Becoming a 30-Second Genius

Next spring, I’m expecting to join the Marshall Case Team (MCT), which travels the world competing in case competitions on behalf of USC Marshall.

Why? For me, it’s simple: mental models.

There are a million other reasons to join MCT or even work at a management consulting firm: prestige, networking, all-expense-paid travel, and tremendous diversity of experience. But my answer is that if you’ve decided it’s time to learn, rather than earn, there is no better place to learn a bunch of mental models that may drive your success in the future.

Warren Buffett once said that his partner Charlie Munger has “the best 30-second mind in the world.” How? As Munger said at USC (video|transcript):

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life.

Munger has collected a broad network of mental models that allow him to quickly assess and understand a variety of situations. If you accept that, the next question becomes: how do I acquire all those mental models?

My theory is working through tons of cases. For example, simply preparing for Marshall Case Team has given me a tiny sliver of insight into the mental exercises that consultant perform every day. On any given case, you must quickly assess what is or is not important, which means that you eventually develop models to efficiently guide you through the process.

Are cases a complete education? Of course not. Munger uses models from many different schools of thought, from physics to philosophy. I want to do the same. But cases are an amazing way to train yourself on the mental models in business. Even if I never actually pursue management consulting as a career, the preparation alone will help me gear up to become a 30-second genius.

As an aside, the article that I linked earlier (Is it time for you to earn or to learn?) is about working at a startup, not as a consultant, as an opportunity to learn. Nevertheless, I think the learn/earn dichotomy is a useful tool. Mental model, if you will.

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