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Mental Models for Writers

The United States Navy SEALs go through some of the most intense and rigorous training you can think of. The dropout rate in basic training is pretty high. Over the years, the Navy found that those who succeed are not the ones who can focus on the big picture, but the ones who can micro-focus. 

While crawling through mud with barbed wire fences over you, and there’s a thunderstorm, and it’s raining like cats and dogs, recruits who have the ability to micro-focus, that moving one arm and then the other are the ones who survive the boot camp.

Micro-focusing can be applied to writing as well. If you are stuck in a murky middle of your book, focusing on writing one sentence at a time and then following it with another one can help you power through. 

So many things become really easy when explained with an analogy or some law or concept. This kind of analogy, or a model that can help change a mindset, is called a mental model

A mental model is just a concept that can be used to explain things. They can be a framework, or worldview that you can wear on your head like a hat that can help interpret the world and understand the relationship between things.

Mental Models Are The Tools of Thinkers and Successful People.

Mental models have been around for a long time. They are widely used in economics. Supply and demand is a mental model that helps understand how the economy works. Game theory describes how relationships and trust work. Entropy explains how disorder and decay work.

Some call them “apps for the mind.” We use many in day-to-day decision making, problem-solving, and truth-seeking. Here are some familiar ones:

Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Pareto’s Principle — “For many outcomes roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes.” 

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) — “A pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.”

Butterfly Effect — “The concept that small causes can have large effects.”

Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will.” 

Hofstadter’s Law, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Eisenhower’s decision matrix — “what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”

Imposter Syndrome — “High-achieving individuals, marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”

Deliberate Practice — “How expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practice than with merely performing a skill a large number of times.”

Mental models are thinking and decision-making tools. They cut through the fluff and help reach largely correct decisions (there are no absolutes, another mental model). 

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, says, “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly‑wise person.”

“I think it is undeniably true that the human brain must work in models. The trick is to have your brain work better than the other person’s brain because it understands the most fundamental models: ones that will do most work per unit.” “If you get into the mental habit of relating what you’re reading to the basic structure of the underlying ideas being demonstrated, you gradually accumulate some wisdom.” 

— Charlie Munger

There are tens of thousands of mental models, and every discipline has its own set.

Here are my ten mental models for writing.

1. There Is Nothing New Under The Sun Model

When I was new to writing, I used to get very frustrated with my work. I wanted to be original. I wanted my stories to be new and fresh. I wanted my voice to be unique. I wanted my prose to sing. But then I learned aiming for originality was, in fact, inhibiting my creativity. 

Nothing is original. Every emotion has been explored before; every story has been written before. Even the Bible records that.

What has been will be again,
 what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes 1:9

The Sooner you free yourself from the pressure of creating something original, the sooner you will be able to create.

All ideas come from other ideas. Experienced writers get inspiration from other people’s writing, real-life events, or applying ideas from one field to another (from animals to humans, humans to aliens, science to psychology, and so on).

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. but since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”— Anfre Gide

There is nothing new under the sun, is a great mental model for new writers. Stop trying to create something out of nothing. Take influences from anywhere you can — other writers, old works, nature, real life, science, animals, or other art forms. Your particular pick of influences will make your work unique.

2. A Beginner vs. Imposter Model

When I started writing articles on “writing,” I felt like an imposter. Who am I to advise on writing when I haven’t published any work? The same happened when I wrote self-help articles or wrote about psychology or human behavior or recent trends. I had no formal qualifications in any of the subjects. I felt like a fraud—a typical case of imposter syndrome.

But then I looked at the definition of an imposter. 

“A person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.”

My fears were unfounded. I was not pretending to be someone else for fraudulent gains. Neither was I pretending to be an expert. I was a beginner, writing from my own experiences. Explaining things when I was learning them. That doesn’t make me an imposter. 

An imposter is a conman; personal gain through deceit is his aim. A beginner is a learner; learning through teaching is her aim. 

Knowing the difference between the two freed me and made my writing bold and truthful.

Next time you feel like an imposter, think whether you are fraudulently trying to be someone you are not or a beginner trying to learn through teaching.

If later, write fearlessly.

3. Resistance Is A Writer’s Number One Enemy Model

The credit for this Mental Model goes to Steven Pressfield. He identified that resistance and not the lack-of-skills or self-doubt that stops writers in their tracks. He wrote about it at length in his book The War of Art.

