Have applied learning principles to my life to build multiple, multimillion dollar businesses
Created the largest online community in the world dedicating to learning how to learn (77,000+ members)
My writing has been read tens of millions of times on...
As someone who has studied, practiced, and taught learning how to learn for years, I’ve come to believe that one of the most pervasive threats to our brains goes completely unnoticed.
When we think of brain damage, we think of a head injury impairing a person’s ability to think. There are laws in place that require us to wear helmets, use seatbelts, and generally do everything we can to avoid head injuries. Why? Because we know how important our brain is for leading a fulfilling, impactful, and successful life.
But a knock on the head isn’t the only way to “impair” our brains. If we think of damage in broader terms, then brain damage can be caused by anything that physically changes our brains in a way that makes us less intelligent or functional.
Using this definition I’d make the case that much of the learning that people do on their own, which we usually consider a positive thing, might actually be doing many people more harm than good.
Let me explain...
More specifically, the brain either grows a new connection between neurons or strengthens an existing one. Since we can't see inside our brain, it's easy to forget this.
This animation perfectly captures what happens inside our brain when we learn...
In one fascinating study on London Taxi drivers, we see how learning literally can grow parts of the brain. Drivers who completed an exhaustive training process had a significantly larger hippocampus than drivers who dropped out of the training program. This study shows that the training program was the cause of the growth. 1
So whatever new thing you learn literally gets engraved in your brain. And this isn't always a good thing...
Or that most of the news we consume makes us more well-informed. In reality, the opposite is true. The default — the easiest thing to reach for — is often junk food and junk media.
The same is often true with learning. Just like eating McDonald’s doesn’t make us healthier, “junk” or “fake” learning doesn’t make us smarter. In fact this kind of learning actually makes us dumber.
If we collect bad ideas, then our reasoning will be irrational, which means our actions will be ineffective, which means we'll ultimately have poor results. In other words, garbage in, garbage out.
Later in this article, I’ll share the complete opposite of junk learning — the “superfood” of learning — and how to get it.
For example, one of the ideas I learned growing up was that sales is a bad thing. This single idea literally changed my brain and made me resistant to information on how to become better at this vital business skill. I had to go through a lot of pain before I was finally willing to let go of this idea. My business grew rapidly afterwards.
In some ways, it was like I was walking through the world with a hand in front of my face making it so I had huge blind spots. As a result, my brain created a false sense of reality, which led to me bumping into things.
We particularly see the effects of junk learning when it comes to politics. So many people seem to literally have the inability to even consider another perspective... even if they are given all of the evidence in the world. In other words, as a result of junk learning, they are unable to engage with reality. The following headline from a New Yorker article captures the situation...
Have you ever said to yourself, "I'm just going to have one..."
... cookie, brownie, potato chip, or scoop of ice cream? And then found that you had eaten the whole container?
Junk learning is the same. Junk learning begets junk learning.
Here's another example...
We all share inherent physical growth tendencies. When we’re born, we go through a set of predictable, sequential steps that build on top of each other.
We roll over before we sit. We sit before we stand. We stand before we walk. We walk before we run.
The same thing happens with our cognitive development.
Although it’s not as obvious as physical abilities, ideas in our brain build upon other ideas in a predictable order from simple to complex.
For example, when it comes to math, we start with single-digit numbers, move to double-digit numbers, then triple-digit, then addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and so on.
Each new thing we learn is like adding a new brick and then cementing it to other bricks to create a knowledge structure.
As we learn more, our building becomes larger.
The problem comes when we build our buildings on a poor foundation with shoddy bricks (junk learning). In this case, counterintuitively, adding new knowledge weakens the whole building.
And if we keep adding new knowledge to an unstable building, it eventually falls down...
For example, when I first started writing in college, I somehow got the idea in my head that the key to being a good writer was producing as much content as possible. So, for three years, I wrote a new blog post every day.
My hope was that the blog would somehow become viral and be a platform for me to go into a career in writing. Instead, almost no one read my posts, and I eventually gave up and took a different career path that allowed me to support myself. As a result, I came to the conclusion that:
Two more false ideas built upon on a bad one.
