Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg & Lauren McCann [Book Summary & PDF]

No matter where you are in life, Super Thinking is designed to help jump-start your super thinking journey and think/act effectively whenever you face a difficult decision or try to understand a complex situation.

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INTRODUCTION

Who is this book for?

No matter where you are in life, this book is designed to help jump start your super thinking journey and think/act effectively whenever you face a difficult decision or try to understand a complex situation.

About the author

Gabriel Weinberg is the CEO & Founder of DuckDuckGo, the Internet privacy company that empowers users to seamlessly take control of their personal information online. He co-authored Traction and Super Thinking. Before DuckDuckGo, he founded other Internet-related companies.

Lauren McCann is a statistician and researcher. She spent nearly a decade in the pharmaceutical industry, where she designed and analysed clinical trials and published numerous articles in medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine. She holds a Ph.D. in Operations Research and a B.S. in mathematics, both from MIT.

In this summary

The world's greatest problem-solvers, forecasters, and decision-makers all rely on a set of frameworks and shortcuts that help them cut through complexity and separate good ideas from bad ones. They're called mental models, and the following summary explores 130+ of them! Ready?

BOOK SUMMARY

MENTAL MODELS

What is a mental model and why should we care?

Mental models are recurring concepts that you can use to quickly create a mental picture of a situation, which becomes a model that you can later apply in similar situations.

Every discipline, like physics, has its own set of mental models that people in the field learn through coursework, mentorship, and firsthand experience.

However, there is a smaller set of mental models that are useful for people like you and me in general day-to-day decision-making, problem-solving, and truth-seeking.

In short, mental models are shortcuts to higher-level thinking.

If you can understand the relevant mental models for a situation, then you can bypass lower-level thinking and immediately jump to higher-level thinking. For this to happen, though, you must apply them at the right time and in the right context.

Super Thinking is a toolbox that systematically lists, classifies, and explains all the important mental models across the major disciplines.

Reading this summary (and maybe later the full book) is just the first step. Learning to successfully apply mental models doesn’t happen overnight. You must develop your powers through repeated practice.

In the next 9 chapters, let’s explore the 130+ major mental models out of the 300 included in this book.

(The name of the mental model in bold, followed by a short explanation. For more mental models and examples, please read the full book.)

1. BEING WRONG LESS

To avoid mental traps, you must think more objectively.

Try arguing from first principles (a group of self-evident assumptions that make up the foundation on which your conclusions rest), getting to the root causes (the real reason something happened), and seeking out the third story (the story that a third, impartial observer would recount).

Realise that your intuitive interpretations of the world can often be wrong due to availability bias (when information recently made available to you distort your objective view of reality), fundamental attribution error (e.g. when you think someone is mean, rather than thinking they were just having a bad day), and optimistic probability bias (being too optimistic about the probability of success).

Use Ockham’s razor (the simplest explanation is most likely to be true) and Hanlon’s razor (never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness) to begin investigating the simplest objective explanations. Then test your theories by de-risking (to be wrong less, you need to be testing your assumptions in the real world), avoiding premature optimisation (tweaking or perfecting something too early).

Attempt to think gray (the truth is not black or white, but somewhere in between, a shade of gray) in an effort to consistently avoid confirmation bias (interpreting new information in a biased way to confirm pre-existing beliefs).

Actively seek out other perspectives by including the Devil’s advocate position (taking up an opposing side of an argument, even if it is one you don’t agree with) and bypassing the filter bubble (online companies showing you more of what they think you already know and like).

Consider the adage “You are what you eat.” You need to take in a variety of foods to be a healthy person. Likewise, taking in a variety of perspectives will help you become a super thinker.

2. ANYTHING THAT CAN GO WRONG, WILL

In any situation where you can spot spillover effects (the effect of an activity spills over outside the core interactions of the activity, like a polluting factory), look for an externality (like bad health effects) lurking nearby.

Public goods (like education) are particularly susceptible to the tragedy of the commons (like poor schools) via the free rider problem (like not paying taxes).

Beware of situations with asymmetric information (one side of a transaction has different information than the other side), as they can lead to principal-agent problems (the self-interest of the agent may lead to suboptimal results for the principal).

Be careful when basing rewards on measurable incentives, because you are likely to cause unintended and undesirable behaviour (Goodhart’s law).

Short-termism (when you focus on short-term results over long-term results, not investing enough in the future) can easily create disadvantageous path dependence (your available set of decisions now is dependent on your past decisions); to counteract it, think about preserving optionality (make choices that preserve future options) and keep in mind the precautionary principle (when an action could possibly create harm, proceed with extreme caution).

Internalise the distinction between irreversible (hard, if not impossible to unwind) and reversible decisions (more fluid), and don’t let yourself succumb to analysis paralysis (poor decision-making because of over-analysing the large amount of information available) for the latter.

Oh, and heed Murphy’s law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong)!

