The Mental Role Model

I spend the bulk of my time in my career either learning, teaching, or troubleshooting. I just got off the phone with a new client and had a small epiphany.

During the call, I essentially gave away one of my secrets to one of my new clients.

We were discussing the concept of idea transplantation. I was mentioning that I work across many different industries and multiple functional areas. I quite often transplant one idea or a proven solution to a problem from one industry to another.

In short, much of my consulting these days is pattern recognition driven. Client in Industry A has a problem he can't solve. I see the problem and an effective solution from Industry B, and tell the client in Industry A.

As I was explaining to my new client, often this transplanting of an idea is perceived as my being brilliant - which as flattering as it is, really isn't true. Half the time, I'm a human database search engine doing a pattern recognition match between what a client is struggling with versus what I have seen work elsewhere.

Some might call this nothing more than experience. While this is true, it is only partially true.

Anyone can adopt a similar approach. The key to making this approach work though, is to deliberately take effort to learn new ideas from disparate sources and add them to one's mental database. It takes a lot of energy to do this over sustained periods of time.

This kind of deliberate diverse and strategic experience-seeking differs from the more common approach to experience -- doing the exact same thing for 20 years in a row.

The person who is in a single static, never-changing job for 20 years in a row basically has one year of "experience" 20 times. The person who is constantly pushing herself, to where each year in her career brings new challenges and zones of discomfort, ends up with 20 true years of experience over two decades.

(For sake of reference, I will refer to the former as the "static" path and the latter as the path of the "rising star.")

The two are most definitely NOT the same thing.

One of the major differences the rising star has over the person taking the static path is the rising star has more mental role models in her head covering a wider range of problems, situations and circumstances.

In my experience, these mental role models can be profoundly useful for someone in a knowledge industry career.

If a job requires mundane, non-thinking manual labor, there are probably 2 billion people in the world physically capable of doing it.

If a job requires relatively repetitive, easy formulaic, intellectual work, there are probably a few hundred million people capable of doing such work.

But, if a job requires having a non-obvious, non-formulaic and often counter-intuitive thought, well the number of people in the world capable of doing such work is much more limited.

These kinds of jobs also tend to pay the most and have great career growth opportunities, and I think they are some of the most fun jobs.

My clients have consistently complained about the complete lack of such talent available in their respective labor markets. Even back in 2009 in the midst of The Great Recession when a great many people were unemployed, over half of my clients were struggling severely from the inability to hire good people.

I remember that year quite well.

It was very hard to reconcile the "I can't find anyone to hire" conversations during my work day with the "another person got laid off" conversations I participated in while socializing in my personal life.

It was only later that I reconciled these two apparently contradicting points of view. My clients were implicitly referring to a sub-segment of the labor market -- the "rising stars." They could never find enough of such people... ever.

I am still having such conversations with clients.

My point in all this is that the rising star is always in huge demand. And the supply of rising stars is in extremely short supply.

If you're a rising star, it is a good place to be!

So how do you become a rising star?

One facet of becoming a rising star is to deliberately decide you want to be one.

I know this sounds obvious, but it is very true.

Actually, let me rephrase that to be a bit more precise.

One facet of becoming a rising star is to deliberately decide you want to be one, and be willing to do the work necessary to become one.

The hardest part about being a rising star is the work that goes into being one versus the payoff of being one, which is often separated by a large time span - in most cases, years.

It is easy to watch an Olympian win a Gold medal and say, "I want to do that." It is an entirely different thing to wake up every morning at 4:30am to practice for 6,000 days in a row. Winning Gold is the easy part. It's facing the damn alarm clock 6,000 times in a row to train that's the really hard part. The latter is the cause, the former is merely the effect.

When you develop a career strategy, it is pointless to focus only on the effect without incorporating the underlying cause.

In knowledge worker fields, a key part of the cause is having an ample set of mental role models to draw from.

A mental role model is either a theoretical or experience-based construct of either what is supposed to happen in a particular situation or how to solve a particular kind of problem.

