Entropy as a Mental Model
Mental Models are great tools to make you think better. They help you approach problems and challenges from different angles, make smarter decisions as long as you remember their limitations and trade offs.
A mental model I use is based on the scientific concept of entropy. Its main benefit is to remind you of the reality in everything you do. Most people tend to forget that every system is dying and won’t run forever if you don’t intervene.
A gentle warning before we dive in: the science is simplified on purpose to fit the mental model.
Entropy: the scientific concept
A simple definition of entropy can be found in the book Deep Simplicity:
Entropy measures the amount of order in a system, with increasing disorder corresponding to increasing entropy.
A system is anything composed with molecules following the laws of thermodynamics.
Disorder represents stability at the molecular level. When disorder in a system is at its peak, it is in an equilibrium state. Nothing can move anymore, no energy can be released, it’s a dead system.
Two important facts:
- Entropy is constantly rising in any system. In day-to-day life, it means that things are aging to the point they break or die.
- You can only reduce entropy in a local system by applying some energy to it.
To illustrate, let’s take a well-known component powering our technology: batteries. When fully charged, a battery is at its maximum potential (low entropy). As you use it, its energy is released and entropy rises until the battery dies. At this point, the internal chemistry of the battery is balanced. It can provide no more energy as it has no potential (high entropy).
To use your device again, you need to apply an external energy to the battery to add a new capacity (and reduce the entropy). You do so by plugin your device to a power source.
As we are in the real world, you already know that you cannot reverse entirely the process. At some point, the battery capacity will be degraded whatever energy you apply to the system and be useless. This notion is called the Baseline and can be seen as the number of battery cycles a battery is designed to sustain. More broadly, the Baseline is the lowest level of entropy a system can get down to at any point. With time, the baseline increases, and it’s more and more difficult to reach a lower state of entropy.
The last interesting concept is the notion of Attractor. An Attractor is a state in which a system tends to evolve to. So Attractors are influencers of a system and they allow you to identify in which directions a system is heading to. In our example, the attractor is what causes the battery to release its energy as it’s in an unbalanced state seeking equilibrium. Applying energy counter the influence of the attractor for a while.
For those interested in the science from which some of those concepts are extracted from, I recommend to read more about the Chaos Theory. But for our purpose, we got enough to understand the Entropy Mental model.
How can this scientific concept be used as a Mental Model?
Everything follows the laws of physics
A common fallacy is to think systems can virtually run by themselves because they are ideological, technical or theoretical. Reality is you need people and machines to run systems. And both fall under the laws of physics.
The irony is that we are all well aware about it in our day to day life as we keep maintaining, repairing and seeing everything break. But for whatever reason, we just want to deny the reality: “I paid for it so it should last forever”, ”it’s not like it used to be”, “I used to do this more easily”, etc.
The strength of this model is to bring pragmatism and realism into your thinking, to see everything as systems ruled by the laws of physics and thus entropy.
It works like science
The Entropy Mental model doesn’t try to predict or control anything. Instead it works like science: you apply it, analyze the results, make your own thoughts and maybe try to influence it. Rinse and repeat.
- Define or Name the system you want to analyze. It can be anything as we will discuss in the next section: an economic system, relationships, life, etc.
- Identify the attractors: Attractors are trying to bend the system in their way; identifying them is going to help you understand what is at stake, the political powers involved, natural tendencies like laziness and so on.
- Identify the baseline: like a battery losing capacity with time, the baseline will grow until its effects on the system are too big to be ignored. In those cases, it’s time to make big changes to keep it running or let it go. It also means that what used to work before to fight entropy might not work anymore later.
- Identify the patterns: while the variations are unlimited, there are a few defined patterns that can help you categorize in which state a system is.
- Thinking: now you get a better understanding of the system, you can make your own thoughts about it and decide what to do: save it, drop it, change it, etc.
- Try leverages: leverages are used to fight entropy to keep the system alive. It can be anything like removing or adding people, changes in policies, new laws, reorganization, adaptations to the new context, new ways of thinking, a change in behaviors, etc. It is impossible to know what works and what doesn’t as systems are complex, so you just have to try. This part is optional as you might conclude a system is degenerative and/or out of your sphere of influence.
As an iterative process, repeating the loop allows you to refine your understanding, try new leverages and adapt to the new baseline.
There are a three well-known patterns that are interesting to see through the lens of the Entropy Mental Model.
The Growth State
The Growth State is the only way to push the baseline away and increase the capacity of a system, beating both the attractors power and entropy. Its behavior can be seen as a catalyst in a solution: rapidly modifying the chemicals, slowing down as it approaches its maximum capacity then stops naturally. The peak state is always unknown.
The Diffusion State
The diffusion state is the sweet spot of any system as it keeps running while releasing the minimum entropy doing so. Once the growth state is over this is what you aim for. The baseline is growing slowly allowing you to apply energy to beat entropy for a long time.
