80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Learning Journeys

Wanna get 80% of the value out of the mental models latticework with 20% of the effort?  Guess what – you can!  17 books in 17 weeks.

You’re busy.  I get it.  You want maximum learning with minimum effort.

You’re not alone.  In fact, you’re probably brilliant.  Danny Kahneman once described Richard Thaler’s greatest asset as his “laziness” – Thaler, apparently, is so lazy he only works on problems that are really interesting.

I’m much the same way.  That’s why my email handle is “maximum effort.”  It’s ironic – it’s what Deadpool says on the rare occasions he actually puts in some elbow grease, rather than just standing around making snarky fourth-wall breaks.

Anyway, what this guided learning journey will do is – in the short span of 17 weeks – get you 80% of the way to where it took me five years and 10,000 hours to get to.

That’s right.

All you have to do is put in the time each week to read one book, a few mental models, and reflect on my notes/analysis of each book while thinking about those models.  Don’t worry if you don’t “get” all of it at first – the books will give you multiple shots on goal for each model, so your learning will enrich and deepen over the course of the learning journey.

The only prerequisite is understanding the idea of a mental model.

You game?

Please note that the below collection of books are not necessarily the 17 “best” books on the site, and many worthy candidates have been left off.  This is just a collection that – cumulatively – gets you as far as possible with as little time and effort as possible.

By the way, the “weeks” are just suggestions – if you’re busy, you can read one book every two or three weeks.  If you’re eager, you can read two or even three books in one week.  Float your own boat.  These are just suggestions.

And if you hate a book – don’t force yourself to read it.  Check out the mental model and find another book that piques your interest more on the same topic.

Week 1 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Let’s start with something fun.  Because learning can be fun. Actually, learning should be fun – we try to have fun around here.  Because you learn more when you have fun.

This week’s book is Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales – DpSv review + notes.

Deep Survival is about why individuals like you and I live – or die – in extreme situations.

It also happens to be the best single book I’ve seen on the cognition / intuition / stress / humor mental model, which is your assignment for this week.

Your assignment:

– read Deep Survival

– read the mental model

– read the DpSv review + notes

– identify situations in your life where you’ve succumbed to an “amygdala hijack.”  How could you avoid that going forward?  Come up with a list of strategies – funny jokes to tell yourself; fond memories to think of, etc.

– ask yourself what “emotional bookmarks” – or “habits” – you utilize frequently.  Are they serving you well?  What emotional bookmarks or habits would serve you well in your life?  How could you go about creating those?

Week 2 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

You’ve got choices!

Your three options this week are:

Other Minds – OthM review + notes


The Genius of Birds – Bird review + notes


Internal Time – IntTm review + notes

If you can’t pick, go with Birds.  It’s the most fun for the average reader.

We’re focusing on the trait adaptivity mental model this week, although you will of course notice others.  Your assignment:

– read the book

– read the model

– reflect and read the notes

– come up with an inventory of some of your major “traits” – if it’s easier to think of them as “strengths” and “weaknesses,” that’s okay.  try to think about it from multiple perspectives – what would you say?  what would your best friends or significant other say?  what would your family or coworkers say?

– identify situations where your traits have served you well; identify other situations where your traits have not served you well.

– ask yourself where, in your life, you could utilize traits that are not currently being utilized.  Conversely, if there are traits that aren’t serving you well, ask yourself if there’s a way to “find a different game” to get around that.

Week 3 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

We’re going to segue right into a really great book this week:

Nudge – Ndge review + notes

We’re focusing on three important mental models here:

culture / status quo bias

activation energy

humans vs econs

As usual, read the book, the model, and the notes.  Then reflect on the following questions.

– what are examples of things you do that serve no purpose but you keep on doing ’em because you’ve done them for a long time?  either in your life or in your organization.

– what are some desired behaviors where you could use “channel factors” (activation energy) to make life easier?  conversely, what are some undesired behaviors that you could make harder via activation energy?

– what are some policies, systems, or products that you’ve recently noticed are designed for fictional “econs?”  How could they be made more “human” friendly?

Week 4 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

This week’s book is:

The Checklist Manifesto – TCM review + notes

It continues the “humans vs. econs” theme from last week – checklists are a nice structural problem solving solution to our humanity, helping us be a little more like our fictional econ friends.

In addition to structural problem solving, think about the following models:

– empathy

marginal utility

As you read the book, the models, and the notes, reflect on the following questions.

