As I write this, much of Louisiana is underwater due to flooding. People in New Mexico are digging out after floods of their own, and residents in California and Utah are rebuilding their homes in the wake of widespread wildfires. Because natural disasters often don’t provide a great deal of advance warning before they hit, for the military veterans, first responders and medical professionals who volunteer with Team Rubicon, a veteran-led disaster relief organization, the ability to provide relief to communities affected by natural disasters is the result of ample preparation before disaster strikes. With only a minimal amount of time to ramp up efforts once Mother Nature hits, the work of each volunteer while left of bang of the storm is what allows for a fast and effective response.

To help educate their highly experienced volunteers, Team Rubicon has produced over 40 “Knowledge Bombs,” one-page infographics that educate responders about the various risks they can expect to face in their duties. As understanding risk is a crucial concept for warriors, police officers and security professionals, these easily sharable reminders about dangers on the job offer a great opportunity for professionals to deepen their knowledge about how to prepare for threatening situations. To make the most out of these bite-sized lessons and better retain what you have just read in the long term, self-taught students need to have a strong mental model to quickly make sense of what they are learning that will allow them to improve how they operate when they get to the field.

The Challenge of Being Self-Taught

Team Rubicon as an organization is comprised primarily of volunteers, meaning that the people they are seeking to educate often also have day jobs that bring their own sets of continuing education requirements and have families and other commitments that need to be taken care of before extra-curricular activities can be pursued. These time constraints aren’t unique to Team Rubicon volunteers and are obstacles that any self-taught learner faces as they seek out resources and experiences to improve themselves. This challenge is compounded by the fact that, in our current “knowledge economy,” for any topic you want to learn about there are insurmountable numbers of resources available to you online, making it difficult to filter through it all and fill specific gaps in your understanding about that area.

With short bits of easily consumable content readily available, including blog posts, how-to videos or eBooks, a student can quickly forget what they just consumed because they don’t have a “place” to put that new information in their brain. Because that new data doesn’t get attached to or sorted somewhere specific, it is often forgotten and not retained long term as the student’s brain becomes overloaded with fragmented morsels of information. To overcome this challenge and make the most out of time spent in self-guided education, students need to learn how to build mental models that allow them to quickly make sense of what they are learning and retain it for future use.

As decision-making researcher Dr. Gary Klein discusses in a 2006 article about the topic, mental models are a framework that help us determine what information is relevant to our understanding about a subject, explain why that data is important and anticipate how we will apply our new knowledge in the future. Building a framework (a mental model) is one of the most important parts of learning because it helps you quickly make sense of seemingly disconnected facts and arrange them in a workable way so that you can retain the information, recall it when needed, and deepen your knowledge over time in an additive way. Mental models not only help you connect new facts to previously learned information, but they also help you identify gaps in your learning that facilitate your understanding of what your next steps should be.

For the long-time followers of The CP Journal, or readers of Left of Bang: How The Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life, the book that I co-authored with Jason Riley, the bang timeline that we use to discuss proactive threat recognition also provides a mental model for risk that can let you quickly integrate information from Team Rubicon’s Knowledge Bombs to expand your understanding of risk management. The risk you are concerned about is labeled “bang” and placed into the middle of a timeline. Once that is done, all of the actions that can prevent bang are placed left of bang on the timeline and all of the reactions you have should bang occur without any advance warning are placed right of bang on the timeline. The bang timeline’s straightforward simplicity allows a student to quickly learn about any risk they may face in their duties.

Making the Most of Knowledge Bombs: A Model for Risks

The bang framework serves as a consistently helpful mental model for me because it lets me answer three very specific questions when evaluating risks:

  • What is the risk/threat I am focused on? (What is bang?)
  • Should that event happen, what is the immediate response to it? (What happens right of bang?)
  • How can the event be prevented from happening? (How can I get left of bang?)

This mental model helps me identify the most essential elements to a particular risk by clearly defining what information is needed to understand how that risk is being mitigated. This creates a “fill in the blank” structure lets me filter out irrelevant or extraneous information while also ensuring that I don’t lose sight of the big picture and can make sense of everything being done to reduce the risk. To ensure that my analysis of a risk is thorough and complete, the “fill in the blank” template should be expanded to ensure that specific questions are answered. Here are the questions that I myself answer to ensure that my mental model is comprehensive:

What is bang?

  • Describe bang to understand specifically what risk you are focused on.
  • Describe how bang occurs. What event has to happen for bang to have begun?
  • How do you know when bang has happened, which would trigger the right of bang reaction? If you are protecting against an attack with a firearm, bang could be the sound of a gunshot. However, for first responders, some risks aren’t as apparent. If a person is considering the risk of lead paint poisoning, for example, they might not realize they were exposed to it until symptoms appear, at which point it could be too late to do anything about it.

What happens right of bang?

  • What will you do once you realize that bang has happened? This is for the situations when you didn’t identify the pre-event indicators to bang and were unaware of the pending risk. List all of the right of bang reactions, including anything done specifically to minimize the severity of the event after it has occurred.
  • Does an effective response reduce the overall danger of this risk to an acceptable level where prevention isn’t necessary? For example, if I’m assessing the risk posed by a paper cut, and having a Band-Aid in my desk drawer to cover the wound is good enough, then the precaution of removing all paper and paper products from the office to prevent this risk and educating the staff about the dangers of paper are, obviously, unnecessary.

How can we get left of bang?

  • How will we know when the threat/risk is present? How are we tangibly recognizing the danger?
  • What steps can be taken to prevent ourselves from being exposed to the dangers that bang bring once it is identified?