I didn’t come back to writing for 7 years. In 2013, I was invited to write for Forbes, and I accepted the offer. On the one hand, I was really excited by the opportunity to get back into writing. On the other hand, I was scared. I knew that focusing on quantity didn't work. And, I didn't want to write just to write. Rather, I wanted my content to spread virally and actually make an impact.
Fortunately, I had just read a book called Blockbusters by Harvard professor Anita Elberse. The central premise is that the best strategy in the media world of books, movies, TV, and music is to focus on creating high-quality blockbusters rather than churn out volume. Elberse based her claims on years of research on who the winners are in the media world.3
I applied the blockbuster idea and immediately it started working for me. Rather than dashing out articles quickly, I would spend dozens of hours on each article with the goal of making it the best article that had ever been written on that specific topic. Today, I am a writer and teacher full-time. This year, our programs will teach thousands of students how to learn faster and more effectively, and our business will generate over one million dollars in revenue.
It is painful to think about how big of a detour was caused by the initial faulty idea.
Bottom line: Junk learning damages our brain and then it makes us more prone to more junk learning, which damages our brain even more.
"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." - Alvin Toffler
Ok. So we've established a few things:
Now the question is, are you falling prey to junk learning?
In my experience, the answer is yes if any of the following symptoms are true for you…
The consequences of these learning have an insidious effect on our career:
Now that you understand the true cost of junk learning, I also want you to know that this is actually very normal for most people - since most of our society and culture is built on junk learning!
The good news is that by being aware, you can quickly remedy junk learning and change the trajectory of your career.
Now, it's time to ask a very important question…
In other words, if most people are learning things that destroy their minds, how can you learn things that turn you into a genius?
Being an entrepreneur and learner, I really wanted to find out how to learn faster, make better decisions, and be more successful.
So I embarked on one of the largest studies of success and learning since Think & Grow Rich was published in 1937.
To find the “superfood” of learning, my team and I read hundreds of books across dozens of fields, consumed hundreds of academic studies, talked with dozens of experts, and invested in tens of thousands of dollars in seminars, coaching, and online courses.
Ultimately, we found the "superfood" of learning in an unlikely place...
Most books and articles on success and learning are actually a form of junk learning. In other words, if you walk into a bookstore, go to the self-development section, and pick up a random book, it's likely that you'll do yourself more harm than good. You'll either do something that is actively hurtful or something that's just a waste of time.
For example, when I learned about entrepreneurship at business school, almost all of the classes focused on writing a business plan as the key to success. In retrospect, instead of writing 40-page business plans, I should've been out there talking to customers. This set me back years!
Junk learning in the field of success and self-development happens for two predictable reasons:
To narrow down the group to the right people to study, I very deliberately selected for people who are successful because of skill, not because of luck, inheritance, network, or celebrity. We identified the top handful of entrepreneurs, investors, and business people in the world, and then we studied their learning patterns.
To my surprise, the criteria actually worked way better than I expected. The group of people I chose had a very unique approach to learning and making decisions. Furthermore, copying their approach has made me smarter than anything else that I've done.
Below are the criteria we used...
Through this criteria, I narrowed down the list of 2,000 billionaires in the world to approximately 50 luminaries like:
I call these serial, self-made billionaires "super billionaires."
Naturally, these super billionaires share common traits you will find in any self-development book—hard work, thinking big, overcoming obstacles, setting goals, etc.
But, as I spent more time studying these super billionaires, I noticed something peculiar they all have in common that I haven't seen written about before...
When they talk, it’s almost as if they’re speaking a different language.
Musk’s top priority is designing the software in his brain. Have you ever heard anyone else describe their life that way?
Super billionaire Ray Dalio is no less “weird.” In his book, Principles, he describes how he thinks: “Nature is a machine. The family is a machine. The life cycle is like a machine.”