Those of us who have a passion for writing know resistance very well. It stands between who we are and what we want to be and doesn’t let us cross the line. The more passionate we are for our vocation, the more forceful is the resistance to prevent us from pursuing it.

Writing is not hard; it is sitting down to write is hard. And what keeps us from sitting down is resistance

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify, seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.” — Steven Pressfield

Every new writer thinks they are the only ones feeling resistance. But resistance doesn’t discriminate. 

Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen, he took his inheritance and moved to Vienna to paint. No one has ever seen his paintings. Resistance beat him. Someone said, “It was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

Knowing that resistance is the enemy waiting to defeat you is a good Mental model to have. Build up your strategy to defeat it. 

I have learned that if I persist for twenty minutes, resistance goes away. It doesn’t like to be ignored. 

4. Everything You Desire Is On The Other Side Of The Fear Model

The big thing with wiring is that it is all about mindset. The thing that screws your mind is fear. And if you can learn to get a handle on your fear, you can get a handle on your writing career.

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear. “ — Jack Canfield

If you can tame that critical voice, as Dean Wesley Smith likes to say, then you can pretty much control your own destiny, and you can become prolific. 

You can do just about anything you want to do if you can silence that voice in your head. Fears of self-doubt are the big one. 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
 — Marianne Williamson (A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”)

I think of fear as a river of fire, and I need to cross it every day. Not like the Indian monk walking on hot coals but like the fireman walking through the inferno. Once I have that image in mind, it changes the mindset. It gives me a handle to my fear. You need a handle too, your fear because it doesn’t go away. You will have to fight it every single day.

“Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.” — Steven Pressfield

5. Trickster vs Martyr Model

I am forever grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert for this Mental Model. In her book The Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says that as creatives, we have a choice. 

We can be either a martyr and vow to be committed, dedicated, serious, grim, always-on-the-go, strive-for-excellence, and fit-more-in-a-day-to-achieve-more-type. Or we can be tricksters and play games and have fun with our work.

Martyr energy is dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving, and profoundly rigid.

Trickster energy is light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting.

I was approaching my writing with Martyr’s energy. I was going to become a writer even if it killed me. I was setting harder goals and then beating myself for not achieving them. Self-doubt was my chaperone. He protected me from other people’s ridicule but sneered at my efforts. The very activity which used to give me so much pleasure became an ordeal.

Martyr says: “I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means being crushed to death under a wheel of torment.”

Trickster says: “Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I’ll be over here in this corner, running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable war.”

Things started changing when I became joyful. I started forgiving myself for making mistakes and missing deadlines (my own). Rather than feelings small by other people’s work, I started complimenting them. I began experimenting (like the publishing of Medium) and see what happens.

Martyr says: “Life is pain.”

Trickster says: “Life is interesting.”

Martyr says: “The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred.”
Trickster says: “There is no system. Everything is good, and nothing is sacred.

Martyr says: “Nobody will ever understand me.”
Trickster says: “Pick a card, any card.”

Martyr says: “The world can never be solved.”
Trickster says: “Perhaps not…but it can be gamed.”

Martyr says: “Through my torment, the truth shall be revealed.”
Trickster says: “I didn’t come here to suffer, pal.”

Martyr says: “Death before dishonor!”
Trickster says: “Let’s make a deal.”

Martyr always ends up dead in a heap of broken glory, while Trickster trots off to enjoy another day.

Martyr = Sir Thomas More
Trickster = Bugs Bunny

When feeling under pressure, ask yourself which energy you are using – martyr or trickster? What can give you better results? Would you be rather Sir Thomas More and be hanged or Bugs Bunny and have fun?

6. Shitty First Draft Model

And once you have the trickster’s mindset you can understand what Anne Lamott tries to drill into new writers through her book Bird by Bird.

Shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few time to get all the cricks out and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. This is just a fantasy of the uninitiated. — Anne Lamott

For years I hated all those whose prose comes out as natural and fluid, all those with English as their mother-tongue and those who write as if they are taking dictation directly from God. 

For me, writing is torture: broken sentences, unformed ideas, limited vocabulary, and terrible spellings. (One would think why I the hell I want to become a writer, but I do. I really, really do.) The only way I can write anything is by receiving whichever way it comes.

But when I learned this is why with Anne Lamott too and with scores of other writers too, I stopped complaining and got to work.

If you operate from that assumption, that all you are creating in the first instance is a shitty draft, it changes how you approach your writing. 

That is why I consider shitty first draft as a Mental Model. It changed my mindset forever.

