Thinking Big Picture

The advice to “Think Big Picture” is perhaps the second-most clichéd prescription for mental hygiene in America today. (The first being, ironically, to “Think Outside the Box”). Hardly anyone would argue against thinking big picture, but what does it actually mean, and how do we do it?

At the most basic level, to think big picture about a project means to think about the whole project in terms of its overall aim and objective. It’s easy to get bogged down in the strategies of small battles and temporarily forget the purpose of the war. Thinking big picture means to remind yourself of the larger mission of the project and make tactical decisions that will advance the overall goal. That is mainly what people mean when they talk about “thinking big picture.”

But there’s another way that we can think big picture which can help our decision making. I’ve been avidly following the Farnam Street Blog for the past few months which advocates for a type of thinking and decision making inspired by Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway. Munger has based his (very successful) investment career on cross-disciplinary knowledge gathering and decision making. What does that mean? Essentially, if Charlie Munger wanted to invest in a textile company he wouldn’t just aim to read everything he could find about the textile industry. I’m sure he would read up on textiles, but more importantly he makes sure that he reads up on other industries, on the current political environment, on history, on advances in science and technology etc. In short, Munger aims to educate himself across disciplines, so that when he makes investment decisions he is “thinking big picture” in the fullest sense of the phrase.

If you clicked on that last link you may have noticed the rather large illustration of a brain next to the heading “Mental Models.” Regular readers of this blog know that mental models are one of my favorite subjects to write about, and here I’ve managed to sneak them in again through the back door (Ha!).

So what’s the connection with mental models? To summarize the aforelinked article, if your plan is to be a cross-disciplinary thinker like Charlie Munger then you are going to need a way to organize all of the information you’re learning. If it’s just a big collection of facts and data in your head there’s no way you’ll be able to retain all of it. Mental models allow you to turn facts about the world into a story about how the world works. The more you read and learn the more you will build an internal library of mental models that shape how you look at the world. And as your library of mental models grows it will give you an even greater capacity to think through problems from different angles.

Thinking big picture is a great skill to have as an investor or a businessman. But it’s also incredibly helpful if your job requires you to communicate complex ideas to other people. By building up your library of mental models you’ll be able to explain an idea by comparing it to a similar idea from a different field that your audience might be more familiar with. Metaphors and analogies are powerful tools for communication and the more widely you read and learn about different fields the better you’ll be at relating your idea in a way that your audience can understand.