One of the things I class as part of my mission is to help Muslims ‘think’ more.
We have lost the art of thinking, whether that be critical thinking, understanding nuance, or even just having curiosity about things. Being purposeful is part of thinking. That’s why I’m fascinated with different types of ways of coming to truth, such as biomimicry and systems thinking. Another part of thinking is decision-making and having clarity, and something that hugely helps with that is mental models.
Mental models are shortcuts that help us understand and contextualise life.
According to the excellent Farnam St blog by Shane Parrish:
“Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.
A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.
The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have ,the bigger your toolbox and the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality. It turns out that when it comes to improving your ability to make decisions variety matters.”
Let’s give you an example of how this works in the real world.
“To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
If we only have one way of thinking, we only have one way to solve a problem or one way to come to a decision. We’re going to struggle, naturally. In an increasingly complex world, this level of thinking is flawed and limited, and not fit for purpose given how much nuance is required to navigate in the world today.
Parkinson’s law, for example, is a mental model. The Pareto principle (i.e. the 80/20 rule). Opportunity cost. Confirmation bias. The law of diminishing returns. Economies of scale. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are all economic, logical or scientific shortcuts that have made their way into everyday vernacular and due to their usefulness and popularity, we’ve programmed and internalised them to work out the likelihood of something occurring or what decision we should make in the process.
But if a mental model is just a shortcut to allow you to come to a decision quicker… we actually have plenty of them in Islam, located within the Quran and Sunnah that can regulate the behaviour we demonstrate. “Take the good and leave the bad”, for example. That’s a principle we can apply to any situation. We can always default to “the middle path” so we avoid the extreme. Understand and accept that “with hardship comes ease” in times of difficulty. If we’re getting wound up by trolls in YouTube comments, we should “leave that which does not concern you.” Today there’s plenty of opportunity to bicker and be disunited, but in such times we can remember to “hold fast to the rope of Allah and be not divided.” If we’re trying to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, we would do well to recall “if you dislike something it may be good for you, and if you like something it may be bad for you, and Allah knows and you do not know.”
You get the idea.
These are core principles that can shape our behaviour and snap us back to sense in an instant. And they are all universal principles, to be honest.
If you understand the different types of thinking available to you and understand your how your brain works you’ll find it much easier to make good decisions that gets you away from emotion in the moment, and back to clarity.
The beauty with many of the ‘Muslim’ ones, is that we already know them and have programmed them into our psyche. But we don’t see it necessarily as a mental model to apply in times of need. Remember, Islam is an entire holistic system for order and ensures correct conduct and behaviour.
I honestly think Muslims have a direct line to wisdom, if only we internalised some of our core concepts. We have such a rich beautiful tradition, but we really need more people willing to dive deep to extract these gems and share them with the wider world, if the Ummah is to stand a chance to revive its intellectual heritage.
Are there any other Muslim mental models you can think of?