Concepts are prisms that bend the light around any thought

Written by 
Nick Milo


Nick Milo

Nick Milo has spent the last 15 years harnessing the power of digital notes to achieve remarkable feats. He's used digital notes as a tool to calm his thoughts and gain a clearer understanding of the world around him.

Have you been to the eye doctor? Did they test your vision by putting you behind a device with hundreds of lenses?

They call this device a phoropter, but it's informally known as a refractor.

Refraction is "the turning or bending of any wave, such as a light or sound wave, when it passes from one medium into another of different optical density."

It turns out that, as we think, we can apply to principles of refraction.

Refraction thinking is thinking about ONE thing, through the lens of ANOTHER thing.

Applying "refraction" to our thinking is why "mental models" are so effective: they allow us to see the world in a different way.

The term "mental model" grew to prominence as the great thinker Charlie Munger mentioned it in speeches—as he implored others to see patterns, think holistically, and essentially...connect the dots.

Munger and Warren Buffett were a formidable one-two punch in the financial industry. Hence, that term "mental models" is used excessively by the Wall Street financial types, which can make the word feel dirty to those outside of that hyper-aggressive world. It's no one's fault. But this is why severing the conflation between mental models and Wall Street is so important: using mental models is something we all do—and have done—long before the term was coined.

With this realization, I want you to see that mental models are nothing more than lenses through which we view stuff. That means anything—any thought, or person, or time, or place, or idea—can be a lens for you. That's why I prefer a truer and simpler word for these "concepts that enhance or compel our thinking".

Concepts. They are all just concepts.

A concept is a pattern, truth, or mechanism that has been given a name.

Just like the primordial goop that collided together billions of years ago to spark life on earth, so do concepts spark exciting and diverse ideas.

Concepts are the invisible lenses we put on to see the world—and refraction thinking is how we apply them.

Refraction thinking is a fun and rewarding activity. Just place a few different lenses in front whatever you are thinking about. Each lens you hold up offers a different view. Some are more practical than others, but all are part of a valuable process. The results are that you will:

  • broaden your perspective
  • deepen your understanding
  • exercise your imagination
  • likely find with an insight or solution you are happy about

All you need are a few good concepts to bend the light around the issue you are thinking about.

Concepts are prisms that bend the light around any thought.

No matter what, you have already made it a habit to see the world through the lens of only a handful of concepts. This likely happened without your conscious consent, but simply by living, being, and experiencing the world.

What invisible concepts (or models) are having an outsized impact on how you go about thinking each day? Are there any you'd like to change? Are they any you'd like to add?

Some of my favorite concepts to refract my thinking are: Flow, Antifragility, No-Face, and Lenses of Sensemaking. At all times, I keep them in my mind's back pocket, ready to whip out at a moment's notice.

How about you? What are some of your favorite concepts for refracting your thinking?

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