– why were there pallets of unread guidebooks in the WHO basement?  Why did doctors not correctly enter patients’ conditions into the software system?  How would you have used empathy to put yourself in their shoes and improve the situation?

– why did Gawande choose to focus on some risks and not others?  Why not use a checklist for fire safety?  Think about the 80/20 principle and how it applies in your own life – at the current moment, what are your biggest, most impactful unsolved problems that need solving?  Now, out of those, which would be easiest to solve?  So, which would have the highest return-on-time-invested?

– identify a few areas in your life where a checklist – or another similar “structural problem solving” solution – could help you out.

Week 5 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

You’ve got choices again!

This week, you can read:

The Halo Effect – Halo review + notes


Superforecasting – SF review + notes

If you can’t pick, go with Superforecasting.

The models for this week are:

luck vs. skill / process vs. outcome

probabilistic thinking

– scientific thinking / overconfidence

Read the book, the models, and the notes.  Then reflect on the following.

– what are situations in your life where luck has played a large role?

– what are things that you tend to view absolutely that you should probably view probabilistically?

– name three instances when overconfidence hurt you.  could you have thought more scientifically in those situations?

Week 6 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

This week’s book:

The Everything Store – TES review + notes

Mental models to think about:

multicausality / disaggregation


sunk costs + commitment bias

Questions to ask yourself:

– you’ve encountered selective perception before (the gorilla experiment in Deep Survival.)  Now think about schema – how does Jeff Bezos see the world differently from the rest of us today?  How did he see it differently back in 1999?  Are there better ways you could look at your own current situation?

– Bezos was extremely analytical most of the time, deconstructing phenomena into their underlying components.  What’s something you don’t understand that you think you could, if you tried?  Try breaking it down and see how far you get.

– Like the rest of us, Bezos is a Human – not an Econ.  He made mistakes.  But he avoided letting those mistakes make him, so to speak.  What are examples of times in your life when you were in a hole, but you kept digging because of commitment bias?

Week 7 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Aren’t you a lucky learner – you get to read my favorite book of all time this week.

Misbehaving – M review + notes

Models to think about:

opportunity costs

hyperbolic discounting

contrast bias

salience bias

fairness / loss aversion

marginal utility (which we covered previously)

Questions to ask yourself:

– what are situations in your life where you’re ignoring opportunity costs?  what are activities you’re currently engaging in with lower utility than other activities you could engage in?  think back to Nudge – is it status quo bias that’s keep ing you trapped?

– What are “salient” risks you think about a lot?  Go look up mortality data on leading causes of death/injury/etc.  What are some non-salient risks you never think about, but should?

– Are there examples of contrast bias x marginal utility – i.e. transactional utility – leading you to make bad purchase decisions?

– Name three recent examples of loss aversion being triggered in your life, or that of someone you know.  How could these have been avoided?

– What are examples of hyperbolic discounting or present bias in your life?  How could you overcome them with structural problem solving solutions?

Week 8 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Time for a hard-hitting, impactful book.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me) – MwM review + notes

Models to think about:


contrast bias (again)

local vs. global optimization

Questions to reflect on:

> think back to Superforecasting or The Halo Effect – these touched on hindsight bias as well.  identify times in your life when the outcome seemed obvious in hindsight, but was totally non-obvious beforehand.  how could you have thought more probabilistically?

>what are other situations in your life where it’s easier to make bad decisions in the short-term than good ones?

Week 9 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

A landmark classic this week:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – 7H review + notes

Models to think about:


schema (again)

empathy (again)

product vs. packaging

win-win games

Questions to ponder:

> what are situations in your life that are struggles where you could apply the “power to choose?”

> what are situations in your life where you’re very busy… chopping down trees in the wrong jungle?

> what are examples of win-lose or lose-lose games in your life?  how could you get out of them, or transform them into win-win games?

Week 10 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Another great book this week:

How Doctors Think – HDT review + notes

Models this week:

reciprocity bias (a function of social proof, which you saw in Nudge)



cognition vs. intuition (again)

base rates

framing / selective perception (again)

Questions to ask yourself:

– Think back to Tavris/Aronson and the creeping incrementalism of self-justification.  How did this cause the doctors Groopman discusses to fall prey to reciprocity bias via lavish ski trips?

– Why did one doctor want to know how a test performs in a certain group of patients before giving the test?  Is it useful to gather more information if you have no framework in which to interpret it?

