Catalyzing Chaos

Mental Models to Think, Live, and Work Better in 2021

Catalyzing Chaos

Hi friends,

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As we head into the holidays, I spent some time reflecting on the chaos that was 2020. There’s a lot to learn from this year. This post is a collection of lessons, tools, and techniques for a brighter 2021.

Alright, let’s dive in.

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“What a strange year it’s been.”
“Of course [insert absurd experience here] would happen — it’s 2020.”
“I can’t even tell what day it is.”

I’ve come to find these tropes insufferable. In part, because we’ve had the same phrases on repeat for almost a year. Even more, because I can’t help but wonder when we’ll find ourselves on the other side of these challenges we’re facing, and why we can’t seem to let go of the pain and suffering.

I keep hearing “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over.” Why? What do you think is happening in 2021?

When the clock strikes 12:01 am, January 1st, 2021, do we magically transport to 2019? Does the dark cloud of 2020 fade away, taking with it our grievances and, if my wish comes true, the insufferable ‘doesn’t this suck’ phrases?


Sorry, but this strikes me as just a slightly less offensive spin on the “Make America Great Again” slogan. It reads like a call to return to a time when things were better, without taking into account the downsides that many experienced during this time of supposed prosperity.

So what actually happens when we hit 2021?

Well, the honest answer is, it’s up to you. Yep, that’s right. You are the person who decides what 2021 brings. If you want a better 2021, start with the way you understand, analyze, and interpret the world around you.

Accepting Our Chaotic World

We can’t change if we don’t accept our reality. And our reality was one of enormous social, physical, and psychological discomfort. Jobs were lost, people got sick and died, American democracy was tested, racism was simultaneously exposed and confronted, work was completely upended, and our sense of physical, emotional, and psychological safety was demolished.

After such a devastating period, it can seem difficult to move forward. But if we wish to move on, we must face reality and learn from our experiences.

Going forward, I hope we all take this as a chance to learn, iterate, and grow together. Change presents a chance to bridge the emotional, political, and relational gaps that we’ve allowed to expand over the last four(+) years.

We have a responsibility to take control of what we can. Shape our future the way we want it to be. Now is the time to take control of our collective social, physical, and psychological state. Because, as it turns out, our shared consciousness was not actually shared. 2020 made it clear that our views of the world were, in fact, quite different.

Though it may be unsettling to learn that our model of the world is flawed or that our perspective is not shared by others, it’s the first step on the path to change. Now is the best time to evaluate and update our mental models, to create a happier healthier future for all of us.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are simply a way of understanding the world. They help us turn the chaotic, complex world around us into a more manageable system. Primo Levi said it best in The Drowned and the Saved:

Without a profound simplification the world around us would be an infinite, undefined tangle that would defy our ability to orient ourselves and decide upon our actions… We are compelled to reduce the knowable to a schema.

These schemas are shorthand for the complexity that our brains simply cannot keep straight. They allow us to quickly organize, reference, and act in situations where data is limited and time is of the essence (aka all of our decisions in 2020).

Why We Update Our Mental Models.

When the world around us changes too quickly, it’s jarring. The technological inventions of the last 50 years have ushered in an unprecedented acceleration of change. The last twelve months have surfaced more change than our little brains are prepared to take in. Everything we thought we knew, fell apart. Our relationships, our work, our hobbies; our entire world feels upside down.

As both a creative and analytical thinker, I ping pong between embracing and enjoying the changes of 2020 and trying to simplify and control it. The analytical realist in me seeks comfort in control, while the creative optimist sees potential in the change. Mental models serve both masters, allowing me to simplify and organize, without losing sight of the creative nuance. But each mental model requires regular updates. Revising our models is just good critical thinking hygiene.

Mental Models from 2020

Here are the mental models I’ve developed from my experience with 2020. The models fit into a few categories that, in and of themselves say a lot about our experiences:

  1. Better Thinking
  2. Better Living
  3. Better Working

Models For Better Thinking

Change is Inevitable and Unpredictable.

Earlier this year I wrote about The End of History Illusion, which states that, despite knowing that our preferences have already changed, we predict that our preferences will largely stay the same in the future. We tend to look for patterns we recognize, which is, in part why we often fail to predict our futures. We’re only using historic data to inform our views of the future. Whether you’re 26 or 62, the “End of History Illusion” blurs your predictive abilities all the same. In reality, we’re a work-in-progress. Our greatest mistake is to assume we’re done evolving.

Think Probabilistically.

The meta-problem of mental models is that the goal is to simplify complex decisions. Inevitably, this often forces us to aim for a binary decision, omitting nuance. Instead, we should work to think probabilistically. For example: if the chances of getting COVID are only 1%, is it worth going out without a mask?

Clear Thinking Is A Superpower.

Thinking is often considered unproductive. Amazon famously popularized the “bias for action” principle, which focuses on calculated risk-taking, particularly when a decision is reversible. “Calculated” is the operative word most often overlooked. In a society that values speed, companies, groups, and individuals are quick to act for fear of getting left behind. Whether it’s ignoring science and expertise or simply acting without regard for consequences, the art and science of clear, rational thought is dramatically underrated.