3. SPEND YOUR TIME WISELY

Choose activities to work on based on their relevance to your north star (the guiding vision of a company or person).

Focus your time on just one of these truly important activities at a time (no multitasking!), making it the top idea on your mind (where your thoughts drift toward when your mind drifts freely).

Select between options based on opportunity cost models (every choice has a hidden cost: the value of the best alternative opportunity you didn’t choose).

Use the Pareto principle to find the 80/20 in any activity and increase your leverage (like getting financed to achieve your business goals faster) at every turn.

Recognise when you’ve hit diminishing returns (the tendency for continued effort to diminish in effectiveness after a certain level) and avoid negative returns.

Use commitment and the default effect (scheduling default commitments toward your long-term goals) to avoid present bias (overvaluing near-term rewards over incremental progress on long-term goals), and periodic evaluations to avoid loss aversion (getting more displeasure from losing than pleasure from gaining) and the sunk-cost fallacy (previous losses influencing you to make a bad decision now).

Look for shortcuts via existing design patterns (reusable solutions to a problem), tools, or clever algorithms. Consider whether you can reframe the problem.

4. BECOMING ONE WITH NATURE

Adopt an experimental mindset, looking for opportunities to run experiments and apply the scientific method wherever possible.

Respect inertia (any resistance to a change in direction): create or join healthy flywheels (once something is spinning, it takes little effort to keep it spinning); avoid strategy taxes (a long-term commitment with inertia to an organisational strategy, leading to suboptimal decisions) and trying to enact change in high-inertia situations unless you have a tactical advantage such as discovery of a catalyst and a lot of potential energy (stored energy waiting to be released).

When enacting change, think deeply about how to reach critical mass and how you will navigate the technology adoption life cycle (innovators, early adopters, early/late majority, laggards).

Use forcing functions (a pre-scheduled event that helps you to take a desired action) to grease the wheels for change.

Actively cultivate your luck surface area (make your luck by meeting more people and finding more opportunities) and put in work needed to not be subsumed by entropy (too rigid life with few opportunities).

When faced with what appears to be a zero-sum or black-and-white situation, look for additional options and ultimately for a win-win (where both parties end up better off).

5. LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS

Avoid succumbing to the gambler’s fallacy (believing that a streak of events is more likely to continue, while the underlying probability hasn’t changed).

Anecdotal evidence (informally collected evidence from personal stories) and correlations you see in data are good hypothesis generators, but correlation does not imply causation – you still need to rely on well-designed experiments to draw strong conclusions.

Look for tried-and-true experimental designs, such as randomised controlled experiments (participants randomly assigned to two groups) or A/B testing, that show statistical significance.

Any isolated experiment can result in a false positive (falsely giving a positive result when it really wasn’t true) or a false negative (the opposite) and can also be biased by myriad factors, most commonly selection bias (when the selected sample is not representative of the broader population of interest), response bias (when an important subset of people fail to respond to an experiment, the results will end up biased), and survivorship bias (e.g. not accounting for the opinions of former employees).

Replication increases confidence in results, so start by looking for a systematic review and/or meta-analysis (combining data from several studies into one analysis) when researching an area.

Always keep in mind that when dealing with uncertainty, the values you see reported or calculate yourself are uncertain themselves, and that you should seek out and report values with error bars (a visual way to display a measure of uncertainty for an estimate)!

6. DECISIONS, DECISIONS

When tempted to use a pro-con list (listing all the pros and cons of a decision and weighing them against each other), consider upgrading to a cost-benefit analysis (more systematically and quantitatively analysing the benefits and costs across an array of options) or decision tree (a diagram that looks like a tree, with different decisions & outcomes as branches) as appropriate.

When making any quantitative assessment, run a sensitivity analysis (analysing how sensitive a model is to its input parameters) across inputs to uncover key drivers and appreciate where you may need to seek greater accuracy in your assumptions.

Beware of black swan events (extreme events which have significantly higher probabilities than you might initially expect) and unknown unknowns. Use systems thinking (when you attempt to think about the entire system at once) and scenario analysis (analysing different future scenarios that might unfold) to more systematically uncover them and assess their impact.

For really complex systems or decision spaces, consider simulations to help you better assess what may happen under different scenarios.

Watch out for blind spots that arise from groupthink (a bias that emerges because groups tend to think in harmony). Consider divergent (trying to get thinking to diverge in order to discover multiple possible solutions) and lateral thinking (trying to get thinking to converge on one solution) techniques when working with groups, including seeking more diverse points of view.

Strive to understand the global optimum (the best solution amongst all local optimums: good, but not great solutions) in any system and look for decisions that move you closer to it.

7. DEALING WITH CONFLICT

Analyse conflict situations through a game-theory lens. Look to see if your situation is analogous to common situations like the prisoner’s dilemma (probably the most famous game theory example), ultimatum game (a game that helps you keep fairness in mind when you make decisions that impact people important to you), or war of attrition (long series of battles depletes both sides’ resources, eventually leaving vulnerable the side that starts to run out of resources first).