Using this terminology as context, I write many of my articles to share mental role models with you. Whether I'm writing about shortcuts to learning, handling a difficult client, or managing one's self, the mental role models I try to share are intended to provide you with a reference point for how to handle a particular situation.

I've been told that one of the hallmarks of my teaching is that I often not only explain what to do, but why to do it.

Many of my students have told me they often find it hard to remember seemingly arbitrary rules for what to do (such as in the case interview), but once they understand why to do something, the specific steps of what to do make intuitive sense and are easy to remember or figure out on their own.

This is my preferred way of teaching because it serves the student better in the long run. It also requires the student to think critically about the situation at hand and to extrapolate from the mental role model and apply it, or parts of it, as appropriate.

But a lot of people really hate this approach.

I often receive emails, especially from CIBs, that want THE rule (particularly in a case interview, but the same applies to a client situation or a situation in industry) that is always true and always works.

This kind of mentality is more commonly associated with the "static" career path where the only thinking is the more repetitive, formulaic variety.

In my experience, for CEO and board-level issues, there are very few formulaic rules that are always true that always work. (If you think of yourself as the CEO of your own career, I'd argue the same applies to your career strategy as well.)

This subtle distinction is profoundly important.

A lot of people do not want to think about what to do. Many prefer to be told what to do.

Why?

I think part of the reason is if you are the one thinking about or deciding what to do, you run the risk of being wrong. If you are told what to do, and you just unthinkingly do it, then at some level you can never be wrong because you can always blame the person who told you to do it.

At some level, being told what to do feels safer. The mentality is: "If I don't do anything wrong, they can't fire me."

But this kind of thinking is over-simplified and short-sighted. Sure, if you are told what to do and just do it, you may never be fired. But then again, you might not ever get promoted either.

The more you progress or want to progress in your career, the more you need to be willing to tolerate the risk of being wrong.

They don't call it the "burden of leadership" for no reason.

(I'm particularly in awe of military leaders where a wrong decision = people die. Even the right decision might = people die (but perhaps fewer than a wrong decision). Talk about no pressure! )

One way to cope with such a burden is to deliberately seek out and collect a large mental database of mental role models. Doing so provides you with multiple reference points of what has worked for others in similar (but rarely identical) situations.

Mental role models will never tell you exactly what to do, but they help you to understand the key pressure points in a situation, and provide a range of options (and rationales) to consider in addressing a particular situation.

By triangulating between these mental role models, your own experience, and a factual analysis of a situation, you will be able to make a decision with a high (but not 100%) probability of a successful outcome.

So to the extent you want to take the rising star path, make it a deliberate effort to seek out and catalog mental role models for your chosen career field.

It may not make much of a difference day to day, but it makes a huge difference year to year and beyond.

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33 comments… add one
  • Ana Feb 11, 2014, 9:51 am

    Hi Victor! My name is Ana, I am a colombian lawyer and political scientist. I worked for a top law firm in the telecommunication sector for year and a half and I quitted.. I felt that, even tough my job required intellectual skills it was repetitive and not challenging anymore. I left the comfort zone… I want to get into consulting, and I am really attracted by the telecom and tech industry and I am able to grab technical stuff really quickly… so I was thinking of applying to a master, and possibly PhD in Public Policy and Technology. … does it looks like a shooting star? comments? hope so, I felt really identified with your article. Thanks!!

  • Evan Hamlin Feb 11, 2014, 10:06 am

    Great post. I couldn’t help but think that, as a MBA candidate, this is exactly what we aim to accomplish with the hundreds of case studies we read over the course of 2 years. The more challenges we see faced and conquered (or blundered), the more points of reference or mental role models we have to draw from. Moreover, by reading them in the form of stories and not just theories, we remember them better — similar to the difference between learning “how” vs. “why”.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 3:18 am

      Evan,

      I agree. I like the case study approach for learning because it takes advantage of narrative memory not just conceptual memory. This makes the underlying lesson accessible to a wider ranger of learners and learning styles.