Dalio’s company, the largest hedge fund in the world, records every conversation (meeting or phone call) inside the company and has built several custom apps that allow any employee to evaluate any other employee in real time. The data is then added to profiles that each employee can see and is subsequently fed into an artificial intelligence system that helps employees make better decisions.
Charlie Munger uses a “cognitive bias checklist” before making investment decisions to ensure he properly applies the correct mental models. Warren Buffett uses decision trees. Jeff Bezos thinks of Amazon as being at Day One even though it’s been around more than 20 years.
Over time, I've come to realize that the reason these super billionaires talk differently is because they think differently. In other words, they have “thinking tools” — ways of using their brain, which we can all learn from — so that we become smarter, more successful, and more impactful ourselves.
Interestingly, even though these super billionaires are all unique, there is a surprising consistency in how they think. They share certain mental models on the world that are unique and rare.
And because of the explosion of media, we can all see inside their minds for the first time. We can do the equivalent of spending hundreds of hours with them side-by-side as their virtual "cognitive" apprentice.
And that's what I did...
The more I studied the thinking tools of these super billionaires, the more I naturally started to use them in my life and business outside of writing, and the better results I got. This was a game-changer for me.
The results I was getting weren’t just a little better. This wasn’t a little 5% or 10% change. It wasn’t even a 100% improvement. This was 10x, and in some cases 100x. It was a big deal.
Here’s the transformation I experienced...
I saw reality on a much deeper level — and on a fundamentally different level. I looked back on many of my old mistakes, and thought to myself, “Oh my God! If I had only known this or that mental model...” I wasn’t just learning new strategies or hacks.
On some level, I could relate to some of my favorite movie characters just after their intelligence had exploded...
First, I saved over one hundred thousand dollars...
For example, 12 years ago, I borrowed $100,000 from friends, vendors, and banks (at high interest rates) to keep a struggling website I created alive. Rather than facing obvious indicators that the idea wasn't working, I kept on doubling down. I was in love with my idea, and I didn't want to admit defeat. The company died a slow, painful death.
Now that I understand mental models, I see how a bad mental model — “sunk cost fallacy” — caused my poor decision-making.
Today when I consider new business ideas, instead of just imagining how great they’re going to be, I also envision what could go wrong — a good mental model — saving a lot of my time and money upfront. For example, a few months ago I had the idea to create a book summary of the month club where I would write a weekly in-depth summary of a life-changing book. I got really excited about it and spent 10 hours thinking about how great it was going to be. A few days of planning later, I decided to take a step back and honestly assess the downsides. Almost immediately, I started seeing some glaring roadblocks, and the new shiny object was no longer as exciting. Soon after, I decided to just focus on our core businesses. I'm very happy that we did. Twelve years ago I would have jumped in straight away.
Also, our article virality shot through the roof...
The success of our business is directly related to the number of views each article gets. So, being able to get hundreds of thousands of visitors per month without paying for ads is a big deal.
After learning about the 80/20 Rule (which is now one of my favorite mental models), I started asking the most successful article writers what the 20% activities were that give them 80% of the results. Almost all of them mentioned that titles were key. Previously, I viewed the titles as just an afterthought.
Because of this insight, my team and I restructured our entire article creation process:
Our team has now spent over 1,000 hours studying the patterns of titles and testing nearly 5,000 titles. As a result, we have a fundamentally different and better understanding of what makes articles go viral.
This is one of the mental models I use for my articles to be viewed tens of millions of times...with the average article now being viewed 150,000+ times.
Finally, I started making a lot more money.
I once heard a coach talk about changing a client’s way of seeing the world in a way that would blow their mind. When he looked into his client’s eyes and could see him or her really getting it, he’d say, “Now, you’re in my reality!”
That’s how I felt.
Reality somehow feels different on an aesthetic level — as if I’m cutting through the levels of illusion and noise we normally see and getting a more direct view.
The best way I can describe this is that it’s like wearing augmented reality glasses that constantly feed you relevant wisdom about the situation you’re in.
“Mental models are to your brain as apps are to your smartphone.” —Jayme Hoffman
According to research, we all use mental models in our thinking.
