Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates All Think In 4D


Most people just think in 1D

Over the last 5 years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours studying and writing about Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Ray Dalio, & Elon Musk.

One of the most surprising patterns they all share is that they see in 4D while most people see in 1D:

  • Dimension 1: Focusing on one field (specialization)
  • Dimension 2: Learn across disciplines (polymath)
  • Dimension 3: Think vertically (mental models)
  • Dimension 4: Think hundreds of years into the past and future (long time horizon)

This is the first article where I layout each of the dimensions. By the end, you'll have a road map to drastically increase your ability to make complex decisions in uncertain environments and generate creative breakthroughs.

Dimension 1: Specialization

"A great strategy in life is to specialize. No one wants to go see someone who is half proctologist and half dentist." —Charlie Munger (Warren Buffett's 50-Year Business Partner)

Specializing is the most common career approach to getting ahead in our modern economy. It involves spending more and more time going deeper and deeper in the same field.

Given how common it is, I'm not going to talk about it in this article.

Being a specialist is important, but what I've noticed is that top thinkers layer on the three other dimensions, which enables them to think in a fundamentally different and kaleidoscopic way. These other three dimensions help them...

  • Better able to predict the future
  • Notice patterns before others
  • Solve problems at a root causes
  • Create innovations that create new paradigms
  • Consciously build better maps of reality

What powers each dimension is building up a huge latticework of diverse knowledge that is solidified with reflections, experiments and real-world experience.

Thinking in 4D helps them be world-class. It helps them play chess while others play checkers...

Dimension 2: Polymath

The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages. “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warn people in China. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.”

Yet, many of the most impactful individuals, both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few.

What’s going on here?

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, why did the most comprehensive study of the most significant scientists in all of history uncover that 15 of the 20 were polymaths? Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell — all polymaths.

If being a generalist was so ineffective, why are the founders of the five largest companies in the world — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos — all polymaths (who also follow the 5-hour rule)? Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they people we could and should imitate in order to be successful in a modern knowledge economy?

If being a generalist is an ineffective career path, why do 10+ academic studies find a correlation between the number of interests / competencies someone develops and their creative impact?

The answer is that being a modern polymath is one of the most powerful ways to have creative breakthroughs that change the world.


I define a modern polymath as someone who becomes competent in at least three diverse domains and integrates them into a top 1-percent skill set.

In other words, they bring the best of what humanity has discovered from across fields to help them be more effective in their core field. Hence the T-shape to the left. Specialists, on the other hand, just focus on knowledge from their own field.

For an in-depth article on how to be a modern polymath, read People Who Have "Too Many Interests" Are More Likely To Be Successful According To Research.

Dimension 3: Mental Models

“Mental models are to your brain as apps are to your smartphone.” — Jayme Hoffman

According to research, we all use mental models in our thinking.

You can think of a mental model simply as: “The way you think that things work in a particular domain.”

It’s the idea that you have about how something works. In fact, we all unconsciously create models of how the world works, how the economy works, how politics works, how other people work, how we work, how our brains work, how our day is supposed to go, and so on.

If your model is bad, then your thinking is bad. If your model is accurate, then your thinking (and decision-making, and prediction ability) is far more accurate. It’s that simple.

The difference between truly smart thinkers and average thinkers is that, for average thinkers, the process of using models is unconscious and reactive. For smart thinkers, it is conscious and proactive.

Smart thinkers collect the most effective models across all disciplines, stress-test them, and creatively apply them to their daily lives. Mental models are so valuable that billionaire Ray Dalio’s only book is full of his best mental models. Charlie Mungers’ only book is packed full of his top mental models too.

One of the most common pieces of advice that Elon Musk gives is to think from first principles. Mental models and first principles are similar in that they each model deeper levels of reality. While most people think about knowledge just horizontally (ie — across fields), these smart thinkers also think about knowledge vertically in terms of depth. Musk explains deep knowledge in a Reddit AMA

“It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles (Musk calls these ‘first principles’), i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” —Elon Musk

In another interview, Musk gives an example…

“I tend to approach things from a physics framework. Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.” —Elon Musk

Here’s a visual way that shows the difference between thinking horizontally (1D) versus thinking horizontally and vertically (2D)…


When you think vertically and horizontally, suddenly fields that seemed disconnected appear connected. Here’s an example…

In the 1D image below where the thinking is only horizontal, productivity, hiring, and exercising seem like completely unconnected fields.


