The Art of Doing

How Can You Learn to Think Like a Freak?

With their new book out, Freakonomics’ authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner teach you to “Think Like a Freak”

For more on Stephen Dubner, read our chapter on him “How to Write a Runaway Bestseller,” in our book.

The Freakonomics Authors’ New Approach to Creative, Productive Thinking

The phenomenally successful Freakonomics platform–two bestselling books, a blog, a number one podcast, a radio show, and a consulting business–was built on the principle of looking at the world through the filter of economic theory.

Authors Steven Levitt, a behavioral economist, and Stephen Dubner, a journalist, believe that an “economic approach” to thinking shouldn’t just apply to economics, but to problem solving in general.

In their new book, Think Like a Freak, the authors show us that by applying these theories, we can all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally.

Here are three ways Dubner and Levitt encourage us to “think like a freak:”

1. Ask the Right Questions

Think about a problem you’d really like to see solved–the obesity epidemic, perhaps, or climate change, or the decline of the American public-school system–and before you spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem, first define exactly what the problem is. Or better yet, redefine the problem.

Takeru Kobayahsi, a hot-dog-eating champion, thought long and hard with a lot of experimentation about how to win a competitive eating contest.

Instead of asking himself, “How do I eat more hot dogs?” he asked, “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?”

His solution was taking the hot dog out of the bun, breaking it in two easier to chew pieces, and, while eating those, dunking the bun in water. He then eats the bun, and, voila–down the hatch it all goes.

In his first go at the SuperBowl of competitive eating, Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, Kobayahsi doubled the previous year’s score with an impressive 50 and 1/4 hot dog and buns in the allotted 12 minutes.

2. Find the Root Cause of the Problem

All problems are caused by something, but many solutions treat the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.

It takes a truly original thinker to look at a problem that everyone else has already looked at and follow the chain of evidence back to the root cause.

When Australian medical resident Barry Marshall suspected that the conventional wisdom about the cause of ulcers was wrong in 1994, he set out to prove that the root cause was in fact bacteria.

At the time there was an $8 billion market for treating ulcer sufferers based on the belief that ulcers were the result of genetics, spicy food and stress. He proved this notion wrong in a freakishly unconventional way–by swallowing a batch of bacteria from an ulcer patient. And in 2005, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

3. Consider the Upside of Quitting

Of quitting, Levitt and Dubner write:

Quitting is at the core of thinking like a Freak. Or if that word . . . frightens you, let’s think of it as ‘letting go.’ Letting go of the conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back–and the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.

Years ago, a young boy from a small town in upstate New York dreamed of being a rock star.

After a gig at the New York City club CBGB’s that launched the careers of some of the 20th century’s most important rock bands, his band was offered a record contract by Arista Records’ music impresario Clive Davis. Davis even got Aretha Franklin on the phone to seal the deal.

Hallelujah, right?

But the young musician asked himself: Would the benefits of rock stardom, fame, fortune, and screaming girls outweigh the costs?

After talks with Bruce Springsteen, REM, and other famous rockers to find out what would life be like on the road–would he be able to find the solitude and deep connections with other human beings that he craved–the young musician made a surprising choice.

He quit the band because he’d rather write stories in a quiet room with a nice window and go home each night to a wife and kids.

His name is Stephen Dubner.

This story first appeared in Fast Company here.

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