      I have spoke to HBS grads 30 years after graduating and they STILL remember certain cases they received in section.

      Victor

  • Gabriel Della Nina Feb 11, 2014, 10:23 am

    Really insightful, Victor! Thanks for sharing.

  • Ariel Feb 11, 2014, 10:36 am

    What an inspiring reading to start the day with.

  • rajan t mehta Feb 11, 2014, 2:07 pm

    the art of putting things in a simple yet convincing way is always
    worth appreciation.

    points stated are nothing but facts of life.

    yes we do forget the cause and set our eyes and worry
    senselessly on the effect.

    without cause there is no real effect. you mentioned an olympian
    working every day at 4.30am for 6000 days? – this period
    is close to 2 decades.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 3:19 am

      2 decades might be a it much but perhaps not in some sports.

      Victor

  • Priyak Feb 11, 2014, 3:25 pm

    Wonderful thoughts!! Particularly where you stated that we are the CEO of our own careers. Very insightful and inspirational

  • Guennael Delorme Feb 11, 2014, 3:26 pm

    And this is exactly why so many of us are members of your Strategic Outlier Letter even after getting our own ‘perfect job’ thanks to LOMS!

    Victor, you probably know this already but just in case – this is exactly what Charlie Munger (of Berkshire Hathaway fame) preaches in his “latticework of mental models”.

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 3:21 am

      Guennael,

      Munger is brilliant and my thoughts have been heavily influenced by his work. I’ve done the same as he has in terms of his multi-disciplinary approach, but he was able to explicitly name what he was doing before I was.

      Victor

  • michael ojewunmi Feb 11, 2014, 4:02 pm

    Hello Victor,

    This is a fantastic post, a real eye opener for me. Especially the differences you pointed out between the static and the rising star career paths. My job for the most part is repititive and provides only trace amounts of intellectual stimulation. Instinctively though, I have always felt that to be an excellent knowledge worker there had to be more, you’ve shown me what that “more” entails. Thanks for the enlightenment : )

  • Emanuel Feb 11, 2014, 6:29 pm

    Excellent post Victor. I have never thought of using mental role models when deciding how to act on a daily basis, but that’s exactly how it happens. Keep it going.

  • Guido Feb 11, 2014, 9:05 pm

    Wonderful article indeed Victor. Your explanation excites me as being almost a living biological system using dynamic models to arrive at workable solutions. Such an approach to me is very realistic. Thanks for a little guiding light.

  • Emmanuel Egharevba Feb 11, 2014, 9:23 pm

    Great!!

    It is amazing how you describe behavioral frames and patterns. Generalizing and categorizing in such a precise way. At the same time encouraging
    Thanks a lot!

  • Eloisa Ramos Feb 11, 2014, 11:54 pm

    Hi Victor, you are an excellent mentor and I salute you! I am learning many things from your emails. I am just hoping you will not cut my subscription despite my none-reply on a regular basis. Where I am, things are different. If you excel in say for instance “banking” and the big bosses see you effective in it you will forever stay in banking. But with your email now, I can see that even if you are a consultant to a banking environment, you can always relate your consulting solutions to other industry verticals. I will try my best doing things your way. Thank you and my regards!

    • Victor Cheng Feb 12, 2014, 9:44 pm

      Eloisa,

      You raise an interesting tension. From an employers stand point, it is more profitable for them in the short run if you develop a focused expertise and stick to it.

      First, they can bill you out at a higher rate.

      Second, the quality of your work is higher.

      Third, the risk that you will screw up majorly is quite low.

      This is the optimal situation in the short run for THEIR agenda.

      The problem or at least limitation with this approach for the employee is that such paths sometimes have ceilings where you can’t progress any further. An excellent engineer that has no business acumen and no people skills has a hard time moving beyond an individual contributor role in engineering.

