Why models are the most important thing you DON’T have

I am sixteen years old. I am eating breakfast. Two eggs over medium, home fries, three pieces of bacon, wheat toast, and pancakes.

I wonder why I am skinny-fat.

At least Sunday morning breakfast replaced Sunday morning church. I don't sit through an hour of existential mayhem anymore, I develop body image issues on account of grandiose breakfast feasts.

Is it worth it? You betcha.

I take a sip of my chocolate milk. I'm thinking about my body (what else is new). And then it hits me.

You poop out your body fat.

The solid mass of fat stays solid. It oozes out of my belly pouch and love handles. It slithers through the body. It's leaves my body with the rest of my waste.

It makes so much sense. It has to be true.

Luckily, when I reached this Nobel Prize realization, I was sitting high on the philosophologist's throne (SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE, LOL). Because if I would have ran with my idea, I would have had the runs.

Indeed, nothing would have said SUCCESS! quite like me shitting out my intestines.

Such is the danger of bad models. And, chances are, you got lots of bad models. Meaning, in some way or another, you're shitting your intestines out… whether you realize it or not.

What is a model?

The word “model” isn't all that spicy and may seem a bit foreign, but you use hundreds of models every second of every day. You just don't know it. So let's bring the idea of a model to life, first, with a definition.

I'll steal the fancy pants definition of a model from from Peter Bevelin's book, Seeking Wisdom, which is one of those books you tell yourself you're going to re-read every year. But when you crack it open, you wonder what kind of mischief is going down in Lee Child's seven millionth Jack Reacher book, even though you really don't want to read another Jack Reacher book.

You decide to read one page of Seeking Wisdom per day, all the while thinking that maybe, just maybe, there's a series of satirical stories that can be written about the same information, making it easier to digest than the current bowl of sawdust you're shoving into your mouth.

But then you remember the difference between EQ and IQ and, OH SNAP!, realize you're the finest producer of sawdust in the galaxy.

Ahem…

A model is an idea that helps us better understand how the world works. Models illustrate consequences and answer questions like ‘why' and ‘how'.

Models help us avoid problems. Assume that we are told that the earth consists of infinite resources. By knowing the idea about limits, we know the statement is false. Someone gives us an investment proposal about a project that contradicts the laws of physics. How much misery can be avoided by staying away from whatever doesn't make scientific sense?

-Peter Bevelin, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger

Perhaps a more practical definition: a belief system of how something is supposed to work that shapes how you interpret (and react to) events and solve (and approach) problems.

I'm going to make the above come to life a little more with a few examples.

How models influence gravity, glass, and fruity farting

If you're holding a glass cup in your hand and you drop it, you'll have an idea of what'll happen before it'll actually happen because of the models you have about how the world works.

You know that the cup is going to fall to the ground because have this model of gravity (or something) that says: things fall. You know that the cup might break because you have this model of fragility (or something) that says: glass can't handle big impacts.

Likewise, if my farts smelled like peaches, you'd be all sorts of confused because the models you have about flatulence don't allow for fruity farting. Farts are supposed to smell like a dead animals, not peaches.

Tactics and strategies are slave to…

Hopefully you're beginning to understand models a bit more. And, hopefully you're able to see that the more your models match actual reality, the better.

If you believed gravity took things up instead of down and glass was robust instead of fragile… eh. Problems.

For a better example, go back to my story at the beginning of this. My fat loss model. Problems. Imagine what would have happened if I was serious about taking action.

Alright, poop is the key. So I need to poop more. Cool. How do I do that? Hmmm. Chug TurboLax in coffee. Sprinkle psyllium husk on everything. Schedule routine enemas.

dumb and dumber turbo lax gif

Press pause. Look at the cascade of mental activity above. The most granular, tactical — “actionable” — bits are slave to models. Which means: if you have bad models, you'll do dumb stuff.

Why focusing on tactics and strategies is a dumb idea 

Models are the anchor. They are high food chain thinking, where as tactics are low food chain thinking. And, well, this is a terrifying realization because, in today's world, there's a huge cultural push towards “actionable” advice.

JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO. GIMME ALL UR TRICKS. HACKS! FUCK YES. HACKS. LIKE A COMPUTER HACKER. GENIUS. I CAN HAS MR. ROBOT SKILLS!

You're suckered into creaming over these things — tactics, tips, tricks, hacks, shortcuts, next low food chain thinking buzzword of the month — without considering the model.

This means…

A. You'll often ignore good tactics because they don't gel with your current model. Lift heavy things to build muscle? Nah. I'm trynna' tone, bro!

B. You'll often fall for foolish tactics because you either (a) have no model, or (b) have a bunk model. Oh, snap! Maybe I'm not fat! Maybe I'm just bloated!

Of course, there is a chance everything will work out. The tactic might anchor into solid model. But, more often than not, it won't.

Why we have bad models when it comes to our bodies

My skepticism seems a bit harsh. No one is leaping from tall buildings and expecting to fly. We all have solid models, right?

When it comes to regularly observable phenomena with fast feedback, yeah. We know about gravity because it impacts objects immediately. We know fire burns things because it crisps things up right in front of our eyes in a matter of seconds.

But this world of “fitness” is consists of everything but regularly observable phenomena with fast feedback.

You can't see your fat melting as you do your fat loss exercise. You can't see your muscle building as you do your muscle building exercise.

You might see (and feel) side-effects of your training. You might see sweat. You might see and feel the pump, and your muscles engorge with blood.

But neither of these are the actual effects.

To make matters worse, our brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world. Even though sweating and “the pump” aren't genuine indicators or fat loss or muscle building, your brain can easily assume that they are.

Our brain doesn't care about truth. It cares about consistency… which is exactly why you might be reading this and wondering, “WAIT, THE PUMP DOESN'T MEAN I'M BUILDING MUSCLE?!!??!?”