You can think of a mental model simply as: “The way you think that things work in a particular domain.”
It’s the idea that you have about how something works. In fact, we all unconsciously create models of how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on.
If your model is bad, then your thinking is bad. If your model is accurate, then your thinking (and decision-making, and prediction ability) is far more accurate. It’s that simple.
The difference between truly smart thinkers (e.g. super billionaires) and average thinkers is that, for average thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For smart thinkers, it is conscious and proactive.
Super billionaires and other smart thinkers collect the most effective models across all disciplines, stress-test them, and creatively apply them to their daily lives. Mental models are so valuable that billionaire Ray Dalio's only book is full of his best mental models. Charlie Mungers' only book is packed full of his top mental models too. 7
One of the most common pieces of advice that Elon Musk gives is to think from first principles. Mental models and first principles are similar in that they each model deeper levels of reality. While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie -- across fields), these smart thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA... 8
In another interview, Musk gives an example...
Here's a visual way that shows the difference between thinking horizontally (1D) versus thinking horizontally and vertically (2D)...
When you think vertically and horizontally, suddenly fields that seemed disconnected appear connected. Here’s an example…
In the 1D image below where the thinking is only horizontal, productivity, hiring, and exercising seem like completely unconnected fields.
In the 2D image below, which is horizontal and vertical, these three fields are connected by a mental model—The 80/20 Rule:
Since Musk has spent much time learning across fields and at a deeper level, his knowledge tree is huge...
Thanks to the size and complexity of his tree, Elon Musk can see exactly how different “leaves” and “branches” interact with each other. This gives him major superpowers:
Now, compare this to an average person who can only see one leaf at a time. This person:
By understanding verticality and depth, you can see how learning mental models connects things that were previously separate and disconnected. Just as every leaf on a tree is connected by twigs, which are connected by branches, which are connected by a tree trunk, so too are ideas connected by deeper and deeper ideas.
One of the most effective and universal mental models is the 80/20 Rule: the idea that 20 percent of inputs can lead to 80 percent of outputs. This same 80/20 idea can be applied to our personal lives (productivity, diet, relationships, exercise, learning, etc.) and our professional lives (hiring, firing, management, sales, marketing, etc). As such, you can see how the 80/20 Rule connects many disparate fields. This is what all mental models do.
To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Of all the things on my to-do list, what are the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results?” When we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy, which ones could really change my life?” When considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?” In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.
“You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.” — Bo Dahlbom, philosopher and computer scientist
Evolution is so slow that a child born today is — biologically — indistinguishable from a child born 30,000 years ago. Yet, here I am typing on a MacBook, while my ancestors spent most of their time collecting berries, throwing spears, and chipping rocks. So what’s the difference between someone born 30,000 years ago and me?
Between then and now, there has been an unprecedented explosion and evolution of tools that have collectively created modern society.
We all intuitively understand this. We all know that if we didn’t have basic tools like fire or the plow, or more complex ones like a Macbook or car, our lives would be completely different. Watch any post-apocalyptic TV or movie series and you can see how the world quickly falls apart when tools fail.
But there’s a major blindspot people have when it comes to understanding tools. Many people fail to appreciate non-physical tools — tools that they cannot touch, hear, or see. But mental tools are just as powerful and complex as physical tools. For example, consider the alphabet: the Western alphabet is a mental tool that wasn’t invented until around 1100 BC (pictorial writing systems like hieroglyphics were invented much earlier). Now we take it for granted, but at the time, it was a cutting-edge tool. Though it was adopted slowly at first — only 30 percent of the population could read and write before the printing press was invented in 1440 — once it began to spread, literate individuals had a huge leg up. In fact, literacy is now so important that it’s a national priority for all governments. That is the power of an effective mental tool.
It’s by understanding the significance of the alphabet that we can understand the significance of mental models too…
As society evolves, it’s becoming more and more complex. There are more people, more tools, and more knowledge, all globally connected in complicated ways. Therefore, people who are able to model how this more complex reality works will be far more successful at navigating it. Or, as Ray Dalio says in his book...