Consider how you can convince others to join your side by being more persuasive through the use of influence models like reciprocity, commitment, liking, social proof, scarcity, and authority. And watch out for how they are being used on you, especially through dark patterns (models used to manipulate you for someone else’s benefit).

Think about how a situation is being framed and whether there is a way to frame it that better communicates your point of view, such as social norms (the right thing to do, such as a favour) versus market norms (considering your own financial situation first), distributive justice (fairness around how things are being distributed) versus procedural justice (fairness around adherence to procedures), or an appeal to emotion (influence by manipulation of emotions).

Try to avoid direct conflict because it can have uncertain consequences. Remember there are often alternatives that can lead to more productive outcomes. If diplomacy fails, consider deterrence (using a threat to prevent an action by an adversary) and containment (an attempt to contain the enemy, to prevent its further expansion) strategies.

If a conflict situation is not in your favor, try to change the game, possibly using guerrilla warfare (nimbler tactics of a smaller force that larger forces have trouble reacting to effectively) and punching-above-your-weight (purposefully performing at a higher level than is expected of you) tactics.

Be aware of how generals always fight the last war (using strategies, tactics, and technology that worked for them in the past), and know your best exit strategy (coming up with a well-defined exit plan that will keep you from doing things you might later regret).

8. UNLOCK PEOPLE’S POTENTIAL

People are not interchangeable. They come from a variety of backgrounds and with a varied set of personalities, strengths, and goals. To be the best manager, you must manage to the person, accounting for each individual’s unique set of characteristics and current challenges.

Craft unique roles that amplify each individual’s strengths and motivations. Avoid the Peter principle by promoting people only to roles in which they can succeed.

Properly delineate roles and responsibilities using the model of DRI (directly responsible individual, accountable for the success of each action item).

People need coaching to reach their full potential, especially at new roles. Deliberate practice is the most effective way to help people scale new learning curves. Use the consequence-conviction matrix (a conviction, consequence quadrant (high/low) to sort your decisions) to look for learning opportunities, and use radical candor within one-on-ones to deliver constructive feedback.

When trying new things, watch out for common psychological failure modes like impostor syndrome (fearing being exposed as a fraud, even though in reality they are not) and the Dunning-Kruger effect (describing the confidence people experience as they move from being a novice to being an expert).

Actively define group culture and consistently engage in winning hearts and minds (communicating directly to people’s hearts and minds to win them over) toward your desired culture and associated vision.

If you can set people up for success in the right roles and well-defined culture, then you can create the environment for 10x teams (collectively achieving outsized impact) to emerge.

9. FLEX YOUR MARKET POWER

Find a secret (knowing something that is important yet mostly unknown or not yet widely believed) and build your career or organisation around it, searching via customer development for product/market fit (or another “fit” relevant to the situation).

Strive to be like a heat-seeking missile (collecting data and constantly looking for bigger and better targets) in your search for product/market fit, deftly navigating the idea maze (the process of turning your secret into a product that achieves product/market fit). Look for signs of hitting a resonant frequency (actions/strategies that bring dramatically better results) for validation.

If you can’t find any bright spots (positive signs in a sea of negative ones) in what you’re doing after some time, critically evaluate your position and consider a pivot (a change in course of strategic direction).

Build a moat (shielding yourself from the competition) around yourself and your organisation to create sustainable competitive advantage.

Don’t get complacent; remember only the paranoid survive (you will not keep winning in perpetuity), and keep on the lookout for disruptive innovations, particularly those with a high probability of crossing the chasm (many ideas, companies, and technologies fail to make it from one side of the technology adoption life cycle to the other).

CONCLUSION

Key takeaways

  • Mental models unlock the ability to think at higher levels.
  • To avoid mental traps, you must think more objectively.
  • Choose activities to work on based on your guiding vision.
  • Look for shortcuts via existing design patterns, tools, or algorithms.
  • Apply the scientific method and experimental mindset when possible.
  • Analyse conflict situations through a game-theory lens.
  • Manage to the person, accounting for each individual’s uniqueness.
  • Find a secret and build your career or organisation around it,

Further reading

Declutter Your Mind will teach you the habits, actions, and mindsets you can use to clean up the mental clutter that might be holding you back from being more focused and mindful in your daily life. Let’s discover how to get a simplified, calm mental life – and how to reclaim the time and emotional energy we give up to overthinking and anxiety!

Guidelines is my eBook that summarises the main lessons from 33 of the best-selling self-help books in one place. It is the ultimate book summary; Available as a 80-page ebook and 115-minute audio book. Guidelines lists 31 rules (or guidelines) that you should follow to improve your productivity, become a better leader, do better in business, improve your health, succeed in life and become a happier person.

Action steps

  1. Practise your super thinking daily to harness its full power.
  2. Identify your most common mental pitfalls and correct them.
  3. Look for unpredictable ways to adapt mental models from other domains and sciences into your own life & organisation.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.