The Best Mental Model You’ve Never Heard Of

June 17, 2024

As the aircraft lurched forward down the catapult track, the acceleration took my breath away. The F-18/F Super Hornet weighs roughly 66,000 lbs when loaded to max capacity, as mine was on this particular day in the Arabian Gulf. The catapult is roughly 300 ft long, and by the end of the track, the incredible steam-generated force accelerates the aircraft to 187 knots (roughly 200 mph), a mind-bending feat that takes a mere 2.5 seconds to complete.

Even though I’d shot off the front end of the aircraft carrier hundreds of times before, the feeling of hurtling forward at that staggering rate never ceased to leave me awestruck. This day was just like any other during combat operations in 2008. We had planned our mission, preflighted our aircraft, and completed all the necessary preflight checklists, ensuring our aircraft was ready to go.

But on this day, as the cat shot’s G-forces pinned us against our ejection seats, the cockpit suddenly filled with the acrid grey smoke that is the telltale sign of an electrical fire. Our electronic displays suddenly went dark as the smoke completely obscured any visibility.

We were launching into space at 200 miles per hour, and we were completely blind.

While not exactly a commonplace occurrence, emergency situations like these were understood to be part of the deal with combat aviation. When operating military aircraft at the limits, equipment failures like these were to be expected. As such, we continuously trained on how to handle such an emergency. As every second can mean the difference between life and death, decision-making at the edge of the envelope requires precision, speed, and accuracy.

We have a saying in the Navy: “We do not rise to the level of our expectations, but we fall to the level of our training.”

To survive aircraft emergencies and the cognitive load created in combat situations, we learned mental models that enabled us to make the right decisions at critical moments.

Since my days in the fighter squadron, I’ve been obsessed with mental models. Charlie Munger, Naval Ravikant, and decision-making expert Shane Parrish all credit the power of developing these frameworks to help us make better decisions.

In military aviation, the most famous of these is the OODA Loop, created by Col. John Boyd in the 1970s. The concept of the OODA loop—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—was born from Boyd’s deep analysis of aerial combat and his experiences during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Boyd observed that traditional military strategies, which focused on attrition and firepower, were becoming less effective in modern warfare. He realized that agility and the ability to make rapid, informed decisions were the keys to success in combat.

Boyd’s epiphany came during his time in Thailand, where he studied the tactics of both American and Vietnamese pilots. He noticed that the pilots who could process information and adapt quickly to changing situations were the ones who survived and succeeded. This led him to develop the OODA loop as a model for decision-making, giving pilots a framework to adapt to their rapidly changing environment.

While particularly useful in aviation, the OODA loop model is applicable far beyond the cockpit, including in business and finance.

Here’s how it works:


Gather information about the environment, including the opponent’s status, the surrounding situation, and any relevant factors.

This first step is critical. When an aviation mishap occurs, a full study is done to ascertain the contributing factors and determine what went wrong. After analyzing over 50 years of data, the findings are shocking: most class A mishaps (those resulting in total destruction of aircraft or loss of aircrew) are almost always the result of situations that are not insurmountable on their own but are compounded by poor decision-making.

When broken down, we find that mishap aircrew often misdiagnose the original problem, resulting in a cascade of errors that compound the emergency situation. Thus, it is critical to slow down and take in all available information in order to determine the actual situation at hand.

For example, when our cockpit is filled with smoke, our first steps are to 1.) maintain control of the aircraft and then 2.) determine the nature of the emergency. Cockpit smoke can indicate a myriad of different malfunctions, and understanding the source is the first step in solving the problem.


Analyze the information gathered and contextualize it based on previous experiences, cultural influences, genetic heritage, and new data.

Our brains are remarkable pattern-matching machines. With all of the context clues gathered in Step 1, we now run the current scenario against our previous experiences to pinpoint the nature of the problem.

It is this process upon which most military training relies. The idea is that during training, we can simulate emergency situations so that when they happen in real life, it won’t be the first time that we have dealt with the problem. If we experience a situation enough times, the procedures become ingrained and become muscle memory. This is why checklists are so important in the cockpit; we move switches in the same way, in the same order, every single time in order to embed the process in our subconscious. Not only does this enhance accuracy, but it also allows our brain to highlight when something is out of place, saving critical processing time.