      The other risk factor is when one skills are mono-dimensional, your career is more prone to outside shocks – macro economic crisises, new regulatory changes that change the employability of your profession, etc…

      A personal example, in 2008 most of my consulting work was focused on growth strategy and marketing. When the Great Recession hit, nobody cared about growth or marketing, they simply wanted to survive.

      By chance, I happened to have a degrees in quantitative economics from Stanford and one of my professors was in 2008 the vice chairman of the federal reserve (the #2 guy behind both Greenspan and Bernanke). So I started giving speeches on turnaround strategies that work in macro economic depressions. I became a “turnaround” specialist, have 100 speeches on the topic, wrote a book on it, appeared on live national tv about it, and more.

      The entire pivot or career transition took about 30 days. Had I not switched, my business would most likely have gotten completely wiped out by end of 2009.

      Victor

  • Chinwe Chukwuogo Feb 12, 2014, 12:17 am

    Hi Victor,

    I always really enjoy reading your posts, as I am just starting out in my law career as an entry level paralegal to gain work experience before I go to law school.

    If I understand your explanation of mental role models correctly, I think I may have absorbed such models unconsciously from the all the fictional reading I did in middle school and high school.

    For example, I am not ashamed to admit that in high school, I was obsessed with anime, and with the series “Naruto” in particular. A mental role model that really stuck with me from the series was the theory that hard work is a purposefully painful, long process to success that must be accepted as such to achieve big dreams. Before I start reading this comic book, I always felt daunted by that fact, and would only pursue activities I was naturally gifted in to avoid the bumpy road of hard work.

    But this comic book had characters of my age at the time (12-15 years old) working, working, and working to achieve these big dreams that no one believed they could accomplish. There was one character, Lee, who had a silly goal of getting the main heroine, Sakura, to fall in love with him. He would practice his martial arts techniques everyday with his coach, putting in all these long hours for a goal that seemed more than unlikely.

    While I read this series in my free time, I had also joined my high school’s track team to hang out with my friends. But our practices required a lot more effort that I was used to exerting, and I would have quit if it wasn’t for this comic book. I would tell myself, “If Lee can do 100 kicks and 200 push ups a day, I can get through an hour of practice!” And when I would get home, exhausted from classes and practice, with a huge stack of homework that would take me hours to complete, I would tell myself, “Well if Sakura can get a perfect score on their ninja school’s writing exam, I can get through all this homework!”

    By watching fictional characters face their problems directly, I picked up the mental model that a difficult situation must be confronted by focusing on the task at hand and by taking one’s time to master it. This mental model helped me to become the MVP of my girl’s track team, and win awards in the field and track events that I participated in.

  • Anirban Ghosh Feb 12, 2014, 1:39 am

    Victor – Excellent post! You seem to have nailed it with this one. I was thinking about this in a slightly different way just today morning at the gym. The question I asked myself was, why would a client pay me to do something that he can get done by anyone in his own Company internally, or a competitor firm? So if I want a client to hire me, I will have to provide her with something that is not going to be easy for her to solve and yet I must have some defined way to go about it and repeat across different clients. You have given me a brilliant way to think about this question. Thanks! Keep up the good work.

    Anirban

  • Abhishek Feb 12, 2014, 2:47 am

    So it is essentially a mindset to never settle and as soon as you have converted the previously uncomfortable zone to a comfortable one, its time to move to new one. This would also help you have a lot interesting stuff to talk about and better connect with even more people from diverse backgrounds, which would eventually translate to a wider and more robust network thus having higher probability of a successful career automatically. Interesting and useful stuff to get to know early on in your career. Thanks Victor!

    • Victor Cheng Feb 13, 2014, 2:23 am

      Abhishek,

      “as soon as you have converted the previously uncomfortable zone to a comfortable one, its time to move to new one”

      Yes!

      In the first two or three years of a career this makes very little difference, but if you are willing to continually move on for 5, 10, 15, 20 years in a row you end up career wise in a far different place than someone who came out of school, was uncomfortable for 1 year, and basically repeated what he learned in that first year for the next 20 years.

