Dan Carlin’s creative thinking tool

One way to change decision making is to think different. One terrific tweak is to design different processes. “Start with the base rate” would be one way. Another is framing.

“I had a military history professor and one of the greatest things he taught, and I use this tool all the time, take out the most obvious easy solution from your consideration, take it out of the factoring in your thinking and then try to solve the problem.” – Dan Carlin, Common Sense, September 2021

Carlin goes on to say that part-of-the-reason there was no total war during the Cold War was because of nuclear war. Traditional war, Carlin notes, was “off the table”, and we are a creative bunch so a new solution was found.

Sometimes though, the culture of a place is so strong that framing traditional ideas in new ways is not enough. Mike Lombardi told Annie Duke that more organizations should have a “change department”, where an individual’s sole goal is to change your mind.

Sometimes the culture of a place is so so strong that framing or formatting are not enough. A new culture must be formed. This, wrote Clayton Chirstensen, is the innovator’s solution. Christensen’s disruption occurs when an industry leader continues to serve their best customers but the rules of the game change.

These are design choice. “Starting with the base rate” may not lead to adjusted conclusions but it will be closer to them than not. And we are all designers.


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Filters for thought

The best way to make decisions is to collect information most related to the system at hand. Touch a hot stove. Drop a pen. Kiss a lover. Each of these offers a direct action-feedback-action loop.

But these aren’t the interesting parts of life. The interesting parts of life are multiple people functioning at different times towards a goal that’s only shared in the sense of each person’s understanding.

Life is messy.

But we know that. Like driving across Interstate 80 with the prospect of a blizzard, we can plan accordingly. In talking with Cleveland Browns General Manager Andrew Berry, Annie Duke noted how difficult the decisions are within a team. Teams are messy! There are sunk costs, biases, entrenched interests as well as the alignment (or not) of stakeholders . But Berry knows this.

“There’s a couple things we try to do. Number one is to do the hardcore analysis removed from the emotion of the season, the player, the decision maker….

“The second part is getting a number of independent perspectives and letting them state their case. It’s easy as the decision maker to be in your own cocoon and only consider your viewpoint on a player…And the last thing we try to do is have a third-party perspective. There are a couple of things we use that aren’t in our building. As much as you try to weed out every type of bias with your internal evaluation methods, it’s to some degree impossible.” – Andrew Berry, The Alliance for Decision Making podcast, July 2021

That’s a lot of specific, helpful, in-practice advice but it is really just one thing: distance.

Distance is the idea behind base rates. It’s switching to “the outside view“. Distance is the idea behind sleeping on it. If the input to good decision making is the best information, then distance changes the information.

Berry recognizes, first, that he alone won’t make the best choice. Berry recognizes that his team will make better choices with training. Berry recognizes that no matter how much work he puts into himself and his team that they’ll still use some suboptimal information, so they get outside information too.

A friend went to a wedding and proudly said he wasn’t hungover because he alternated drinks of beer and water. That’s good design. Berry probably has good design too, don’t evaluate players within one week of a season. Maybe they do it like the Olympics, and throw out the best and worst scores. Whatever the Cleveland Browns system is, they definitely have a system for making good decisions.


Life is messy is one of Brent Beshore’s expressions and it’s a wonderful “default”. If our thinking is framed by the starting state then to start with the idea that life is messy makes a lot of other parts less so.

The ball bet

What are the odds of more than twelve named Atlantic hurricanes in 2021? That Bitcoin will top 75K in 2021? More than 2M travelers through TSA in a single day?

These, and more, were part of the 2021 predictions. That post built on the ideas of Superforecasting, which offers ideas towards better predictions. Julia Galef adds another.

Here’s one of the prompts: Will I lose power at my home in Central Florida for more than three days? I figure these odds were about 10%, and would wager that, no, we will not lose power for more than three days.

Imagine another prompt. In this bag of twenty balls there is one red and nineteen black, pick the red one and win. Okay, simple enough. There’s a five percent chance to win the red. And here’s Galef’s guise, you can only play one game.

Do I feel more confident about the hurricanes making landfall or the finding of the red ball? The hypothetical ball bag bet can slide up or down: 5%, 10%, 30%, etc.

“You just ask yourself, do I feel more optimistic about taking that bet or [the other]…You can play with the ratio of balls to kind of narrow down the number you put on your confidence in the original question.” – Julia Galef, BBC’s More or Less, August 2021

With my kids we use coin flipping. One day I had an appointment and told them there was a 5% chance they would have to go to after care at the school. “That’s like flipping a coin and landing on heads four times in a row” I told them.

Probabilistic thinking is difficult but it can be helping in making good decisions. Poker’s appeal highlights this idea too.


The TSA’s nadir was 87,000 travelers the week of April 13 2020, down 95% from the same week in 2019. In 2021 that number was more than one million. The week of June 11, 2021 there were more than two million travelers. I guessed there was a seventy-five percent chance that would happen.

