Being better than Superman

Maxim four from Richard Zeckhauser is: “When trying to understand a complex real-world situation, think of an everyday analogue”.

Alex Tabarrok has been using this strategy to communicate about vaccines.

“To me the vaccines are like a superpower. Superman is immune to bullets and I tell people: ‘Wouldn’t you like to be immune to bullets? The virus has killed many more people this year than bullets have, and the vaccine makes you immune to the virus, it’s better than being immune to bullets!'” – Alex Tabarrok, July 2021

In Dan Levy’s book about Richard Zeckhauser he includes a section from Gary Orren who used the everyday analogy strategy to describe the AmeriCorps service program. AmeriCorps, Orren told legislators, is like a Swiss Army knife, it does many things well though it’s never the perfect tool. A few weeks after addressing the governmental staff Orren returned to their offices. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Swiss Army knife.”

This strategy helped, Orren explained, because it focused his thinking and the audience’s understanding. A lot of times our thinking is FAST and analogies shift complex concepts into simpler situations.

Simplification isn’t the end though. Extremes, like questioning the Ohio vaccine lotto, are not the final answers but a first foothold. If we can understand an issue’s basic components first, it can be easier to build up to the rubber-meets-the-road challenges of IRL.


My year of AmeriCorps was health based, and I remember many vision screenings .

Free Meals

At the start of Dan Levy’s book Maxims for Thinking Analytically, a book about Richard Zeckhauser’s tools for thought, is this riddle: “Mary and Jim want to paint a room together. If Mary painted alone it would take her 2 hours, and if Jim painted alone it would take him 3 hours. How long would it take to paint the room if they paint together?”

It’s not 2.5 hours.

Zeckhauser’s first maxim is: “When you are having trouble getting your thinking straight, go to an extreme case”. We used this maxim to ask: was the Ohio vaccine lotto a good idea? And it probably was.

Danny Meyer uses a version of this maxim too. One of the most important factors for a restaurant’s success is the location. (Overall it’s a hard business). Meyer wants to avoid errors of commission. Even if a restaurant proves successful it is “stuck with” the location. So Danny explores many locations to find something that works and ask an extreme question:

“Sometimes a space says, don’t plant anything here, this place should not be a restaurant. The first question I ask myself when I look at a restaurant space is: would I want this even if it were free?” Danny Meyer, July 2021, The Knowledge Project

Another way to consider this kind of framing is the expression you couldn’t pay me to. One advantage to living in the south, where football rules the roost, is the access to football. If you like it that is. One friend uses you couldn’t pay me to to express her feeling about SEC football games, the same games where tickets can be hundreds of dollars.

Levy’s riddle is easy once we slow our thinking. Thinking fast we average the work, and get 2.5 hours. Thinking slow(er), like Zeckhauser, and we notice that Mary alone would take two hours. That’s the extreme.

Competing with counterfactuals

Peter Attia has this idea called ‘healthspan’. Rather than measure what is easy (years), Attia suggests we aim for something more difficult to measure, but more meaningful: health.

The idea, IIRC from Attia is that it’s the quality of years that matter. Okay, sure, but what does that mean? It’s to ask: what do I want to be able to do when I’m 80? an work backwards from there. If I want to be able to pick up my grandkids then, what do I need to be able to do now?

Working backward is one nice way to frame this idea. Another is to think about competition. Imagine the Healthspan Games.

A proxy for this was Sport Climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In this event contestants competed in speed, bouldering, and lead courses. Each contestant was ranked by finish and ranks were multiplied for a final score. If someone finished first, fourth, and seventh, their final score was 28.

A competitor must consider how they could compete. Of course it would be very good to be very good at each section, but a slip in the head end is much more costly than a slip at the tail due to the multiplicative nature of the scoring. An initial score of 2x5x8=80 improves by fixing the middle score to 2x4x8=64 whereas a weakest leg fix yields 2x5x7=70. This may not be a case to fix weaknesses first.

Sport climbing is a good proxy for the Healthspan Games because they also have three areas of competition: strength, balance, and flexibility. However the competitors are slightly different. Instead of athletes from different countries, the competition is different versions of oneself. It’s the you that does yoga against the you that does not. The different versions of you are a counterfactual.

