Leveling Up with Mental Models

Our brains take in an enormous amount of information every microsecond and must use some shorthand to construct our reality. The shorthand comes in how the brain processes physical and virtual objects to bring them into our conscious awareness. It does this by chunking small bits of information into larger bits, then larger and so on.

The best example is how we make sense of language as symbols, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and books. This works for all the senses as the brain gathers information from each sense related to the same (or similar) object or event, and stacks them into blocks of related data (called reference frames by Jeff Hawkins in his book A Thousand Brains). The brain then connects these blocks into a network of blocks to present a full sensory experience of an observed physical or virtual object, or event. Recollecting the object or event is called memory. And this all happens with no conscious thought or effort on our part. 

At the conscious level, we get to do the same thing to construct conceptual meaning, such as a philosophy of living, loving, or learning. The unconscious blocks provide a foundation for more bits and blocks of conceptual information that we pick up along the way. These conceptual blocks come together to form “mental models,” which we use as another unconscious shortcut.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are the framework for our worldviews. Once formed, most are shoved back underground where we unconsciously carry them around as rigid truths about the world. Many of these mental models are constructed from childhood events and patterns. Others we learn in our formal academics and still others in our professional endeavors. It’s well worth examining them to determine whether they’re still working for us now.

How I’ve Shifted My Own Mental Models

Here’s an example of how I’ve shifted mental models in my own life. When I went through Hell Week in the SEALs, my mental model for what was possible for my body and mind was shifted. Because of that experience, I was able to see that I was capable of 20x more than I had previously understood. My new mental model was this: Enough grit and training will allow me to achieve audacious goals.

That has served me well, to a degree.

It’s important to note that while a mental model can teach you how to do one thing, it might limit you in other ways. The mental model I learned in the SEALs taught me that I was capable of so much more through brute force effort. But that eventually became an obstacle on my path of spiritual evolution. 


Because the mental model that “everything worthwhile has to be difficult” is not accurate. Love shouldn’t be difficult, though relationships take “work.” And spiritual development is difficult in a different sense than physical training. As I approached my spiritual development with the SEAL mental model (more doing, more efforting), I failed.

I started Zen meditation prior to the SEALs, and the unyielding discipline to do it right and do it daily was good preparation for the disciplined life of the warrior. After the SEALs, I was prepared to dedicate myself to a lifetime of stoic practice in all endeavors. After all, as I had learned, achieving anything worthwhile must be difficult and serious.

But I got stuck and was unhappy. 

Then I came across Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. From him, I learned that true spiritual development is found through surrender, not more effort. His descriptions of the Yogic sages of India were playful, spontaneous, and humorous. Although they were deadly serious about developing enlightened consciousness, they lived their lives with a lightness and surrender to just being. This was not taught to me in Zen meditation or the SEALs.

So, I needed another mental model upgrade – from the belief that self-realization had to be disciplined and painful, to realizing that surrender to the essential nature that already existed within me was the way. The first model wasn’t wrong, it was just not appropriate for inner work. 

The Hell Week mental model allowed me to achieve physical things and accomplish great missions in the “real world.” But it was an obstacle when it came to the inner game of evolving my consciousness. When I stumbled upon the science of integration through Yogananda, I upgraded my model for this important endeavor. Ultimately, these two models coexist — you can achieve great things in the world through effort, while simultaneously evolving to the highest stages of awareness by surrendering to your True Self.

How to Use Mental Models in Your Own Life

Since this aha moment, I’ve challenged all the mental models that were running my life. I ask all of our clients at Unbeatable to do the same, and encourage you to as well.

My friend James Clear has a great article about mental models here. You’ll see that they exist in practically every category of science, arts, religion and the like. These are models that you can pull out and use to help make better decisions. But most mental models you’ve constructed remain hidden from view, yet are accepted as truth. Some of these may work for us for a time, such as my incomplete model of efforting. And others should be shitcanned altogether, to be replaced with new ones that spur growth and bring genuine happiness. 

So, as you consider what models you would like to employ from James’s list, also look at the unconscious mental models I have listed below. Do you have any of these models lurking in your subconscious? And will they serve you in the future? Could you shift to the alternative Unbeatable model I present? 

My goal is to shift your perspective to more expansive and inclusive models that will bring you the life you deserve. 

Here they are:

On Death

Traditional model: The inevitability of death is feared, or denied with longevity and immortality aspirations. Attachment causes the loss to be mourned deeply, sidetracking loved ones for long durations. 

Unbeatable model: Death is part of a continuum, the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Preparing for death is the ultimate life practice. Death is celebrated by loved ones as a life well lived with no regrets. 

On Matter vs. Consciousness

Traditional model: Brain activity is the cause of consciousness and what we consider to be the mind. The world is made up solely of matter, and the purpose of life is to be happy, experience love and achieve things.

Unbeatable model: Consciousness causes what we consider the mind, which then uses the brain/body to move, experience and create meaning in the physical realm. The purpose of life is to evolve to higher stages of conscious awareness, to experience love and wholeness. 

On the question “Who am I?”

Traditional model: I am my body, beliefs and experiences. I am who I am and that’s that. 

Unbeatable model: I am a spiritual being that creates my own reality. I don’t identify as my body and the things, thoughts and emotions in my life. I choose how I experience this life and the lessons I need to learn.

Others traditional/Unbeatable mental models to consider:

  • Judgment vs. Acceptance
  • Scarcity vs. Abundance
  • Fear vs. Courage
  • Relationships are transactional vs. transformational
  • Learning as knowing things vs. learning as seeking truth and integration.
  • What others come to mind as you read these?

Take a moment to digest this post and ask yourself: what mental model can you level up today?

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