7. A Day Is All You Have Got Model

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard.

When I was young, I used to think I have all the time in the world. I can do it tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. As I get old, the days are shrinking; months are getting shorter; years pass much more quickly than before.

“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”

 — Seneca

 “Get hold of your days and you will have a hold of your lives,” commanded Seneca. 

When I started realizing that today is all I have got, whatever I can get done in a day is what I can hope for, my mindset changed. I made daily schedules and set myself routines that I could follow without thinking. I still have good days and bad days. Some days are a complete write-off, but that doesn’t matter. 

As Annie Dillard writes, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” I don’t have to figure out what to do; next, my routine tells me that. And I don’t miss deadlines because my schedule takes care of them.

When you apply the Mental Model of A Day Is All You Have Got, you begin to appreciate that every day counts. And even if you add a few drops each day, the bucket will get filled very soon. 

(I have a leaking tap in my laundry, it fills up a bucket every second day which I use to water the pot plants.)

“In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most extravagant.” — Seneca

8. We Are All Amateurs.

“That’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.” — Charlie Chaplin

We all crave to be counted as professionals. We feel ashamed to be called amateurs. Yet an amateur is someone who pursues her work with the spirit of love. 

Austin Kleon points out in his book Show Your Work that Amateurs are not afraid to make mistakes or look ridiculous in public. They are in love, so they don’t hesitate to do work that others think of as silly or just plain stupid.

“On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the mediocre and good is vast. Mediocrity is, however, still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something.” — Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus.

Amateurs know that contributing something is better than contributing nothing. Ameture might lack formal training, but they’re all lifelong learners, and they make a point of learning in the open so that others can learn from their failures and successes.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.” — Zen monk Shunryu

Since I adopted, we are all amateurs model fear of failure lost its power. I am no longer turning red whenever I find mistakes in my work; neither I feel dishearted by its quality. I know I am moving from mediocrity to good.

9. Choose Creativity Over Competition.

All my life I was raised to compete. It is the survival of the fittest, our generation learned from Charles Darwin. 

The only way to lead a better life is to be the best student, get the best job, be the best employee, win promotions, marry an ambitious person, accumulate wealth, own the biggest house, drive an expensive car, and have holidays at exotic places. Nowhere there was room to slow down, to take it easy, to get in touch with the creative soul in yourself and you will have to compete for anything. 

Wallace D. Wattles imparted with the knowledge more than a hundred years ago:

“[A] man must pass from the competitive to the creative mindset to achieve whatever he wants to achieve; otherwise, he cannot be in harmony with the Formless Intelligence, which is always creative and never competitive.” 

I made a decision to lead a creative life. I quit my job and started nurturing my creative side. I started a blog and learned to draw. I determined the purpose of my life and wrote down my life philosophies. I wrote down the philosophy behind my creativity too.

Choosing creativity over competition helped me listen to the tiny voice inside me which wanted me to create. To make something that will make me happy. As it used to when I was a child. It didn’t care whether it was any good, sellable, or will make any difference in anyone’s life. It wants me to create something which will make a difference to me. Something that will make me happy. 

Listen to that voice because if you don’t, it will die. And with it, a big chunk of you will die too.

10. Never, Never, Never Give Up — stick around

Ah! the good old Mr. Chrurchill. He wrote the history so that “history is kind to him,” and he taught us how to be our best in our darkest hour. But the mental model he gave us will keep him alive in our minds forever. Because we are at times where “giving up” is too easy and “sticking to it” is rare.

When the going gets tough, we fight a battle with us every single day. And when I hear Mr. Churchill thundering voice saying, “Never, never, never give up.” I get filled with new enthusiasm to keep going.

Summary

To summarise here are my ten mental models for writing. 

  1. There is nothing new under the sun.
  2. Beginner vs. imposter.
  3. Resistance is the writer’s number one enemy. 
  4. Everything You Desire Is On The Other Side Of The Fear Model
  5. Trickster vs Martyr Model
  6. Shitty first draft model.
  7. A day is all you have got.
  8. We are all amateurs.
  9. Choose creativity over the competition.
  10. Never, never, never give up.

Next Step

You probably would have heard of more and perhaps have your own favorite ones. 

You can either become a collector of mental models or focus on acquiring a deep understanding of a few and use them to help change your mindset.

I would leave you with a little story.

Richard Feynman liked to tell this story about something his father taught him: “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” 

Photo by Robert Keane on Unsplash

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