Obama and Eisenhower

Some subversive decision making influences, like a cross breeze in golf, are the unnoticed dynamics. Social pressures, human tendencies (status quo bias for example), status, ego, and so on. But like with a vegetarian diet, it is possible to design around them.

One design choice is incentives. Incentives work as designed sometimes, but other times create yes men and women. YM&W are a completely predictable case of certain incentives within an organization.

To get around this, certain leaders argue well and vigorously debate an issue. The aim is a debate rather than a resolution.

Another path is to not state a perspective and enroll a (similar status) opponent, but to be more of a blank page. It may not be coincidence that at least two presidents followed this direction.

Speaking about his new book, Noise, Cass Sunstein said:

“President Obama was a master of not giving a clear signal of what he wanted to do because he wanted to get as much information as he could and that reduced the noise.” – Cass Sunstein

The book Ike’s Bluff, covered how Dwight Eisenhower used this tool too:

“Despite his open demeanor, at press conferences Eisenhower would from time to time pretend to know less than he did, leaving the illusion that he was distracted and ill informed about matters that deeply engaged him. Indeed, Eisenhower was willing to appear less than sharp, even a little slow-witted, if it served some larger purpose. Unlike most politicians, he was not driven by an insecure need to be loved and recognized. He possessed an inner confidence born of experience.”

There’s as many paths to success as there are organizations trying to succeed. To ‘argue well’ or ‘listen like Ike’ is one of many ways.

Predicting an AA A+

There’s this idea in sports that certain people are “ruining the game”. It’s those baseball people who favor home runs and defensive shifts. It’s the golfers who drive for show and dough.

And we can blame computers.

And us. We’re to blame too.

Computers compress time. I could have mailed this to you as a letter but that would take me buying paper (after a trip to the store of course) writing it…yada yada yada…and you walking to the mailbox. Computers compress all that.

Analytics is a type of compression. Rather than a lot of people and a lot of time to learn about the advantages of home runs or infield shifts in baseball or long drives in golf, a few people with computers thought it might work and ran the data.

This is an issue we will see more of: novel data making interesting predictions.

“We looked on Twitter for anyone who announced they were going to their first AA meeting and we followed what they tweeted after that. Did they stay sober for ninety days or did they go back to drinking? Did they complain about being hungover at work? Did they celebrate their sobriety? Then we took all the data we could model from their Twitter feeds to try to predict if they would be sober. Things like: who do you follow, do they talk about booze, are you over 21, how do you cope with stress? We can predict with 80% accuracy if someone will stay sober or not on the day they decide to go into treatment.” – Jen Golbeck, November 2020

This algorithm, Golbeck notes, is also pessimistic, it tends to say you won’t recover when you will. And it’s confounded by the sample: only certain people announce things on Twitter.

These algorithm approaches will grow in the decision making blend. Part-of-that means understanding the tools. We are time traveling, leaping to the future rather than walking there.

Envy, the least fun mistake

Maxim 17 from Richard Zeckhauser is “Strive hard not to be envious – see your friend’s success as your gain”. Envy is an obstacle to be recognized early in the decision making process warned Charlie Munger in his Psychology of Human Misjudgment speech.

A 2021 Sports Illustrated profile of Pete Sampras addressed his envy, or lack of. When Roger Federer broke his record of fourteen major wins. A friend recalled this conversation:

‘“I said, ‘It’s getting close. What do you think?’ ” recalls (Paul)Annacone.
“It’s pretty amazing!” Sampras replied.
“What do you mean?” pressed Annacone who, ironically, would go on to coach Federer.
“Well,” said Sampras, “I just know how hard it was for me. If anyone else can do it, that’s just too good. That’s amazing!”

Zeckhauser, Munger, and Sampras all express an idea seen every weekend at the local 5k race. There’s little envy because every runner is running their own race. The couch to 5k crowd is happy to finish and the elite runners are happy to see them finish too. Toward the front of the pack the attitude is that each person competes against the clock.

If envy is uninvited should it, like spam emails, be blocked and never surface in the mental inbox? Maybe not. Denise Shull advises her clients to accept and understand their emotions because emotions are information. But what kind of information? Shull said:

“Put your feelings into buckets. Which feelings are childhood repetition? Which ones are because the other guy is doing better? Which one is your market recognition? Which one is your intuition? People can learn this, but most men have been told to put all that stuff aside.”

When Hank Aaron was asked if he was going to give Barry Bonds the home run record, Aaron replied that he wasn’t giving anything, that records were made to be broken.

There’s this snarky idea that if you’re one in a million there’s still 8,000 people like you in the world. That’s true. But it only takes thirty-three binary variables to get to 8 billion unique answers. Do you like licorice? Y/N. Have you seen Star Wars? Y/N. And so on.

In that sense everyone is running their own race and envy is irrelevant. I think Shull is right about envy as information, the winning move is to play it like Munger, Aaron, and Sampras.

Unlocking the restricted actions section

There are (at least) four ways actions are restricted: macro-culture like society, micro-culture like an office, job mandates, and personal psychology. For Andrew Sullivan, the obstacle was the last one, the self.

