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 workday 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.


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 that 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
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 : )

  • 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


      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.


  • 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

  • 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.


  • Ariel Feb 11, 2014, 10:36 am

    What an inspiring reading to start the day with.

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

    Really insightful, Victor! Thanks for sharing.

  • 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


      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.


  • 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!!

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