Pre-mortems, over-optimism as normal, and luck versus fortune

I like this bit from an interview with one of my favorite thinkers, Michael Mauboussin:

Yeah, so most people are familiar with a post-mortem, right? 
Which is a play off the same words, and a post-mortem is we bought this stock and it went down, so let's get around the table, talk about why we made the decision, how we got it wrong, as you pointed out, and see if there's lessons that we can glean from that. And again, post-mortems are very popular in different disciplines. 

A pre-mortem, and this idea, by the way, was developed by a social psychologist named Gary Klein. He has a very different concept. He says before we actually make the decisions, so we've not put any money to work yet. Let's launch ourselves into the future, and let's just say it's July 2013, a year from now. Let's say that we made the investment and it turned out badly. Now each of us independently should write down on a piece of paper, or maybe even write a little article about what went wrong. 

And it turns out when people go through that exercise, they are able to identify up to 30% more factors or variables than they would just standing in the present looking to the future. So somehow this idea of extracting yourself, putting yourself into the future looking back to the present, opens up your mind a little bit versus standing in the present and looking into the future. And it's a funny thing because you can think about all sorts of predictions people have made about the world, about whatever it is, about energy prices, gold prices, economic growth, what have you, and you can see it's very difficult to anticipate what's likely to happen, so pre-mortem can help open up your mind and get you to contemplate or evaluate these variables. 

Related is another impulse control hack for large purchase decisions, which is to not give in to your initial impulse. Instead, wait 30 days, let your initial fervor dissipate, and then see if you still feel the strong urge to buy.

Maybe someone will devise a way to enforce this for internet purchasing, where the time between purchase decision and follow-through can be so short. Instead of a 1-click button like Amazon has, this service would offer a 30-day-click button. You could use it on any site, and if you pressed it, the service would not purchase the item but instead send you an email or mobile notification once a week asking if you still wanted the item. If you ever responded no, your order would be cancelled. If you clicked yes every time, the service would finally process the order at the end of those 30 days.

Another snippet from the interview I liked, was Mauboussin riffing on Dan Gilbert:

We have more optimism than is justified by the facts. And in fact, it turns out that people who are depressed, which is obviously a very difficult situation, but people who are depressed are much more realistic about the future. Actually, normal, healthy, mentally healthy individuals is going to be too optimistic, but that optimism, as you point out in the Henry Ford thing is what gets you up every morning and gets you to get out there and try to succeed, so there's something to that. 

That is, a "normal, healthy" human being is calibrated to be over-optimistic.

One last bit I liked is Mauboussin clarifying his distinction between luck and fortune:

And I think this idea that I define luck very specifically, because you mentioned something else about him, so I'm going to define luck as having three sorts of features. One is it happens to an individual or a group, say sports team or what have you. The second thing is it can be good or bad, so there's sort of symmetry. The values don't have to be symmetrical, but there's good and there's bad. And the third thing is that it would be reasonable to expect another outcome, so what happened was not the only thing that could have happened. 

And so often people say, Well gee, I was lucky to be born into the family I was born, right? Or I was lucky to be born at the time, and by the definition I just gave, that would actually not be lucky; that would be fortunate, and that's important, but it wouldn't be luck as I'm defining it. So I think Buffett was fortunate to be born when he was born with the skills that he was born with. That would not be luck by my definition, so that may be semantics, but that's; it's actually a distinction that's useful when you think about predictions.