– Why are MRIs so difficult to interpret, even for trained professionals?  What are examples in your life of “MRIs” – situations where it’s difficult to tell if a problem is a big something, a little something, or a nothing?

– Why did the radiologists not notice someone’s clavicle was missing?

Week 11 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

Let’s hit an old favorite this week.

To Engineer is Human – TEIH review + notes

The models to focus on:

margin of safety

salience (again)

opportunity costs (again)


nonlinearity (critical thresholds)

Questions to ask yourself:

– what are examples of critical thresholds or bottlenecks in the world around you?

– what’s an area where you’re not applying margin of safety… but should be?

– what’s an area where you are applying margin of safety, but shouldn’t be, because the opportunity costs are too high?  (Think back to Gawande and the fire risk in the operating theater.)

Week 12 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

From a completely different discipline, I bring you what may be the most important book of the century (no hyperbole):

Why We Sleep – Sleep review + notes

Models to think about:

sleep / chronotypes

structural problem solving

culture / status quo bias

product vs. packaging

nonlinearity (incl dose dependency)

Questions to ponder:

– think about the inherent nonlinearity of our sleep.  Name a few reasons why getting up even an hour earlier is so dangerous, per Walker.

– the science of sleep is irrefutable, yet many people – including many you know – refuse to believe it.  What cognitive biases cause this cascade of errors?

Week 13 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

This week’s book is my second favorite of all time:

The Design of Everyday Things – DOET review + notes

Mental models:



structural problem solving

humans vs. econs

Questions to ask yourself:

– How does Norman use inversion specifically?  How is the human-centered design process an example of inversion more broadly?

– Norman says we all design all the time.  What’s something you’ve designed that isn’t working very well for you?  How could you design it better?

Week 14 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

You have choices again:

How Not To Be Wrong – HNW review + notes


The Signal and the Noise – SigN review + notes

If you pick one, do How Not To Be Wrong.  I actually prefer Silver’s book myself, but again, this list isn’t about the 17 best books – it’s about 17, that in combination, get you 80% of the way to awesome.

Models this week:

Bayesian reasoning

sample size

inversion (incl selection bias, survivorship bias)

Questions to ponder:

– what are priors that you currently hold?  are they serving you well?  how could you use (or have used) priors to make better decisions in some situation?

– what issues does sample size solve?  what issues does it NOT solve?

– how can you use inversion to determine if your sample is an accurate one?

Week 15 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

This week’s book:

The Up Side of Down – UpD review + notes

Models to think about:


n-order impacts

process vs. outcome

Questions to ponder:

– why did Judge Alm’s Hawaiian parole system work so well?  What are examples in your life of where feedback is unclear – either feedback you’re receiving or giving?  How could you make it more clear and consistent?

– do you wash your own hands as often as you should?  (be honest.)  what are examples in your life where a focus on process would be better than a focus on outcomes?

– what are the unintended consequences of leaving homeless people on the street, and why do these cost more than apartments?  take this analysis a step further – McArdle mentions moral hazard.  What might happen if the policies she discusses were expanded?  What might the n-order impacts be of offering free apartments to the homeless?

Week 16 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

This week’s book:

The Landscape of History – LandH review + notes

Models to think about:

complexity / emergence (see disaggregation)

multidisciplinary rationality


Questions to ask:

– compare/contrast Gaddis’s discussion of maps with Covey’s – and Gonzales’s.  What kind of maps are you trying to build, and why?

– think about Gaddis’s discussion of “consilience” – what unusual insights from nontraditional disciplines can you bring to bear on the mental models you’ve learned?

– think back to “accuracy vs. precision” from some of the books we’ve read – when is it okay to sacrifice a little detail for the sake of a story?

Week 17 of the 80/20 Mental Models Learning Journey

One more book, and you’re officially 80% of the way to being a Mental Models Expert.

The Happiness Advantage – THA review + notes

Models to think about:

mindfulness (incl happiness, hedonic adaptation)



Questions to ponder:

– where in your life are you feeling some “learned helplesness?”  how could you re-frame the situation from a different vantage point to regain a sense of control?

– what are some of your frequent thoughts that are maladaptive?  what thoughts could you replace them with?

– are you affected by hedonic adaptation?  what about people you know?  how can you use that to your advantage – without letting it stand in the way of your happiness?



Feel smarter now?  You should.  You’ve accomplished a lot if you’ve read this far.  Feel proud of yourself!

Now… keep going!  You’re 80% of the way there, but there’s a lot of richness and nuance in that last 20%.