In this case, because our displays went dark and the smoke had a distinct odor, we knew that the fire was electrical and not caused by our engine or hydraulic systems.


Make a decision based on the orientation phase. Develop possible courses of action and choose the best one.

Phase 3 of the OODA loop is also known as creating the game plan. Now, drawing on both experience and standard procedures, we can formulate various courses of action (COAs). We quickly weigh the various options, consider the pros and cons, and decide how we will execute.

For instance, in the case of our cockpit fire, we had two options: continue our climb and circle overhead the boat to buy us time or land as soon as possible. Each came with its own set of challenges, upsides, and downsides.

If we chose to climb and assess, we risked the fire spreading to other areas of the aircraft, making a bad situation worse. We have another saying in the fighter squadron: “No fast hands in the cockpit.”

This means that in most situations, we have more time than we think, and it’s often best to slow down and gather more information before making any critical decisions. There are a number of infamous mishaps in which an engine fire occurred, which is manageable on its own as the twin-engine F-18 is fully capable of flight on a single engine, but the unfortunate aircrew shut down the wrong engine.

In this case, we chose to radio the tower and ask for an emergency landing. This would require us to handle the fire and simultaneously prepare the aircraft for an arrested landing in a very short amount of time. However, when weighing our two options, we assessed that the best course of action would be to get safely on deck while all critical systems were still functioning properly. If we climbed higher and the fire spread, there was a very real chance that we would have to eject, losing the aircraft entirely and ending up bobbing in the water, waiting for the rescue helicopter.

We chose the former.


Implement the decision made in the previous step. This action will generate new observations, continuing the loop.

Once we’ve formulated the game plan, decisive action is the next step. Because we’ve followed the process, we must maneuver without hesitation, committing fully to the plan. It’s important not to second-guess our decision—if we falter, we may lose a critical window of opportunity. Remember, we’ve assessed the various options and come up with the best plan given the information available to us.

And once we act decisively, we begin taking in new information again. We ask: Did this action have the desired effect? Am I gaining or losing ground? Is this still the best possible course of action?

This is where I see entrepreneurs fail most often. We are typically good at the first three, but all too often, we fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. We tend to view decisions as one-way doors when that is rarely the case. Just because we made a decision, if we fail to update our information, the correctness of the decision ages out.

My favorite Navy saying of all? Never fall in love with the plan.

As we turned downwind, my pilot and I broke out our checklist and executed the emergency procedures for Cockpit Filled with Smoke or Fumes (Emergency Oxygen Green Ring – PULL, Oxygen Mask – ON, TIGHT, Cabin Pressure Switch – RAM/DUMP, Descent – Initiate, Air Conditioning and Bleed Air Knobs – OFF, Land as Soon as Possible.)

Thankfully, when we dumped cabin pressure, the smoke cleared, and visibility was restored. Even without our displays, we were able to orient the aircraft for landing using standby instruments and visible cues.

We were airborne for less than 120 seconds from cat shot to trap.

The OODA Loop framework, running in the background at maximum processing speed, allowed us to remain calm, assess the situation, respond appropriately and decisively, and save the aircraft (and, with it, perhaps our lives).

My business partner (a fellow naval aviator) and I used to joke that there are no emergencies in business. Business decisions rarely require the speed and accuracy of combat aviation; there is often a much larger margin of error.

However, the OODA loop remains a useful filter by which to process and implement decisions. Detailed information gathering, assessing the situation, creating a game plan, and decisive action all served us well in building our investment firm.

Ask yourself: Could you benefit from a mental model such as OODA through which all decisions are filtered?

I believe having a process is critical to engineering out failure. I apply mental models in nearly all areas of my life, from how to invest to how to allocate my time.

Being a founder is messy; we constantly have to adapt and overcome. Perhaps implementing a model borrowed from Col. John Boyd could bring some calm to the chaos.

Keep it rubber side down,


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