Before an architect can build a house, he or she must first design a model of that house. That architect must have an understanding of how the electrical, plumbing, design, materials, pricing, and so on come together to create a safe, beautiful building at the right price that the market will purchase.
Someone who architects a skyscraper must have a much more complex latticework of mental models than someone who models a two-bedroom house.
People who are able to model how a complex business works in their minds are more likely to be successful business leaders, because they must understand the complex subtleties of finance (balance sheet, cash flow, and income statements), HR (recruiting and managing A+ players), product development, marketing/sales, and how they all interact with their mental models of their various stakeholders (community, customers, suppliers, employees, investors).
Furthermore, as people progress in their careers, they must evolve the amount, diversity, and quality of their mental models if they want to have higher and higher levels of success and impact:
“You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.” — Charlie Munger (super billionaire)
So how do you build complex, accurate mental models? Let me explain with a simple example: dogs. Let’s hypothetically imagine for a moment that we have no idea what a dog is. We’ve never seen or heard of one before.
Then, one day, we see a dog, and someone tells us that this is a dog. “Ah, I get it,” we say. “Now I know what a dog is.”
But if we’ve only seen one dog, technically we don’t really know what a dog is. With just this single case example, our definition of a dog would be: a large black and brown animal with pointy ears that sits down, and sticks out its tongue. Bring out a Pomeranian dog and with only this mental model in mind, you are likely to ask ‘What is that?’
Photo Credit: AAA Lab At Stanford University
The numerous dog models on the right (the contrasting cases example) show us that dogs can come in all different colors, sizes, and shapes. At the same time, we can see the underlying element of “dogness” that they all share. This emergent element of “dogness” is a deeper mental model, and humans created the word “dog” to symbolize this mental model. Using that mental model, you can identify an animal as a dog even if you’ve never seen a particular breed of dog before.
What can we take away from this example that is relevant to our own life?
Many of the world’s problems result from people overgeneralizing from simplistic models just like our hypothetical one-size-fits-all “dog”. Here are three prime examples:
Over-applying one model in too many places is no different than a carpenter trying to build an entire house with one single hammer. All models, no matter how brilliant, are imperfect. The beauty of using multiple and diverse models is that many of the imperfections cancel each other out, allowing you to create a new “emergent” model that transcends all of the other models.
Smart thinkers improve their thinking by taking in a larger quantity of information and developing a greater diversity of models. For example, a novice chess player might only know the name of each piece and how it moves across the board. But a grandmaster has memorized no less than 50,000 chunks (mental models) of increasing complexity including openings, closings, patterns throughout the game, and how one single move can lead to a particular result 10 moves or more down the line.
Babies are created when a man and a woman have sex. New tools are created when pre-existing tools have “tool sex.” New ideas are created through “idea sex.” In the same way, we can build more complex mental models by combining simple mental models. For example, by understanding cause-and-effect mental models better, we can more effectively prioritize what’s important for us to do now to cause something we want in the future. The larger our base of mental models, the more creative combinations we can form. The more unique our mental models are compared to other people, the more we can think in ways that they can’t even fathom.
Through constant and diverse learning, we can organically build better and more varied models of reality. And those models will help us navigate the world far more effectively and creatively. Just as a blueprint is necessary for constructing a stable building, mental models of how the world works help us construct a better — and more stable — life.
“Education is not the learning of facts, but training the mind to think.” —Albert Einstein
Let’s imagine for a second here...
What if you could look inside a billionaire’s mind?
And steal their best “thinking tools”?
What would it do for your career? Your business? Your life?
For the sake of being realistic, let’s just say you only learn 0.01% of their core mental models that made them successful. 001% x $1 billion = a six-figure income.
And, even more conservatively, let’s just say you only learn one idea from them. That might be all you need to go to the next level of career and business success. (For example, it only takes one Google, Facebook or Uber investment to make you a successful investor.)