The Degenerative State
When the baseline increases at the same speed as entropy, then the system can be considered degenerative. This means that the attractors are a lot stronger than the energy you can apply. So the system is either doomed or you need more drastic changes to save it.
The Entropy Mental Model Applied
In order to give a more concrete usage of this mental model, let’s see different real world contexts. The explanations are given in a specific order as some build on top of the previous ones. So I recommend you to read them sequentially.
Let’s think about a living system and how it matches the three patterns:
- Childhood: from birth, your body grows and is stronger than entropy. This is when you have the most energy, you are in the growth state.
- Adulthood: your body development is done and starts to weaken against entropy as you age. Your skin wrinkles, you don’t heal as fast as you used to, your overall energy decreases with time, etc. This is the Diffusion State.
- Death: your body is not in capacity to fight entropy anymore and maintain its integrity causing death at some point. This is the Degenerative State.
As usual, life itself is an attractor, as your body needs to fight entropy at a molecular level. But more tangibly: junk food, smoking, drugs, watching TV, social media addiction, any unhealthy habits, etc.
The capacity of your body to heal itself; impacting your energy, your health and your mental capacity, is the baseline. You die when the baseline reaches the maximum level of entropy your body can take.
Having a better and more fulfilling life means that you have to apply energy to the system to fight entropy. So what do you do to keep the muscles going? Do you exercise? Do you eat healthy? Do you practice a craftsmanship? Do you learn new skills? Do you read on everything to keep your thinking capacity? All are your leverages to fight entropy.
Adulthood is the longest period and is in a diffusion state which, by-the-way, does not mean there isn't any personal growth possible as your baseline is usually far higher than your current state of entropy. So the difference in performances can be very wide between those who kept the intellectual and physical muscle, and those who settled early on and stopped learning.
This is why it is common in couples, circle of friends, family or work to see people outgrowing their peers. They are applying energy to their system while others are not. It can be very affecting especially when you are married or have close relatives who didn’t grow as much as you did. It can create jealousy and anger.
One of the main issues of the society is that most jobs ingrain entropy in their employees. To have a fulfilling life, you need to have creativity, be challenged and feel the flow. And by definition, you can't get in a flow if what you are doing is not challenging enough.
But most corporations are following the easy way to manage their employees: put workers into ultra-specialized boxes to make them –theoretically– easy to outsource or replaced. This accelerates the rise of entropy as their jobs provide no leverage to fight it. They have a poor career path, uninteresting positions, low responsibilities and no creativity. A recipe for unhappiness and low performance.
As an individual, to get your way out is to be proactive and take the responsibility of your self-improvement.
As you now know, most never apply energy to keep entropy at check. So a common pattern in corporations is to see old leadership, averse to any change or challenge. They have no energy to bring anymore but they will use their last to stay in place as long as possible, hurting their company, innovation and business. It can be seen as a reason for the Peter Principle.
Another side effect is that most of high-level entropy workers always feel threatened by high performers and will try to block their ascension as much as possible.
It explains why most companies end-up in a degenerative state: there is no process to ensure that the employees, especially with responsibilities, have the level of energy and capacity to learn. This lack of process can end up with dramatic effects. Because of the HR and manager's laziness, high entropy people plague the system until everything is unmanageable. As the company doesn’t have the muscle anymore to separate the good from the bad, they end up doing massive layoffs.
As time goes by, it is really important to identify those who are still involving and learning. They are the long-term leaders, capable of providing high performance and adapt to change.
Corporations are usually the battleground of fights between multiple attractors: managers, high executives, the board, shareholders, regulations. Most of the danger comes from attractors seeking short-term returns, self-interest and greed.
There is a clear conflict between the growth state; which is about finding the good leverages to secure the future, and the diffusion state; which focuses only on milking the system, and endanger the company if left too long in this state. A company is usually both at the same time: one product is in a growth state, while another is in a diffusion state.
What makes a company successful is how much energy is applied to the system to keep the attractor’s influences at check. The usual leverage is the workers doing the job with medium and long-term interests in mind, and of course, the meanings to fund them.
Greed accelerates the diffusion state and pushes corporations into a degenerative state. A good example is investment firms. They put an enormous pressure to get a high return every year. As a result, the diffusion state of the company they own accelerates artificially and are sent into a degenerative state prematurely before they got the time to find the leverage to recreate a state of growth. At this point, the investment firms use their insider knowledge as board members to sell their shares at the highest price; knowing the degenerative state which they caused, while the new buyers do not.
Money is the flow powering all the leverages to fight entropy in corporations. Thus, the more money leaves the company due to greed, the less money you have left to reinject in the system to fight entropy: good employees leave, competition take over, etc.