“What I find that marijuana does, and to some extent — mushrooms definitely do, meditation does as well — is that they suppress the ego. They weaken the ego.” – Andrew Sullivan to Tyler Cowen, August 2021

Psychedelics, for Sullivan, offer a change in perspective., “You’re less attached to your own pride. Your mind is taken out of its normal rut,” he explained.

How much THC is TBD, but Sullivan’s point is healthy. Ego, for instance, is part of the reason Jason Blum is successful making horror movies. Ego, is part of the reason, Bank of America succeeded. The proletariat, it turns out, is profitable. “I don’t care where an idea comes from,” said Gregg Popovich, “You have to be comfortable enough in your own skin to realize that an idea can come from anywhere.”

A healthy amount of ego helped make Friends. An unhealthy ego meanwhile leads to dentists opening restaurants or financiers on movie sets.

This is one of those that-kinda-makes-sense ideas but a regular dose certainly helps.

Thorpe’s Two Questions

Ed Thorpe is in graduate school and has a professor who is ‘mailing it in’. In class Thorpe stands up to the instructor, demeans him, and is threatened with expulsion. Needing to stay in school, if only to avoid the Vietnam War draft, Thorpe crafts a careful apology:

“I explained that I’d come to realize his teaching methods were unique and that students, though they may not always appreciate it rarely encounter a professor of his caliber. What I said was true, but allowed more than one interpretation.”

It was an early lesson that was almost quite costly. In the future, Thorpe started to ask two questions: “None of this would have happened if I’d have asked myself beforehand, if you do this, what do you want to happen? And, if you do this, what do you think will happen?

Book: A Man for All Markets

Cruising mood

One of Tyler Cowen’s suggestions for thinking better is to avoid mood affiliation. From 2011:

“It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.”

This is clear in politics when people judge ideas on whichever party is blaming/praising on whichever media. Rather than the easy pickins of politics though, let’s journey a sunnier path: cruising.

Cruise ships are awesome. Many miss this thanks to mood affiliation. It’s not their people. It’s not their food (buffets!). I don’t want someone to dictate where to be and when is the comment I hear the most. Some non-zero number of people look at a cruise vacation and decide they don’t like it and then come up with reasons for why.

But cruises balance flexibility with stability. The only rules are the times the ship arrives and leaves. That’s it. In that window people can do nearly whatever they want. Cruises are like Crocs, they can be as laid back or “attack mode” as the vacationer likes.

Food on cruise ships is good. The buffet is good, especially the vegetarian curry options because that is home-cooking for the international staff. Ships also offer a number of (revenue growth) fine dining options. The best of these are magnificent. It won’t be extraordinarily but how many people prioritize this on vacation?

On board are a variety of options like rock walls, FlowRiders, theaters, slides, escape rooms, and kids clubs. Off the ship are many interesting tours, excursions, and experiences. Private drivers are especially adaptable, this is another Tyler Cowen suggestion.

Look at that form!
Flowing

Cruising is not for everyone, but maybe not for the stated reasons. And Cowen, probably couldn’t stand cruising.

Konnikova’s Data

Park of poker’s appeal  is that people balance consequences and rewards. Thoughtfully in the best cases. But the lessons aren’t always obvious.

Nate Silver notes that live poker can be boring because participants don’t play that many hands. Yes, Maria Konnikova replied, that’s one way to look at it.

“There’s a perception that live poker can be boring because if you’re playing well you shouldn’t be playing that many hands. There is a lot of time you are just sitting there. But something I learned from Eric Seidel is that the times you are not in a hand are some of your most valuable opportunities to gather data.”

Konnikova recounts to Silver a time she was disposed as chip leader by an opponent who, after a day of play complimented her on her previous tournament. Why? It was televised. He picked up on her over aggressive style (something Konnikova notes in her book, I highly recommend The Biggest Bluff) in that tournament, and he used that against her in this one.

So rather than play as the thing-to-do, observe and learn are the things to do. Konnikova (and Seidel) reframed poker folds from something passive to something active. This is the same trick Annie Duke used for her poker clients. Duke reframed the action from playing hands to making good decisions.

Barry Ritholtz calls this the don’t just do something, sit there challenge. It’s hard to break the action-progress association. Yet there are situations, beyond poker, where not doing is more important that doing.

The basic level of learning a new thing is the advice to “just do it”. Just exercise/save/invest/read more. That’s difficult, especially without an anchor. A better way might be to substitute something of the same class. In the case of poker, Duke and Konnikova substituted one verb with another, and gave a reason for doing so.

I’m on a big pickleball kick right now and this advice, along with Winning Ugly from Brad Gilbert points in a clear direction: my game isn’t so much about hitting winners first but hitting winners second. A lot of my level is about setting up n+1 shots. Rather than beat an opponent down the line, with varying success, my aim should be to hit feet high down the line, move them, wait for a ‘green light ball’ and then hit winners. 

onward and upward