      It is a night and day difference when you compare the two career trajectories in the time interval of decades.

      The secret is to start early.

      Victor

    • Tseli Feb 17, 2014, 7:00 am

      Fantastic summary…my new motto!

  • Luke Tregidgo Feb 12, 2014, 8:27 am

    As always Victor a superb article; what you say will I’m sure chime with a lot of young, aspiring “rising stars” (myself included) and allay some of our fears at the sometimes enormous task ahead of perpetually pushing our comfort zones.

    I’m of the view that we spend a lot of time worrying how to learn best from experience, when in fact we cannot help but learn, but I wondered if you have any practical tips for capturing the bank of “mental role models” we encounter?

    • Victor Cheng Feb 13, 2014, 2:28 am

      Luke,

      One of my favorite things to do when I’m in a zone of discomfort (I’m in two right now), is to find someone whose zone of COMFORT is my zone of DISCOMFORT, and learn from them.

      One of my favorite questions to ask is, “If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?”

      And

      “What are the three most important things a beginner needs to know?”

      Whenever you can, learn from the experience and wisdom of others. That’s the big shortcut.

      Victor

  • Yury Feb 13, 2014, 6:46 pm

    Victor,

    So you talk about benefits of catching different mental roles and applying them for suitable situations. But how one can “deliberately seek out and collect a large mental database of mental role models”? One source for me was a University where I catch a lot from the professors whose way of thinking I appreciated (the subject doesn’t matter a lot here). But where else it is possible to catch these “mental roles”? How to motivate people to share them with you?

    Regards,
    Yury

    • Victor Cheng Feb 18, 2014, 12:32 pm

      Yury,

      Another way to think about how to learn and internalize new mental role models is to ask yourself the following question:

      In the last week, how many NEW situations or problems did you encounter that you have not previously encountered before?

      OR

      How many NEW situations or problems did you learn about from someone else who HAS encountered such situations whereby they explained what factors were important in solving these kinds of situations and problems?

      The former is developing mental role models from direct experience, the latter by learning through others (such as a boss, mentor, author, or teacher).

      The best job situations are ones where you continually encounter new problems that you’ve never encountered before, preferably whereby you are managed by a boss who has encountered such problems before and teaches you how to solve them.

      This is one of the unique advantages of a career in consulting, because every client project has some new facet to it. As a result the consultant with a few years of experience, has a mental role model library that is much deeper than her peers outside of consulting of a similar age and experience level.

      I use both approaches personally. I continually push my career in new directions that require me to learn new skills.

      I seek out experts in their fields to teach me new skills.

      I read a lot of books about topics I know every little about, it order to understand new classes of situations and problems.

      Victor

      • Victor Cheng Feb 18, 2014, 12:35 pm

        I also meet people with expertise that is opposite of mine, and I teach then what I know and in exchange they teach me what they know. That’s more of a peer relationship, mutual sharing / networking type relationship.

        You convince a boss or mentor to help you by either doing a good job for them (such as for a boss) or a conveying that you will use what hey teach you (which is what a mentor wants… Someone who won’t waste their time and will apply what they are taught)

        Victor

  • Iuliana Feb 15, 2014, 12:15 pm

    Hi Victor,
    I will not tell you how much I appreciate the post. Neither how right, precise or “to-the-spot” you are by sharing the above thoughts.
    What I will do is sharing this within my network as I strongly believe that searching for models that inspire you (with no intention of copying) it’s a must do in one’s way of achieving whatever goal was set.
    Br,
    Iuliana

  • Tseli Feb 17, 2014, 7:12 am

    Great article, thank you for sharing. I love that we can create purposeful mental role models even when we are not exactly where we want to be without it being for the sole purpose of changing the immediate situation (e.g. building an invaluable mental database even when you don’t have the job of your dreams).