“Counterfactuals are hard because we don’t think about what is on the other side. ‘What if we had done nothing; How many games would we have won?’.”  – Sam Hinkie to Zach Lowe, April 2016

Counterfactuals and competition are one way to reframe the idea of: how to be healthy. It’s easy to think about weight (lost or lifted) or speed while running as the important aspects. But the competition is more varied than these very visible areas.

Are strength, flexibility, and balance the most important parts for a long Healthspan? Probably. Does framing them this way make them easier to think about? Probably too.


We return to the idea of easy to measure vs helpful to measure in the “metric” tag.
IIRC = if I recall correctly

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

Hurdle Technologies for Consumer Goods

“The truth was, we sold health and safety first, environment second and as an add-on, these products worked as well as traditional products,” said Jeffery Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation on HIBT, “We believed that in order to set ourselves apart, especially to new moms – health and safety was critical as well as the environmental benefits.”

In food safety there’s an idea called ‘hurdle technology’. Rather than a single preventative measure for keeping food safe, there are a series of ‘hurdles’ that pathogens must clear to make it into the human body. Preservatives, temperatures (extreme high or low), and acidity are all hurdles that can and are used.

The same idea applies to consumer products, though we don’t quite have the language to think this way. Each consumer has a series of questions they want answered before they decide to buy a product, though we don’t quite have the language to articulate this.

Winning wines, for instance, showed that people want something that tastes good (average), something with an interesting label, and some guidance about how to, or what to serve with. Every time I walk past the 19 Crimes wines I smile, they get it.

Rx Bars demonstrate that same idea. Are there grains? No, okay, next hurdle. Is it tasty? Yes, okay, next hurdle.

Framing a problem this way helps a lot because as companies develop products they can narrow down the issues. Also notable, like Barefoot Wine and JTBD of wine, there was a new set of consumers (young moms) that Seventh Generation served.

‘Peloton doesn’t offer discounts’

One of the challenges of running a business is seeing a business from the customer’s perspective. Internally your worldview is all website updates and payment processing, employees and benefits, and hiring and HR. Externally the customer wonders: does this do what I want?

Enter jobs-to-be-done.

Job-father Bob Moesta joined Customer Camp to conduct a mock-interview with Amanda about her Peloton purchase. It’s really good. You don’t even need to conduct ‘JOBS’ interviews to get something good from watching. For instance, framing.

Amanda wanted a Peloton. After getting and liking an Oura ring, and hearing her friends talk about Peloton she wanted one. It was better than a treadmill—if she wanted to run she could just run outside. So, Amanda and her husband watched for a Black Friday deal. None came.

A holiday deal? Nope. Is there any discount? No. There’s not really a Peloton discount, and Amanda was hearing about shipping delays (thanks Covid). So Amanda and her husband ordered one, financed with Affirm.

“Finance a stationary bike?!?!?” – Boomer

Well not really, it’s a 0% loan. It’s basically a payment plan. Actually Amanda notes, it’s like a gym membership.

Now here’s the magic trick business model: Peloton pays Affirm a commission for each bike sold and financed. 50M$ in Q3 2020. Peloton doesn’t offer discounts but it does offer 0% financing. And that’s the magic.

This, as regular readers know, is Alchemy. The financial picture is the same for Peloton: they have a retail cost and accept less than that to sell more units. The question is how much less and to who? Having Affirm be the who and the amount be vague creates value. Buyers hold Peloton in higher esteem and it just feels good to finance something at 0%. As one friend told me “it’s free money.”

To the accounting office it’s the same. To the market it’s different.

Numeracy + Psychology

One of the consistent behavioral psychology findings is the framing effect. People judge what is pointed out and consider the number attached to it. Two out of every three dentists approve chewing no-sugar gum. Sure, but do they caveat that with increased flossing? Heck, no one cares. The thinking goes that if it was flossing that was important someone would have mentioned it.

This effect is most often seen in medical communication and Matt Yglesias captures it perfectly here:

But that headline is good. It’s salient – 4 people. It’s got friction. The real surprise is that they didn’t say ‘warn’ rather than ‘said’.

This kind of psycho-logic-magic needs countered with another kind of psycho-logic-magic.

