How mental models help you think, teach, and change lives.

Updated to Productivity on December 19, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

I can still remember, years ago, stumbling across a hand drawn diagram of a ladder that changed my thinking forever. It wasn’t just any ladder, it was Peter Senge’s Ladder of Inference model in his Ladder croppedremarkable book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Starting at the bottom, the rungs of the ladder were labeled “Observable data”, “Select data”, “Add meaning” all the way up to the top rung labeled “I take action based on my beliefs”.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how perceptions influenced behaviour. I just hadn’t seen it presented in such a clear and physical way before. It was sticky.

Senge used models to uncoupled complicated concepts, like system thinking, and personal mastery. He made high-brow thinking palatable outside the ivory towers of academia. The challenge, as he put it, is “The world is made of Circles. And we think in straight Lines”

“The world is made of Circles. And we think in straight Lines”  – Peter M. Senge 


We’ve all seen the diagram of three circles that intersect in the middle. The intersecting space in the middle is different from it’s three parent areas. We learn that something was or could be created anew by marrying three unique things together. It’s called a Venn diagram. But, that’s not important. What’s important is it’s another example of how a mental model, like that, can help nudge our brains into thinking something new or understanding something complex.

Author (The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality) and cognitive scientist, Ruth M.J.Byrne writes that models represent a “possibility.”

“Our mind is full of conflicting thoughts and Must Do’s – that’s where models come in. Models cut through all the confusion and challenge common thinking. Each mental model represents a possibility. Mental models are akin to architects’ models or to physicists’ diagrams in that their structure is analogous to the structure of the situation that they represent, unlike, say, the structure of logical forms used in formal rule theories.” – Ruth M.J.Byrne


Models are there for you to use (or steal if you want to feel really sneaky). Here are some that I have used to explain somewhat complicated concepts:

  • Urgent vs. Important – the trick to effective use of time is to work on what is important before it becomes urgent (Covey)
  • Effective Habits – intersection of: knowledge, desire, and skills (Covey)
  • Circle of influence/Circle of concern – there is only so much we can each effect and there is always much more we can be concerned about (Covey)
  • Start with Why – the core reason to do anything begins by understanding why it needs to be done (Sinek)
  • Shared Vision – teams can evolve from “telling” to “Co-creating”
  • The Learning Organization – this model was the heart of Senge’s Fifth Discipine book.
  • Personal Mastery – is the combination of: Creative Tension (another model), Personal Vision, and Commitment to the truth (Senge).
  • System Thinking – problem solving by viewing the problem as part of an overall system (like urban planning) (Senge).
  • Creative Tension – (created by Robert Fritz) it is essential that people and organizations maintain some tension between what is and what is wanted.


The reality is you don’t have to have a Ph.D or lecture at MIT, as Senge does, to use and even create models. 

“The mind constructs ‘small-scale models’ of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation.” – Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik

You can use mental models in coaching, teaching, sales, even showing your child how the conscious and subconscious brains collaborate (Iceberg Theory – many facts and assumptions reside “below the surface” of our consciousness).

My Think, Plan, Act model was birthed out of my keynotes and a need to galvanize my speech into a central theme. Once I realized I was employing a very similar logical flow to all my keynotes (think differently, plan better, take action now) I simply documented it and started to refine it into a model.