Suffice to say, most of the models we have about the physical transformation process are busted. We're sitting ducks for shitty tactics.

And the evidence in favor of my argument is beyond obvious. Bad tactics aren't exactly Mewtwo rare when you're stomping through the McFitness PlayPlace (monitored by Jillian McMichaels).

Jim: I got an idea, guys. What if we make a plastic dumbbell you have to shake like this?

shakeweight mcfitness

Bob: I don’t know Jim. That looks a lot like how a guy masturbates. Don’t you think guys will have enough experience to know doing this *shakes hand up and down* every day won’t make them ripped because, if it did, they’d already be ripped?

Jim: No, Bob. You don’t understand. These idiots don’t think in models. And apparently you don’t either. You’re fired.

Even the models that are somewhat intact are still crooked enough to cause concern… sort of like the taste buds of the folks that drink IPAs (like me).

Eat less and move more in order to lose fat…? Energy balance…? Yes. No. Maybe?

Self-identifying into the wrong corner from using bad models

Based on recent cultural trends, this model madness won't get fixed anytime soon, which is a problem. If you continue on the low food chain tactical scavenger hunt, you'll forego the high food chain thinking needed to fix the sinking ship.

For instance, back to the first (poop) story. As long as my model tells me that pooping is the magic fat loss solution, I'm going to look for ways to poop more.

TurboLax didn't work. Well. I mean. It worked. My butthole is one fire. But it didn't melt off my body fat. Alright. What else can make my poop more? Habanero peppers? Psyllium husk? Colonoscopy? What's the magic tactic?

The double whammy in all of this: results never match expectations, which can wreak havoc on your psyche.

Humans are storytelling machines. If you think doing “x” is going to yield a certain result, and you DON'T get the result after doing “x”, then what else is there to conclude besides: I'm broken, different, damaged, deranged, I'm other d words with negative connotations because alliteration is fun.

You can self-identify your way into a corner that isn't true. You try to poop out your fat, it doesn't work, so you conclude you must be someone that can't lose fat. But that's not true. You're just doing it wrong because your model is broken.

Hemorrhoids and Mr. Miyagi 

Don't let me fool you. I'm a walking contradiction. (My new job title?) I don't always have hemorrhoids, but, when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Wait. No. That's not what was supposed to come out.

If I had hemorrhoids, I wouldn't want someone to drag me through a Mr. Miyagi inspired “paint the fence” cure.

Just give me the salve, mandingo.

Thanks to modern day beauty culture, the body is a hemorrhoid. It's unsightly. It’s uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing. It’s a problem that needs fixed as quickly as possible.

Biology isn't on our side, either. Quicker solutions, less thinking — that's more energy efficiency. Why drown yourself in a river of philosophy when you can just take a pill? 

Who doesn't want to get shit done faster with less effort? Time is valuable. A most precious commodity. Keeping Up with the Kardashians is one of the most popular shows on TV. Makes sense.

Don't tell me to paint no fence or wax no car. Don't nobody gat time fo ‘dat filosofikal drivel, Mr. Miyagi.

The problem with fighting fire with fire

Given our penchant for easy thinking, it's not uncommon to fight fire with fire.”Do this, not that.” But this is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Even with good tactics, you might not fare well without a robust model in your back pocket. If you were able to throw a football like Tom Brady, yet you didn't believe gravity existed, you'd never throw the ball.

Incomplete models lead to indecision. This is common in fitness. People have a billion programs and a billion exercises to choose from. But they're paralyzed by the choices in front of them.

Think about it. No one second guesses whether a ball will fall to the ground. Everyone's model of gravity is so solid, there's damn near absolute causality. When a model is this strong, you're able to make confident decisions.

X -> Y

When people struggle to make choices, it's rarely because they don't have enough choices. Often, it's because they have too many choices. And they're unable to filter through the choices because they don't have a strong enough model to hint at what choices bring about absolute causality.

Are you beginning to see where this leads? People can't make choices, but the cultural push towards low food chain thinking only gives them more, more, more, more choices. But the amount of choices isn't the problem.

Doing the harder thing

Making it through this model madness requires doing the harder thing. Culture and biology is making us zig. We have to consciously zag. We have to avoid tactical-go-round, and, instead, evaluate the model upon which the tactics stick.

We have to use better models so that the right tactics become undeniable and the wrong tactics become sensible only if you’re an Oompa Loompa living in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

You've got to have models in your head. And you've got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You've got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

-Charlie Munger, USC Business School speech

Because, when you fix models, the world becomes less mysterious and more predictable. Decisions become self-evident. You trust the process. You cope with situations. <Insert another vague sentence that goes down smooth, yet has no substance here.>

Where are the models?

Perhaps you're wondering how we've come all this way, and how I've yet to establish one useful model.

Do I just I love spitting sawdust into the ether to test your attention span (or maybe I just suck at communicating)?

Partly.

As much as I would love to give you the One Model to Rule Them All and be done with this model business (trust me, I've rewritten this like twelve billion times), the reality is that there is no such thing as the One Model to Rule Them All.

As model master Charlie Munger said once said, you need to have a variety of models.

Well, the first rule is that you've got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you're using, the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.

-Charlie Munger, USC Business School speech

If you stick around my website long enough (and survive the sawdust) you'll learn many of the models I use because that's my modus operandi.

I believe that they are bigger deal than Ron Burgund — an opinion that can get me tridented in some lands.

So although I can't give you the One Model to Rule Them All, the high food chain thinking toolbox I opened for you is more valuable than any one single model. In some sense, it is a model in itself. You just can't be afraid take what's inside and get to work. As Daniel Kahneman said in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it…

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

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