We can assume two things work: (1) that people pay attention to and value what someone points out to them. This is normal, helpful, and completely understandable. It works. Most things that most people say are relevant to our lives. (2) that new news works. Different is interesting. This is also, normally helpful and understandable.

Here’s the pitch. This is the angle, the message. Here’s the psycho-logic-magic for vaccine interventions: opportunity cost.

If you’re pro-vaccine point out all the things that will be back to normal once people get it. Grandparents will visit grandchildren. Sports will resume. Christmas won’t be cancelled. Freedom and fellowship. Dining out and date nights. Cruise ships and college trips. Find whatever people value and point it out. People do not consider the opportunity cost unless it is explicit.

Closing note: if SkininTheGame is the ultimate signal, my wife had her second dose last weekend.

Influential Words

Could: a verb used for clicks as in, this <insert news> could have these economics effects on your portfolio.

More: a pronoun used to show relative position, though the original may not be stated, as in, Laura got more for her money at Herr’s.

Deal: a noun used to show relative rather than absolute spending. As in, I got a great deal on my new SUV.

Largest increase or fastest growing: an adverb/verb combination demonstrating increase in a small group. As in, pickleball is America’s fastest growing sport. Antonym: Large N, small p.

The theme here is relativity. People are relative thinkers; see corporate greed or cheating college. Words matter because they frame our approach. Listen closely. Consider the focus. Do the words hint at who was at fault? If this were a movie why is this the script? Need to change how people understand something, or apply some extreme ownership?

Part of the reasons pickleball IS so fast growing is my participation. Thanks too to Tim for a conversation long ago that planted this seed.

Framing as a Fire or as a Fight

One way to change an experience, and all experience is subjective, is to change the framing of it. Our food takes longer because we make it fresh. Via a16z:

“There has been some interesting work in the linguistics community asking if we should be using war as a metaphor for the virus. There’s a lot of discussion about ‘front line workers’, which is a war metaphor, but unlike people in the military, they didn’t volunteer for this degree of risk.”

Gretchen McCulloch

McCulloch goes on to consider how things would be different if the pandemic were described as a fire or natural disaster. What if outbreaks were flareups, people sheltered temporarily, and we extinguished the threat?

Some added stress of this pandemic is from our ambiguity aversion: we don’t like the feeling of not knowing.

So we use metaphors. Fights are: Us vs them, victory is this mark, loss is this, collateral damage is undesired but expected.

This post isn’t to say that Fire or Fight is better for the pandemic, but to think about using framing in interesting ways. Here’s one we’ve featured before:

This ad frames opportunity cost. It says, you’ve got 1,200 dollars. Do you want a new iPhone or a nearly-new iPhone and tickets to the ballet?

Framing works not because people can’t do the thinking by themselves, but that they don’t because thinking about all this is hard. We’ve evolved to process information where available equals important. That’s often good enough, so we stop thinking.

This is all good news. It’s why Alchemy is possible. Using the right words changes the focus which changes the understanding which changes the actions.

Would the pandemic be different if we viewed it more as a natural disaster? Maybe. Would our understanding, focus, and concept be different? Certainly.

Leave the selfie stick/mindset at home

“Well, my advice to everyone that goes to a national park is to leave your selfie stick behind and leave your desire to get that perfect selfie behind and just soak in the beauty of the park itself because that will stay with you a lot longer than this selfie kind of mode will.”

Tim Cook, Outside podcast

One theme of the podcast between Cook and Michael Roberts is the classic, am I using technology or is technology using me? Sometimes that manifests in taking selfies rather than enjoying spaces.

But it’s Cook’s framing that’s my favorite idea. Don’t want to take selfies, design the choice to be easy, and leave the selfie stick at home.

But, what if we apply this to the selfie mindset. Take the stick but leave the mindset?

The way we think about problems greatly affects the way we solve problems. One way to approach situations then is to ‘bring along’ a new mindset. For instance, someone can consider how to argue well or to learn something with Fermi Knowledge. Bringing that desire to a new project, situation, or group will affect how we act.

It’s easy to think of bringing along of tangible things but we can bring along ideas too, and framing them that way might make them easier to pack.