Developer Tea

Mental Models - Lenses for Thinking and Decisions (Part 1)

Episode Summary

Improvement is not a simple concept but usually comes from experience. In today's episode, we're talking about improvement based on questioning what kind of information you should be seeking.

Episode Notes

Improvement is not a simple concept but usually comes from experience. In today's episode, we're talking about improvement based on questioning what kind of information you should be seeking.

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Episode Transcription

By listening to this podcast, you're probably raising your hand and saying that you want to improve. What does it mean to improve? Well, for the sake of today's episode, to improve would mean that you're making better decisions. You're spending your time in a better way or maybe you're growing your career more effectively. You are improving yourself. You're choosing to change in positive ways. Or maybe you are working on your outlook. You want to change the way that you see the world, not just the way that you act in the world. Improvement is not a simple concept, but usually improvement comes as a result of an experience or as a result of learning something. You can really look at learning something as its own experience, but we're talking about improvement as a response to new information. And this is where a lot of developers end up getting stuck. It's the kind of questions that we receive at It's the questions that people ask me in person. It's the kind of questions that people ask on all kinds of forums online, not just the ones about how to do a specific thing with code, but what should I do? What information should I encounter? How should I change and what should I be experiencing in order to improve? In today's episode, I hope to inspire you to shift the way you think about what kinds of information and what kinds of learning you should be doing. This can create an engine, rather than me giving you specific answers to these questions. I want to teach you how to find those answers for yourself, how to think critically, and how to act in a dynamic way about learning and about improvement that will last perhaps for your whole career. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and you're listening to My goal in this show is to help driven developers like you connect to your career purpose and do better work so you can have a positive influence on the people around you. And that purpose is really the first step. It's the first step to understanding how you should improve, because if you're just improving, well, that's not really a specific thing, is it? In what ways are you improving and for what reasons? Perhaps you can improve by one standard, but maybe that standard doesn't serve your purpose at all. It may be arbitrary to you. And for this reason, the answer to what should I learn, what should I use, what should I do, is never going to be easy. It's always going to start with, well, I need to know more about your context. Your context starts with understanding what you care about, your values, and ultimately what you want to accomplish with the time that you have while you're alive, your purpose and life. So we aren't going to talk about, you know, trying to identify that within yourself. There's been other episodes where we've discussed that idea and it certainly is a valuable set of exercises to figure out what it is that you do value the things that you do care about. But instead, today, I'm going to assume that you have a general idea of what you want out of your career, of your values of your purpose. And now you're trying to set yourself up for success. You're trying to find ways that you can improve the quality of your time, right? Improve the quality of the spending of your time, get more out of your time and become better at a faster pace. In today's and the following few episodes, I want to share some mental models with you. You can think about these as lenses that will help you understand ways to leverage your time better. And this isn't specific to developers. You can use this information to improve your decision making in all kinds of situations, not just when you're talking about your career, but also the way that you spend your time with your family, with your friends, the way that you spend your free time. All of these things can benefit from the principles, these mental models that we're going to share in today's episode. We're going to continue talking about mental models into the next episode of Developer Tea. If you don't want to miss out on that, make sure you subscribe in whatever podcasting app you are currently listening to this episode with. So let's talk about the first mental model that you can use to decide how to use your time better. And really, I want you to think about time as a resource. And this is particularly key when you have a lot of responsibilities, when you can buy your time back, for example, right? You have to decide how much your time is worth to you, but other people may decide how much your time is worth to them as well. Now sometimes there are abstractions between those layers. For example, you may have a highly flexible mapping of time to income, but ultimately time and money are highly related to each other. So when I say that you're spinning your time, you can imagine that this is kind of like a bank account that you're taking money out and investing your time into something. And what's interesting is that one of the things that you can earn by investing your time is more time. If you, for example, invest time into some kind of adventure that will give you passive income in the future, then in some ways you are buying yourself the freedom of using that time in the future in a different way. But the first mental model that I want to share with you is compounding. Now you're probably familiar with the concept, especially if you have any