  • Ben Feb 19, 2014, 1:40 pm

    The ability judge in the relative context of a decision while running the risk of failure defines those who succeed. Oftentimes, perseverance, not intelligence, facilitates an individual’s success. Just as Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”

  • David Feb 20, 2014, 4:47 am

    Great article!

    Having various mental models to draw from is very useful.

    I would add that, to be really succesful, these models should be used in parallel with a more ‘open-minded’ approach, i.e. being able consider the uniqueness of the problem and consider creative solutions rather than ‘copy and paste’ ones.

    Many times I’ve seen bright people come up with good – but not great – solutions, simply because they were stuck with the analogies they knew and didn’t make the effort of thinking about a new way to approach the problem.

  • LP Mar 19, 2014, 7:06 am

    Just a small remark, perhaps an oppinion on:”It was very hard to reconcile the “I can’t find anyone to hire” conversations during my work day with the “another person got laid off” conversations I participated in while socializing in my personal life.

    It was only later that I reconciled these two apparently contradicting points of view. My clients were implicitly referring to a sub-segment of the labor market — the “rising stars.” They could never find enough of such people… ever.”

    Eventhough I completely agree, and I am striving for the kind of knowledge that you are talking about, I would say that the companies themselves are in large part to blame for this situation. It is not hard to find an HR officer saying:”Well, your experience seems to be a bit all over the place, and your internships don’t have much in common. I am sorry, but we are looking for somebody that has experience only with doing this job”. Hence, companies are implicitly or explicitly looking for candidates with the skills for the particular job, and those skills are the only thing that they look for in a CV. In many cases, they would proceed to not hire a candidate with diverse knowledge.

    Thanks

    • Victor Cheng Apr 1, 2014, 3:18 pm

      LP,

      My first thought about recruiting in industry is to avoid HR people. Their job is to reject, not to hire. The hiring manager (future boss) is the person with the problem if he or she doesn’t hire someone good.

      If the new hire does not work out, the HR manager does not get fired. But the hiring manager whose performance is highly dependent on the new hire being good, has his or her job at risk.

      HR people like simple decisions. Resumes that have X, Y or Z get approved, resumes that do not have X, Y or Z get rejected. These are simple decisions. Black and white. That makes their job easier.

      The hiring manager is much more willing to look at “shades of grey” (aka candidates with backgrounds that aren’t easy to put in a box).

      The key thought is you have to write a damn good cover letter. In some cases if you have no choice but to go through HR, you still need to write a damn good cover letter that makes these case for why they should hire you over somebody else.

      In terms of superstars, the kind of employer that likes superstars basically wants to hire super achievers. Whether your experience is narrow or diverse, it ideally should show RESULTS.

      This is what hiring managers (the good ones anyway) want to hire… people who produce RESULTS.

      Most resumes candidly stink. They are poorly written and focus on a candidates roles and responsibilities. Hiring managers don’t care about this as much as people assume. What they do care a lot about (which most candidates under appreciate) is a proven track record of delivering RESULTS.

      In my consulting resume toolkit, which is great way to write resumes for industry too, I rewrite several regular resumes into results oriented resumes. It makes a huge difference.

      So if you have diverse knowledge AND a track record of producing results, there’s definitely a place for you. The key is the burden to communicate that track record of results is on you.

      Although what I am about to say is not objectively true, it will serve you best if you assume it is true. In any miscommunication (in this case between candidate and employer), assume you made the communication mistake.

      -Victor

  • Jiawen Apr 6, 2014, 1:45 pm

    Thank you Victor for yet another insightful article. I definitely agree with you that solutions for CEO and Board-level issues are rarely purely formulaic. When I was a junior consultant, I would have my frameworks in place with detailed analyses thinking that I’ll definitely nail the meeting. Little did I know then that multiple curve balls would be thrown in such situations to tweak, change, and even transform the problem statement. These were the situations where I’m glad my senior partner was there.

    Understanding the “whys” deeply and comprehensively in addition to right mental models allows one to be able to always take a step back, re-evaluate, and re-think the problem-solving steps, if not the solution.

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