This is why Amazon reinvests all its profits: doing so makes it harder for their competitors to catch up and keeps Amazon in a state of growth. Investors tolerate it because they know that, at some point, some services will enter in a diffusion state and generates a lot of cash.
The quest for a fair human organization is not new, and you can see the history repeating itself again and again. It usually happens after a human crisis; a collective conscience awakens and everybody is willing to change things dramatically for the better. All applies huge energy to create a new, fairer system.
And as every system, the day it is set, entropy starts to increase. Well-known attractors are already at work to bend the system in their ways: lobbying, corruption, sociopaths, greed, laziness, etc. If nobody applies enough energy, the system slowly dies. Once it does, some are smart enough to make compromises or it's too late and everything implodes.
The Human Condition will only improve once we acknowledge that there is no rest in life. That you need to apply energy constantly to prevent the system heading to chaos. And until we hack our life to stay alive indefinitely, we also have to acknowledge that as we age, most won't have the energy anymore to correct the system and they need to be filtered out.
Identify degenerative systems
Applying energy into a system brings order back. If doing so has little impact and it gets worse, you are probably dealing with a degenerative system.
- If applying energy doesn’t improve your job situation: you are probably dealing with a company in a degenerative state and should seek for new opportunities.
- If applying energy doesn’t improve a relationship: you are probably dealing with a toxic relationship and should move on.
Life is short, don't waste it on degenerative systems.
You have to apply energy to keep relationships alive and growing. A common mistake is to consider them as acquired.
Applying energy in a couple is critical as it is the closest bound you can ever get. It is what makes a relation stick and go further than the dopamine phase your brain experience at the beginning of a relationship.
A work-life balance is important: if you spend all your energy at work, you have nothing left to maintain your relationships. So you have to protect this balance to keep healthy social interactions.
Now we have seen the impacts of entropy in multiple real world contexts, let’s see some common leverages to fight entropy.
Why do people with positive habits are high performers?
Because the repetition of energy you apply thanks to them is very efficient to fight entropy. It prevents you to be caught in a passive lifestyle. Exercising, reading, eating healthy are very common positive habits amongst others.
There is usually a mismatch between the entropy level of individuals and their revenues.
- Young workers have the most energy to apply but get the lowest salaries. This is usually justified because while having a lot of energy, young workers have no experience and waste a lot of energy learning the job.
- Experienced workers get medium salaries but with both energy and experience. They are the ones getting the less money for their work if they don’t challenge the system.
- Senior Workers usually have the best salaries because of their seniority in the field but they also have, in average, the least energy to bring in.
It is tough sometimes for senior workers: while corporations are perfectly happy with the young and experienced workers situation as the imbalance is in their favor, they try to get ride of senior workers when they feel they are not getting their money back. One of the fallacies well explained in the book My Job Went to India is that far too many consider themselves experts in a field just because they were stuck in a position for decades. But seniority in a field doesn’t mean you are an expert. You need to apply energy to get expertise and go deeper into the field.
There is the reason why craftsmanship works: as you get older, your experience and skills far outweigh your energy level and very few can match your value.
It’s the perfect leverage to keep the entropy / revenue balance in your favor. Maintain the physical and mental muscle to always stay valuable, challenge the system to get promotion and raises, ensure that your skills always outweigh your level of energy as you get older.
Scalability & Automation
To fight entropy, you have to find the good leverages and one of them is well known: scalability. Scalability in business is one of the most obvious ways to trigger a growth state as it works exactly like a catalyst: apply little energy, obtain huge results.
In this regard, some fields have it easier than others. While software and digital content are scalable, works requesting physical presence are mostly not. Typical examples: mobile apps, a YouTube channel, a website, etc.
Another leverage applicable to mostly any domain is automation. It helps you to get ride of low-value tasks, freeing your time to work on added-value activities.
- A manager can automate repetitive and tedious tasks like reporting, emailing, follow-up, etc.
- A nurse can use checklists to go faster and make fewer errors, they also have blood test machines.
- A programmer can automate testing and deployment of a website.
Focusing on what is scalable and what can be automated will save you time and energy to make a difference.
AI is our best bet to move humans forward and stop repeating our mistakes. It is a powerful leverage against entropy as it doesn’t age and never loses its “energy”. In fact, it can become more powerful as technology advances and keep chaos away from our systems.
We can imagine, for example, an AI running our Tax System with the goal to keep it fair for everyone depending on their revenues and the equilibrium of government finances. The source code would be open and the decision trees available on demand to see how the decisions were made in case of suspicion.
It would fight greed, lobbying, corruption and you bet this kind of move won’t happen without a fight from the attractors benefitting from the messiness of our current systems.
I hope I gave you a good grasp of how The Entropy Mental Model can improve your thinking. Keeping the laws of physics –which rules all of us– in mind allows for more pragmatism, realism and better decisions.