kind of retirement account or if you're interested in finance at all, the idea of earning interest and then earning compounding interest. If you take a dollar and you add, you know, 5% interest to that dollar, then you have a dollar and 5 cents. Now that interest of 5% applies not just to the dollar, but also to the dollar and 5 cents. It's a bit easier to imagine the visual of the growth over time. If you think about compound interest, you're looking at an exponential growth. That means that the line is not straight. It's curved upward. As you go from, you know, the zero point or the base point of, you know, maybe that one dollar up to the right, it doesn't go from one dollar to $10 in a straight line. It would go from one dollar to $10 in a curved line. Again, this is most commonly referred to when talking about finances, but perhaps a even more important area as this is concerned, as compounding is concerned, is your knowledge. If you think about your knowledge as a pool of information, when you add information, to that pool, now that information is connected to the other information. So that piece of whatever it is that you learned, it now is enriched and it also is enriching the other information that you've already learned in the past. We talked about this effect in the past when we talked about choosing what to learn next in a more simplistic way, having skill stacks, right? Having a stack of skills that whenever you learn skill A and skill B, they're more valuable together than they are alone. Imagine that you apply some arbitrary unit of value to skill A, let's say 10, and skill B has five. And together, if you were to just add them together, it'd be 15, but when you learn those two together, they interact and they make the other one more valuable. So suddenly it's 20 or it's 25 instead of 15. So why does this matter? Why does it matter that we think in terms of compounding interest? When it comes to our learning, when it comes to spending time, when it comes to our money, we need to be understanding how compound interest can affect the outcomes. This is important because as you spend your time, if you understand what ways that you can leverage that time best, you will earn back from your time at an exponential rate. And we're not just talking about your salary, and we can't really say exactly how your salary will be affected by these principles, but it can help you start to make different decisions and therefore have different outcomes. For example, if you have a lunch planned with one of your friends on Monday and then another friend on Tuesday, but you believe that those two meeting each other would provide benefit to both of them, then maybe you start making decisions like planning the lunch with both people. Now, this is a subtle shift and it doesn't really take a lot more from you. In fact, in this case, you earn back another day's worth of lunch time and the effects are not always directly predictable. You may have had more benefit from having those individual lunches than you would having the lunch together. But what it does do is it starts you thinking about different ways to make your decisions, learning tools or learning concepts that make the things that you already know more valuable. Half of the battle when it comes to these mental models is knowing that they exist, so you can look for the opportunities to take advantage of them. For example, if you know that everything that you learn enriches the other things that you learn, then you can start to look for the underlying principles that govern your otherwise unrelated activities. For example, your relationships at work and your relationships at home. It may be easy to believe that these are two entirely different things, but the things that you learn about your relationships at home can absolutely apply to your relationships at work. The same is true from things that are perhaps less intuitive. Maybe you have a hobby or perhaps you have a degree in something that's totally unrelated to software development, but you can draw from those experiences and compare and learn from underlying principles, learn from the ways that things work in other domains and clarify through a process of comparison. So compound interest applies not just to your 401k. It applies to the way that you spend your time to the places that you go. So I encourage you to apply it in ways that invest. You invest in a high growth scheme for yourself. You can also apply this information to avoid linear or perhaps even worse than linear ways of growing. I'll give you an example of this. If you believe that losing a couple of hours of sleep is worth it so you can get a few more tasks completed, this is linear or perhaps worse than linear growth. Because by robbing your body of sleep, not only are you losing out on a compound benefit, you're harming your health and you're also likely to perform those tasks poorly. This isn't necessarily intuitive. We view sleep as something that we do only when we're tired. Number two tired to continue. We don't view sleep as an investment naturally. This is certainly a cultural thing. Perhaps there are cultures, there are people who are listening to this who absolutely prioritize your sleep and I applaud you for that. But we have to start understanding our decisions not just in terms of their immediate effects, but in terms of their longer tail effects. This plays right into the other mental model that we're going to talk about today. But first I want to talk about today's awesome sponsor Clubhouse. If you're like me, you've used a lot of project management tools over your career as a developer. Many of these tools, they go halfway, they do a little bit, but then they miss out on. Things that I really do care about as a software developer. For example, I care that everyone on the team can easily see what's going on and that we can visualize this work. I also prefer a combine style of