Many people reached out to me and asked what mental models are and which ones I learned after I published the most recent post about the 3 stages of career development in SEO.
In the first stage, you advance by mastering the craft. At the advanced stage, you grow by learning mental models.
What are mental models?
Mental models are heuristics or meta-concepts for decision-making and problem-solving. In essence, they help you think about how to think.
Whatever you do – hiring, strategy, alignment, budgeting, relationship-building – comes down to good decisions and solving hard problems. Especially as a leader you need to master these two skills.
Thinking about thinking isn’t new. For ages, people wrote about universal lessons they learned to pass them on to future generations. Marcus Aurelius kept a diary and involuntarily become one of the founding fathers of stoic philosophy. Charlie Munger voluntarily wrote his mental models down in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack and influenced every modern investor.
My 5 favorite mental models
I want to introduce my 5 favorite mental models, the ones that had a tremendous impact on my career. The beauty about collecting and learning these concepts is that it never ends. You keep discovering new, mind-blowing models that help you do things differently and evolve. I find them in books, videos, blog articles, and by talking to others about what they learned.
Power laws like the Pareto Rule or 80/20 Rule are fascinating because once you learn them, you see them everywhere. The basic idea of power laws is that you find a concentration of returns in many areas of life. A few pages or keywords bring the most traffic, a few people at a company have the most responsibility, a few stocks yield the highest returns.
Once you find a power law, you can focus your efforts on the concentration of resources and impact. When you know, for example, that few keywords have the biggest impact on your business, you can monitor the optimize them with extra effort. That brings focus to strategy and control over performance.
Cognitive biases are all the ways in which our thinking is “flawed.” Some of the most popular cognitive biases are:
- Confirmation Bias: interpreting facts in a way that support your opinion
- Group Think: withholding your opinion to be in line with a group of people
- Recency Bias: looking at the most recent piece of information and forgetting older facts
There is a never-ending list of cognitive biases and trying to avoid them all is impossible says Daniel Kahneman, one of the most important psychological researchers of our time. Instead, we should aim to be aware of our strongest tendencies and minimize their impact.
What fascinates me about cognitive biases is that they don’t just carry a cost but also a benefit. They’re not inherently “bad”, just ways we process and store information.
Confirmation bias allows us to form opinions. Without seeking for more arguments that support our opinion, we might never take one at all and never come to a decision as a result.
Being in line with the group’s opinion ensures that we can form strong bonds instead of arguing about everything.
Prioritizing recent information is a tool to sort through a lot of facts and avoid paralysis by analysis.
The scientific method
The scientific method might be the most important invention in human history because it is a tool to overcome our ignorance and iterate toward the truth.
The scientific method is the infinite cycle of forming hypotheses, seeking evidence for or against them, and forming new hypotheses. What fascinates me so much is how loosely scientists and researchers hold opinions. They acknowledge that every opinion can be flawed and only few things in life are 100% known.
In Growth or SEO, we can perfectly adopt the scientific method. When we have an opinion about a tactic that works or a problem, we should open our minds to several possible causes. Maybe it wasn’t the title-tag change that caused the keyword to rank higher but a Google algorithm update, for example.
Adam Grant writes in his new book Think Again:
Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise, and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having conviction in our ideas. The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.
When asked how he was able to revolutionize the car industry, payments, and rockets, Elon Musk credited first principles as one of the main reasons. This mental model allowed him to question common assumptions and rethink established principles.
The idea of first principles thinking is to tie everything back to axioms, established truths. An example would the first law of thermodynamics, which says that energy can’t vanish; it can only transform. This is one of the few unarguable truths. Whatever goes against it might be off.
In SEO, we know that search engines crawl the web by following links. This truth hasn’t only been established by patents and the area of information retrieval but has been confirmed by Google. First-principles thinking means any assumption about crawling must tie back to this truth. As a result, when encountering a crawl issue, backlinks is where the problem-solving should begin.
The 5x why method originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and revolutionized the way to find root causes. It’s simple, but elegant. When you encounter a problem, asking 5x “why?” should help you find the underlying issue.
Imagine organic traffic to your site drops.
You ask the responsible SEO “why?” (1) and they respond with:
“A few of our most important keywords dropped in rank”
“Google deemed the pages from our competitor more important?”
“They have better content than we do.”
“We decided to spend the money on paid ads.”
“We wanted to see faster results.”
As you see, the 5x why method avoids distractions from symptoms and uncovers root causes faster. By fixing the origin problems, you might be able to make one decision that prevents you from having to make 1,000 decisions.
Applying mental models
Over my career, I found increasing value in thinking about how to think and writing models down to make them explicit. It’s not enough to just learn mental models, you need to apply and refine them.
In an organization, for example, they can help you define your culture (code). You can embed mental models in the core values of teams and companies or your own as an individual.
However you apply them, at the end of the day mental models help you solve problems and make decisions.