In the 2D image below, which is horizontal and vertical, these three fields are connected by a mental model — The 80/20 Rule:

  • 20% of exercises create 80% of the results.
  • 20% of employees create 80% of the value.
  • 20% of productivity hacks create 80% of the value.

Since Musk has spent much time learning across fields and at a deeper level, his knowledge tree is huge…


Thanks to the size and complexity of his tree, Elon Musk can see exactly how different “leaves” and “branches” interact with each other. This gives him major superpowers:

  • He can reuse fundamental knowledge over and over.
  • He can take insights from one side of the tree to another.
  • He can identify small, high leverage actions that can drastically improve the overall quality of everything he does.

Now, compare this to an average person who can only see one leaf at a time. This person:

  • Only uses their knowledge in the domain they learned it in.
  • Focuses on low leverage hacks and band-aid solutions.

Physicist David Deutsch explains it even further

“It’s in the nature of foundations, that the foundations in one field are also the foundations of other fields…The way that we reach many truths is by understanding things more deeply and therefore more broadly. That’s the nature of the concept of a foundation… just as in architecture, all buildings all literally stand on the same foundation; namely the earth. All buildings stand on the same theoretical base.”

By understanding verticality and depth, you can see how learning mental models connects things that were previously separate and disconnected. Just as every leaf on a tree is connected by twigs, which are connected by branches, which are connected by a tree trunk, so too are ideas connected by deeper and deeper ideas.

One of the most effective and universal mental models is the 80/20 Rule: the idea that 20 percent of inputs can lead to 80 percent of outputs. This same 80/20 idea can be applied to our personal lives (productivity, diet, relationships, exercise, learning, etc.) and our professional lives (hiring, firing, management, sales, marketing, etc). As such, you can see how the 80/20 Rule connects many disparate fields. This is what all mental models do.

To apply the 80/20 Rule, at the beginning of the day we can ask ourselves, “Of all the things on my to-do list, what are the 20 percent that will create 80 percent of the results?” When we’re searching for what to read next, we can ask ourselves, “Of all the millions of books I could buy, which ones could really change my life?” When considering who to spend time with, we can ask ourselves, “Which handful of people in my life give me the most happiness, the most meaning, and the greatest connection?” In short, consistently using the 80/20 Rule can help us get leverage by focusing on the few things that really matter and ignoring the majority that don’t.

To master one mental model per month with a community of other smart executives, visit the Mental Model Club. It's just $1 to get started.

Dimension 4: Long Time Horizon

Where almost all public company CEOs, not to mention people in general, plan days, weeks, and months ahead, visionaries like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk think decades or even centuries into the future. And they don’t just plan: They put their money where their mouths are. They make bold bets that won’t pay off anytime soon — and that have a high probability of failure. In fact, I would say that these long-term thinkers redefine what it means to think long-term.

When I first came across this surprising observation, I wrote it off as a quirk. But as I’ve studied more of the world’s top entrepreneurs — taking an especially close look at Jeff Bezos — my opinion slowly shifted.

I now believe a long time horizon comes closer than any other factor to being a “magic bullet.”

Over the last several years, I’ve read hundreds of academic studies and books on scientifically validated approaches to being more successful and impactful, and found that many factors correlate with success:

While each of these habits plays a part in adding to one’s overall impact, a long time horizon is essential all of them.

If you’re thinking long-term, then:

  1. The benefits of delayed gratification become obvious. You aren’t sacrificing the short term for an amorphous future. You’re sacrificing a much worse investment for a much better one. Over the period of a day, taking “time out” to reflect, exercise, learn, rest, build relationships, and experiment are distractions. Over the period of a life-time, they are the best investments we can make.
  2. Doing something that is extremely meaningful to you is absolutely critical. You can sustain a job, marriage, project, or company that bores or doesn’t inspire you for a short while, but not for a long time. A long time horizon goes hand in hand with purpose and passion. This purpose helps you work harder, learn harder (deliberate practice), create more (productive output), and have more soul and be willing to overcome challenges (resilience).
  3. Not only yourself and your business are affected, but your relationships. Think of your most “successful” relationships. Chances are they evolved over a long time and constantly giving without expecting anything in return. A long time horizon is almost a prerequisite to defining a healthy, productive relationship in any realm.

For more on the power of long-term thinking, read Bezos, Musk, & Buffett See The World Differently, Because They See Time Differently.