working, having limited work and progress, being able to use the information that I have from past work to predict how I'll perform on future work. These are all things that I personally care about. I also needed to work with all of my existing tools. I use things like Slack and GitHub and all of this stuff is actually met by Clubhouse. Clubhouse is used by companies like Elastic, Deloitte, Wistia. There's a long list of clients that use Clubhouse and that's because Clubhouse has figured out balance between simplicity and structure for better cross-functional collaboration. Here's of Developer Tea. You can sign up for two free months of Clubhouse by visiting slash Developer Tea. That's all one word. slash Developer Tea. Here's the thing. You already get two weeks of a free trial, but you'll get to use Clubhouse for free for two months beyond that. Go and check it out. slash Developer Tea. Thank you again to Clubhouse for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. We're talking about mental models today. We've already talked about compound interest and how we can think about ways to improve our existing use of time, use of money, use of resources, whatever decisions that you're making, making decisions that help you grow exponentially and avoiding decisions that either hurt your growth, which would be growing at a sub-linear rate, or they only linearly improve you, instead focusing on high growth and focusing on that compound interest in improvement. But to make those kinds of decisions, you have to be able to look past whatever is happening initially. We talked about losing sleep. That seems like a rational decision if you're just trying to meet a deadline. The problem is that it's not really a good decision for the next day, and it's not good for you in the long term for a lot of reasons. For example, if you set up the expectation that you're willing to work late into the night on a regular basis, you've now created an expectation in others or in yourself, perhaps even unintentionally an expectation that's unhealthy for you for the reasons that we mentioned before. We can also think about the longer term effects on your health and the effects that this will have on the quality of work over time. Things begin to degrade, but maybe it doesn't happen right away to be able to make decisions that provide for you a compounding interest, a positive compounding interest. You need to be able to see beyond the first layer. You need to be able to see not just the effect that this will have immediately, but the second and the third and the fourth order effects that this has down the road. And beyond yourself, to your family, to your coworkers, to your community, to the world, one-order, third-order, fourth-order thinking is critical to long-term success. Second order and third-order thinking start with questions like, and then what? It also starts with questions like, why? And then following up with another why? Sometimes these questions are hard to answer. Sometimes they're impossible to answer. Sometimes we have to answer them with, well, maybe this will happen and maybe it won't. Maybe one of these three things is going to happen. And I think that number two will happen because I have good evidence to think that something like this will happen. So this kind of thinking provides you with a way of making decisions that cascade rather than short-term instantaneous decisions. A lot of the time, even when we're trying to make good decisions for ourselves, even when we're trying to make conscious and healthy decisions, we still make decisions that if we had thought about or had known the second order, third order, or fourth order effects of those decisions, we wouldn't have made them. I'll give you a very simple example for myself. Recently, I lost a few weeks of being in the gym because I was sick and when I returned to the gym, I, against my better judgment now, I loaded up the weight rack a little bit too much. So I ended up being sore and my back being tweaked a little bit and not being able to really work out for another couple of days because I wanted to jump back in too quickly. I took on more than I could handle. When I weighed the risks and the benefits and thought about the second order effects, instead of thinking, well, I want to jump back in with full force and I want to feel accomplished in this workout. Instead, if I had thought actually what I want is to reinstate my good habits, my healthy habits of exercise, then I may have loaded the weight rack a little bit lighter. It wasn't that I was making poor decisions for my health in an unconscious way. It's that I wasn't thinking further than today with my conscious decisions. So those are two mental models, lenses for seeing the world, ways of thinking that can totally change the way you make decisions. The first one, compounding interest, both of your time and of your money. The second one is second order, third order, fourth order thinking. I hope you enjoyed today's episode and I hope that you find immediate value. Perhaps you see your task list a little bit differently today or you start to see your opportunities a little bit differently. In any case, I'd love to hear more from you about how this episode and other episodes of Developer Teaare affecting your life and your career. You can always send me messages at If you've enjoyed today's episode, then I encourage you to subscribe in whatever pie-gassing app you use. We're going to be talking about mental models on the next episode of Developer Tea and we will be talking about this kind of stuff well into the future. We released three episodes a week. It's very important that you subscribe if you want to miss out on those episodes. Thank you again to Clubhouse for sponsoring today's episode. You get two months for free by heading over to slash Developer Tea. That's all one word, slash Developer Tea. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.