curiosity across disciplines

Thinking about soup

We humans suffer such delectably ironic existences.

Harnessing the single-most complex thing in the known universe smack between our ears, we create such a paradoxical combination of beauty, wonder, destruction, and just plain bullshit.

Mental models are one tool for mitigating some of the bullshit.

You likely already know what mental models are, even if you've never hit the "mental model books" (oh yes, they exist). And frankly, even a vague personal notion of a mental model, in my view, trumps any stock definition. But, for the truly uninitiated,

A mental model is any conceptual framework that acts as a means to interpret or understand something.

Typically, models exist to take an unruly aspect of reality, simplify it, and make subsequent thoughts or calculations more manageable, e.g., supply and demand, survivorship bias, or small-angle approximation.

And while this post serves as my take on an introduction to mental models, it's worth first contrasting models with their ideological counterpart: reality.

To that end, soups!

The first course is a medieval mystery stew, with a grab bag of ingredients.

Maybe it's got a nice bone marrow stock, some bits of venison from last week's hunt, a load of barley, and whatever mess of vegetables and seasonings were dumped in over the last several days.

It's a mashup of potentially conflicting flavors, created from whatever was available, and cooked to varying levels of done-ness because the magic of artificial refrigeration was not yet invented.

The stew is reality. More stuff. Less consistency. Greater chance of Botulism.

In contrast, mental models are a creamy, immersion-blended soup. Think tomato, butternut squash, or broccoli cheese (probably in one of those nifty bread bowls, because why not).

Blended soups are more refined, have a consistent texture, and usually (calm down master chefs) aim for a more condensed flavor.

In short, they do less, but hopefully within a narrow context, do that thing "better."

Now, what I'm not saying is that stew is bad and soup is good. Far from it. I love a good stew, but sometimes, a soup is exactly what you need.

To drive the point home, imagine that instead of dunking a straight-off-the-skillet, buttery, pull-apart-gooey grilled cheese sandwich in a homemade, creamy tomato soup, you dunk that same sandwich in a...chunky tomato stew.

Now that's some bullshit.

And that is the power of a well-crafted, carefully-selected mental model.