These questions allow me to put a risk I am learning about into my own words, increasing the chances that I can retain the information and recall the key points when I need to. To put this into practice, here is an example of a Knowledge Bomb that highlights the risk of being exposed to black mold and how I consolidated the key points into my own mental model.

Black Mold Knowledge Bomb – Source: Team Rubicon

Black Mold:

  • Description: It is a toxic mold that thrives in warm and wet places (like your lungs or under a floor that has gotten wet due to a leaking pipe).
  • Bang happens when a spore (a white fluff ball from the mold) is inhaled into the lungs or absorbed through the eyes, ears, nose or mouth.
  • You know bang has happened when you experience symptoms like fatigue, headaches, fever, eye irritation, nose irritation, nausea, or respiratory problems.

Right of Bang – Once it is in the body

  • Go to the doctor and have him or her tell you that, since there is no cure or antidote for toxic black mold, the only solution is to remove the black mold from the environment (or you from the environment) so that your body can begin to fight the damage it is causing and recover from the exposure.
  • This reaction is not acceptable as an overall strategy to the risk of black mold, as exposure can cause permanent damage to the body.

Left of Bang – How to keep it from getting into body

  • Be able to recognize black mold so that appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can be worn to prevent it from getting into the body. The Knowledge Bomb provides a picture about what black mold looks like and helps you to know what you should be looking for.
  • Once recognized, wear PPE to prevent black mold from getting into body. Gear includes a Tyvex suit, respiratory mask, rubber gloves, goggles, and earplugs.
  • De-contaminate your equipment after exposure to black mold in order to prevent it from being transferred from your PPE to your body with a bleach water solution. Tools and boots need to be decontaminated as well.
  • Clean your ears and goggles after exposure.
  • Discard your mask after each use when exposed to black mold or, if you are wearing a HEPA mask, replace the filter every four hours.

While some of the information above also came from one of Team Rubicon’s online training modules about this particular risk, I went through this structured exercise of filling in the template for all 44 of Team Rubicon’s Knowledge Bombs from their online library. I did this because I’m not an expert in environmental risks and wanted to consolidate all of the information that I had about these particular risks in order to understand what the next steps to my learning needed to be.

Benefits of Mental Models in Learning: Helping You Look Forward

One of the biggest benefits that a thorough mental model provides a self-taught professional is that it helps you identify what gaps you have in your knowledge that needs to be addressed. With the framework to understand risk that I have described here, you can either visually see a question that is not answered or realize that you don’t know how to accomplish one of the left of bang or right of bang requirements to reduce the risk.

If you are looking at right of bang actions, ask yourself:

  • What will I need to do (step by step) once I know that bang has happened?
  • Where will that happen?
  • Where will the materials needed in this right of bang reaction scenario come from?
  • What if a key piece of equipment isn’t available, what else can I use to accomplish the same goal?
  • Have I simulated each of these answers to ensure I am ready to execute those steps?

If you are looking at the left of bang actions, ask yourself:

  • Do I know exactly what I am looking for to realize the risk is present?
  • Do I know where I should be looking?
  • Have I rehearsed and simulated the decisions I would make once I identify the risk?

Personally, when I assessed the risk of black mold exposure and saw that decontamination was part of how you prevent it from getting into your body, I realized that I don’t know exactly how that is done. I couldn’t picture the specific actions and steps that I would take to successfully decontaminate myself. By having a mental model, you don’t need a professor or instructor to tell you what you should study next. It becomes clear to you the moment you realize that there is a gap in your understanding, and then you can proactively set out to remedy that.


When you are attempting to deepen your knowledge about a topic and you don’t have a framework to help you consolidate the important and relevant information, learning becomes more challenging, as it might not be apparent when you don’t know something. The mental model for risk that comes from the bang timeline helps you consolidate the information that you have, fill in gaps for issues that you were aware of, and also uncover the things that you didn’t know you didn’t know by allowing you to walk through the specific steps of preventing or reacting to a specific risk.

Using and applying mental models is a key component to learning how to learn because they help you, the student, to make the most of your time spent in personal development. Mental models eliminate the requirements of having a teacher standing at the front of a classroom to talk you through what’s next. They empower you to capitalize on fragmented bits of information by having a specific place in your brain to store that new lesson, attaching it to your existing knowledge and creating the opportunity to make continuous improvements in your field. Mental models aren’t a life-hack or any other type of shortcut. They still require the student to put in the work to learn, but they can absolutely make that time spent studying more effective and shorten the learning curve for a topic immensely.

Team Rubicon is Deploying to the Gulf Coast

As a volunteer with Team Rubicon, I have seen firsthand the impact that the organization has on residents who have just had their lives turned upside down by natural disasters. For many people in these affected communities, the moment they see a group of military veterans coming to help them is often the first time they have felt hope since the disaster struck. As their strike teams of volunteers get to work, it becomes immediately apparent to homeowners that these veterans with Team Rubicon have taken the time to prepare for these events, and they were ready to serve when the call came.

Right now, Team Rubicon is deploying military veterans and medical first responders to the Gulf Coast, but they need your help. If you would like to see exactly where your donation dollars to this cause would go, visit their fundraising page for this operation. When you land on the page, you will see one of the reasons why they have become the primary organization that I support with both my time and my money. Your donation doesn’t go into a black hole, like it so often does with larger aid organizations, or pay for the group’s overhead costs. It goes to support a very specific need that Team Rubicon has with the current operation. Whether that is equipping a volunteer with a chainsaw, deploying qualified volunteers to the area or feeding a volunteer while they help affected people rebuild their lives, every dollar donated will go helping those devastated by these floods.

Learn More About Team Rubicon’s Flood Response To The Gulf Coast