If you want to learn from the most successful billionaires’ minds, and dramatically increase your success, here’s the next step…
I've already done all of the hard work for you. I've spent the last few years...
Over the past few years, I have identified what I consider to be the most valuable and useful mental models in business and life. And more importantly, I’ve started teaching them to a serious group of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, and other professionals.
If you’re starting to understand the power of mental models, and you’re ready to go to the next level and learn the most important mental models to create success in your life, then I’d like to invite you to join our Mental Model Club.
Inside, every month you’ll learn one of the most important mental models and how to apply it to your life — in just 1–2 hours per month.
The Mental Model Club is an online course, community, and membership that teaches you the most valuable and useful mental models that super billionaires have in common. We have over 1,500 members from around the world, and we’re growing fast.
Inside the Mental Model Club, you’ll…
✔ Your Mastery Manual
Every month, you receive one mental model in the form of a high-quality, comprehensive guide. I call it your Mastery Manual.
It’s the most condensed, in-depth explanation of any mental model that exists in the entire world. We take the best of what’s ever been said about the mental model, cut out all of the fluff, and organize it in a way that is easy and fast to learn.
In each Mastery Manual, you learn…
✔ Your Monthly Masterclass
To help you learn your mental model knowledge faster, you also get a high quality, pre-recorded masterclass of the month’s mental model.
The monthly masterclass is deliberately designed as a standalone resource, so that you can get value right away — well, in just one hour of listening to it.
Here’s what you get in each pre-recorded masterclass:
Earlier this year, we surveyed our 1,500+ members and asked which super billionaires they wanted us to do a deep dive on in order to study their top mental models.
More than anybody else by far, we got back two people — Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
On one hand, we were excited. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are two of the entrepreneurs we're inspired by the most. On the other hand, we were concerned. Both of them have already been covered so much in the media, "How would we have a unique angle?" we wondered.
But as we researched — digging through all of their letters to shareholders, interviews, profiles, and biographies multiple times — we found the following holes:
And so we decided to invest dozens of hours into each report to get the “map of success” in their head that no one ever talks about. The end result is two reports that have been life transformative for us that I think you'll love as well.
Each report is designed to help you learn faster, make better decisions, create products/services your customers love, recruit and manage world-class team, and create more wealth and fulfillment in your life.
In addition to sharing their mental models, we also provide you with exercises and action steps, so that you can take action easily and immediately — start thinking like them!
When you try out the Mental Model Club today, you get these two manuals for free.
As you become more successful in life, you have to do different things to get to the next level.
You can keep using trial & error, building your knowledge on a potentially shaky foundation. Keep risking making mistakes in your career, business and life.
You can get it right the first time, by investing in the Mental Model Club today.
When you register now, you’ll start by learning the top models of the top self-made billionaires in the world. You get a Mastery Manual and implementation exercises.
In less than an hour, you’ll be making better decisions, learning faster, understanding the world better, and making better predictions and estimates about what’s going to happen.
Give the Mental Model Club a try now:
Maguire et. al., (2013). Navigation Expertise and the Human Hippocampus: A Structural Brain Imaging Analysis. Hippocampus. ↩
Michael Simmons (2018). Studies Show That People Who Have High "Integrative Complexity" Are More Likely To Be Successful. Medium.com. ↩
Anita Elberse (2013). Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment. Henry Holt and Co. ↩
TED (2017). Elon Musk: The future we're building -- and boring ↩
Tim Urban (2015). The Cook and the Chef: Musk's Secret Sauce. Wait But Why. ↩
Shane Parrish. Life Lessons with Ray Dalio [The Knowledge Project Ep. #23]. Farnam Street. ↩
Charlie Munger (2005). Poor Charlie's Almanack, Expanded Third Edition. Walsworth Publishing Company. ↩
Elon Musk (2015). I am Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of a rocket company, AMA! Reddit. ↩
David Deutsch (2013). Why Are Flowers Beautiful? [Video file] ↩
Wikipedia contributors (2018). Alphabet Effect. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. ↩
Maria Popova (2011). Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity. Brain Pickings. ↩