What is a mental model and why are they important?

Before I dive into the definition of mental models, I want to tell you a little story.

Shortly after Charlotte was born in fall of 2014, I was at a live event with Derek Halpern. He invited people who had purchased a program through him and I think invited me because I live in NYC. (I've purchased his Yes Engines product and really liked it. I can talk about the results of it later.)

Anyway, he wanted to give massive value to all those attending and one of the guys who spoke was a man named Todd Herman. Todd works with athletes and really high performers to help them achieve more. 

Todd talked a lot about Charlie Munger- the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a close friend and advisor to Warren Buffett and a huge fan of mental models. 

I filed away the name Charlie Munger and proceeded about my business. 

Later that fall, I had a new client. A high performer I'll call Rosalind who graduated from Harvard Business School and worked for a top tier consulting firm. She wanted to achieve some personal goals so she hired me. She is not woo woo at all. And in our work together she talked a lot about these mental models. 

In my mind, Rosalind typified the super left brain person who makes rational and clinical decisions all the time. Head over heart, if you will. And I have always been one of those "gut feeling" type of gals. I might make a pro/con list but I'm gonna go with my intuition. 

And in general, intuition has served me well. 

Unless it doesn't. 

I realized that some elements of my life were not working. And my intuition (really just a mental model that emphasizes the invisible and occasionally the inexplicable over the concrete) wasn't necessarily helping me be a better mum, get more done, or enjoy my business. 

So, I decided it was time for a change. I started to explore mental models. I started with one that was simple- it applied solely to my business and didn't really require me to get my emotions and intuition involved. You can read about that one here. It's great. 

But using the Boston Consulting Group's model wasn't helping me get closer to my goals. I looked at a few other models but they still seemed to be quite clinical- only factoring in elements that just didn't speak to my heart or my creative, woo woo side. 

One day as I was driving in the countryside of the Hudson Valley, I started to ponder what kind of model would make sense to someone like me. 

And the Joy|Money Matrix was born. I stuck a quick video on instagram and went on about my day. I didn't really think too much of it until my friend Beth Grant emailed me later to say how much it had helped her with her business. 

Now, we're using the JMM to help:

  • Executives learn to delegate and to write better job descriptions for new roles
  • Teams figure out the best use of their time and effort during project planning phases
  • Creative entrepreneurs revamp their business models, uncover streams of revenue
  • Frustrated artists to come out of hiding and create again

All this because of a mental model that works.

So, what then is a mental model? 

A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.
— Wikipedia


A great blog, Farnam Street, talks a lot about mental models and emphasizes that we should ideally operate with many different models so that we subvert our own psychology and tendencies toward bias. (Yes.) 

But for many a creative entrepreneur, having just one mental model is a breakthrough. And a good start. 

So the JMM can be that- an introduction to a different (not necessarily always better) way of parsing all the information we have available to us so that we make the best decisions and get closer to our ideal results. 

Mental models like the Joy|Money Matrix, coupled with intuition, can help us achieve peak performance. And I'm all about that.