Assume Ignorance (Hanlon’s Razor).

One of my favorite mental models is Hanlon’s Razor, which states that we should ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’ This was probably the most important mental model of 2020. Whether it was someone who decided to have a big wedding in the middle of a pandemic or ignore the scientific findings, it was far too common to assume this was due to malice. The reality is, they weren’t trying to kill people or be intentionally obtuse. They were, unfortunately, ignorant.

Past Data Cannot Predict the Future.

“Things that have never happened before happen all the time.”

— Scott Sagan

Many assume that 2020 was really just a Black Swan—a devastating event that is impossible to predict because it lies outside of normal circumstances. But the reality is, unprecedented things happen all the time, we’re just not prepared for them. And for good reason. We can’t prepare for something we can’t predict. Just because we can’t predict it, doesn’t mean it won’t — or shouldn’t — happen. 2020 has proved that time and time again.

Mindset Matters Most.

With the right mindset, anything can go from a challenge to a change. Life presents us with windows into a new path, but if we’re too set on returning to our previous path, we’ll miss the road ahead. It’s tempting to look back on 2020 and simply wish it away, but we learn nothing from that mindset. If we take a chance to assess, learn, and iterate from our experience, we can clear a better path forward.

Models For Better Living

Seek Solitude, Not Isolation.

Quarantine is a quick way to test our understanding of solitude and isolation. Early this year, I wrote about the difference, stating that “Solitude is chosen. Loneliness and isolation are imposed.” We easily confuse solitude with loneliness. Often people use the two interchangeably. However, they are worlds apart. Ultimately, solitude is something we should seek and enjoy. It is the art of being alone without being lonely. Solitude offers the chance for introspection, concentration, and free-flowing creativity. In truth, we need solitude whether it’s five minutes or five hours. It is essential to our mental wellbeing.

The Price of Your Attention Should Be High.

With screens acting as our portal to the world, our attention is a hot, expensive commodity. Every second we spend doing something of limited value is something we can’t get back. This type of thinking is dangerous and leads back to my first model that opposes that bias for action (at all costs). The price someone pays to get your attention should be increasingly high.

Digital Disconnection Improves Physical Connection.

I used to love the fact that everything was always available and at my fingertips. The internet created open doors that allowed me to engage with the hyper-connected world around me. But this was balanced by an ability to be physically present with those around me, creating an excuse to disconnect digitally. As that disappeared in 2020, I found it more important to create space between the physical and digital worlds.

Time-off-Task Is as Important as Time-on-Task.

Remote work exposed that most of our work actually doesn’t require 8+ hours of focus time. Many people realized that our typical day might be 8+ hours, but our output reflects far less. Guess what? Employers also realized this and decided to capitalize.

The hours we used to spend chatting at lunch, going to coffee, having side conversations with our colleagues, or just hiding in the bathroom to avoid our annoying coworkers, well that time is now available for more productive output. But maybe, just maybe, we really need that time. Time-off-task rebalances our psychological needs and provides a necessary creative way to recharge.

People Need People.

From distanced learning and work to literal social distancing, we’re at peak distancing. I’ve experienced loss over the years.

Many people have come and gone, but I always accepted their passing as just a part of life. In part, because I was able to spend time with them and be there for their passing. In the last year, many people have missed out on the opportunity to see a loved one before they go. And it’s completely unfair. I can only imagine how painful it is to not be there when your mother or father passes, and I hope that I never have to experience this myself. For those who have, I hope you find solace.

Models For Better Work

Work-Life Balance Requires Boundaries.

People are tied to their computers and phones. Screens have ruled our lives for years, but now that many have switched to remote work, the screen has become our life. Remote isn’t just a different way of working, it’s a different way of living. And if you’re not careful, the only thing you’ll experience is work. Be sure to understand your boundary management style.

Always Maintain Optionality.

Diversification is a common investment strategy that is designed to reduce risk and create optionality. Instead of solely investing in a single decision with consequences associated with a future you, diversification allows for flexible goals. Diversification maintains optionality, which creates opportunity. In 2020, any plans we made were subject to disruption. Whether it’s career goals, travel plans, or big events, the best way to plan for the future is to maintain optionality by diversifying your bets.

Real Change Requires Force.

It’s easier to keep the status quo than to make a change unless that change is forced upon us. 2020 didn’t just change the work playbook, it ripped it up, burned every scrap, and urinated on the remains. And I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. For years, work has been demanding a change that supports flexibility, freedom, and respect—and 2020 gave us permission to make it happen.

Catalyzing Chaos for Our Future

As we look forward, I hope that 2020 serves as a catalyst for unprecedented personal and societal growth and improvement. Our collective experiences have created more distance, but carved pathways to come together stronger than ever before.

We shouldn’t want to return to “normal.” Our “normal” sucked for most people. Reaching to the past is not an option, we must burn the boats and move forward. We must use this opportunity to reevaluate every system, model, and framework and redesign new versions to meet the needs of our ever-changing world.

We’re the editors of the future, so let’s get our red pens and start marking up our old mental models—2021 deserved a revised version.

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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,

— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)

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