our actions, and reconsider past events to make better choices. They can guide us in figuring out what we truly want and how to achieve it.

Actionable Nudge: Take time each week to engage in a thought experiment related to a problem or concept you’re interested in. Write down the details and parameters of the experiment. Use your imagination to explore different possibilities and outcomes.

Self-Inquiry: What are some thought experiments I can conduct to gain a deeper understanding of a particular topic or challenge I’m facing? How can I incorporate these experiments into my routine to foster creative thinking and generate new insights?


4. Second-Order Thinking

Most people can predict the immediate outcomes of their actions. This is called first-order thinking, and it’s simple and safe. However, it often leads to the same results as everyone else. Second-order thinking is different. It involves thinking further ahead and considering the bigger picture. It means not only looking at the immediate consequences of our actions but also the ripple effects they might have in the future. Ignoring these second and third order effects can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Actionable Nudge: Before making a decision, pause and ask yourself: “What could be the potential second and third order effects of this action?” Consider the long-term consequences and implications beyond the immediate outcome. Write down your insights and observations.

Self-Inquiry: Am I regularly considering the broader impact of my decisions beyond the immediate results? How can I develop the habit of thinking holistically and considering the ripple effects of my actions? Are there any past decisions where I failed to consider second-order thinking, and what can I learn from those experiences?

5. Probabilistic Thinking

Probabilistic thinking is a way to estimate the likelihood of specific outcomes by using tools from math and logic. It’s one of the best ways to improve the accuracy of our decisions. In a world where countless factors influence every moment, probabilistic thinking helps us identify the most probable outcomes. When we understand these probabilities, our decisions can be more precise and effective.

Actionable Nudge: When faced with a decision, estimate the probabilities of various outcomes based on available information. Assign numerical values to these probabilities to enhance clarity. Use this analysis to guide your decision-making process and take note of the expected probabilities and their reasoning.

Self-Inquiry: Am I making decisions based on hunches and assumptions, or am I actively assessing probabilities and weighing potential outcomes? How can I improve my skills in probabilistic thinking and make it a regular part of my decision-making toolkit?

6. Inversion

Inversion is a powerful thinking tool that helps us identify and overcome obstacles to success. It involves approaching a situation from the opposite perspective. Usually, we tend to think about problems in a straightforward manner, but inversion allows us to flip things around and think backward. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to start at the beginning, but often it’s more useful to start at the end and work our way backward.

Actionable Nudge: Identify a current problem or challenge you’re facing and ask yourself: “If I wanted to achieve the opposite outcome, what would I do differently?” Write down your insights and consider how reversing your perspective can help generate innovative solutions.

Self-Inquiry: Do I often get stuck in linear thinking, focusing solely on moving forward? How can I incorporate inversion into my problem-solving approach to uncover new perspectives and creative solutions? Are there any situations where applying inversion could have led to better outcomes?

7. Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor is a principle of logic and problem-solving that suggests simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones. Instead of wasting time trying to disprove complex scenarios, we can make decisions with more confidence by choosing the explanation with the fewest moving parts.

Actionable Behavior Prompt: When faced with a complex problem or explanation, challenge yourself to find the simplest and most straightforward solution. Write down the core elements and assumptions of each explanation, then evaluate them based on their simplicity and coherence.

Self-Inquiry: Do I tend to overcomplicate explanations and solutions unnecessarily? How can I train myself to seek simplicity in problem-solving and decision-making? Are there any current challenges where I can apply Occam’s Razor to reach more effective conclusions?

8. Hanlon’s Razor

Hanlon’s Razor states that we shouldn’t attribute malicious intent to something that can be easily explained by ignorance or mistakes. In a complex world, this model helps us avoid being overly suspicious or driven by ideology. Instead of assuming bad intentions, we look for alternative explanations and possibilities. Hanlon’s Razor reminds us that people make errors, and the most reasonable explanation for events often involves the least intent.

Actionable Nudge: When encountering a negative outcome or conflict, resist the temptation to immediately attribute malicious intent. Instead, consider alternative explanations, such as mistakes or misunderstandings. Approach the situation with curiosity and seek open communication to understand different perspectives.

Self-Inquiry: Am I quick to assume negative intent in others’ actions? How can I practice Hanlon’s Razor to prevent unnecessary conflicts and foster more constructive relationships? Are there any recent incidents where I could have applied Hanlon’s Razor to improve my understanding of the situation?

9. Activation Energy

Activation energy is the initial push or minimum energy needed to set a process in motion. Originating from the realm of chemistry, the concept is critical for understanding how reactions occur and how to control them. But its application extends far beyond test tubes and Bunsen burners. Whether you’re trying to get out of bed in the morning, motivate a team, or make significant life changes, understanding activation energy can serve as a crucial mental model for initiating action.

Daily Life Applications: Activation energy is a useful concept for understanding human behavior. It helps explain why getting started is often the hardest part of any task and how different forms of “catalysts” can make it easier to begin.


  1. Micro-Tasks: Can you break down a daunting task into smaller components, each requiring less activation energy, to make it easier to get started?
  2. Motivational Triggers: What are the triggers that usually get you moving? Is it competition, the fear of missing out, or the desire to excel?
  3. Monitor Catalyst Effectiveness: If you’ve identified catalysts, are they effective over the long term or do their effects diminish? Do you need to change them up?