Tool Time: What is a Mental Tool and How Do They Give You More Mental Power?

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Humans have always faced them. And since the human brain’s hardware hasn’t really changed in a very long time, it has been by upgrading our mental software that we’ve become more intelligent. In fact, the brain is so unchanged that people who haven’t had contact with writing or computers for 46,000 years, they can leapfrog that huge cultural software divide in a couple of generations.

Jared Diamond is right.

The amazing thing is that humans everywhere have pieced together that opportunity from nothing but what they found lying around. We have made mental tools the same way we have made physical tools. We have gotten better at shaping whatever we found lying around.

Some of these mental tools are words. We now have millions of them scattered across different languages. Some of these mental tools are math. Some are stories we use to make sense of our own lives. And some are these tiny, little sayings that pack a huge punch in their ability to help humans make better decisions. They actually make you more intelligent by making you better at making life’s choices. They give you the wisdom to know the difference.

Every culture has mental tools just as every culture has physical tools but just as the word “tool” isn’t the same in every language the word for mental tools isn’t the same in every language. The Chinese call them chengyu. The Christians called them Proverbs or Commandments. The English called them Rules of Thumb. The Muslims call them Hadith. Daniel Kahneman calls them heuristics in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. For this post, I’ll call them mental tools because I want to emphasize their practical nature.

Take, for example, a couple expressions from two different human cultures. There are some differences but the core message is the same. You’ve got to take charge of doing whatever you can to control your own destiny.

Why do these cultures express things in different ways? Well, how much direct camel experience do you have? That depends on where you grew up. I can’t imagine many of Franklin’s contemporaries in America and Europe during the eighteenth century had enough direct camel experience for the idea of camel tying to be very useful as an analogy. On the other hand, Muhammad’s contemporaries had LOTS of camel experience. They knew how troublesome camels could be. They would know that anyone who didn’t tie up their own camel was clearly setting themselves up for failure. This simple hadith allowed them to take a direct experience with camels and generalize it to taking a proactive attitude in all of their lives. Imagine you’re sitting around and trying to decide whether to build an irrigation system. You just ate some baklava and are feeling like a snooze. Your brain tells you Allah will send rains. But then, from the back of your brain this voice comes, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” Dagnabit! And so, up you get and go build the irrigation system. This mental tool has helped you make better decisions. This is part of the huge appeal of a tribe’s culture. You’re drawn in because it has huge practical value to your life.

Since you’re on your purple belt, you already know about feeeeeeelings. Whether you’re an eighteenth century contemporary of Ben Franklin, a sixth century contemporary of Muhammad or you right now, feeeeeeelings drive your thinking. It can feeeeeeel true that it’s all going to work out. In fact, you don’t need to invoke the name of God or Allah to feel that way. You can just have a blind optimism that everything will work out “Somehow.” Maybe you think “the government,” “the scientists” or “Silicon Valley” will solve your problems. Yes, Silicon Valley. They will invent some robots and all our problems will be solved. Today, we’d have to reword this Mental Tool to make it powerful and potent for our culture. We’d have to choose a modern mythological figure.

By pulling together the best mental tools from all times and places and using the latest science to shape new ones, Mixed Mental Arts will develop an ever evolving mental toolkit that we will democratize to help drive the I.Q. Revolution. Elon Musk may make better physical technology for us but he can’t make decisions, decisions, decisions for us. That power is yours. And, as any fan of the 90’s sitcom Home Improvement knows, having more power is what Tool Time is all about:




Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *