“He’s such a freak!”
The word “freak” generally has negative connotations. But Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have been working hard over the last decade to change that perception. Their first and second books, Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, were bestsellers that focused on economics and incentives. They told the stories of real estate agents and the Ku Klux Klan, and turned conventional wisdom on its head. Now, in their third book, Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner applaud those who think outside of the box (whom they call “freaks”) and explain how they get ahead in the world.
Levitt and Dubner explain that often we are faced with options that seem obvious, but upon further thought, there’s another way that’s even better. The question is: how do you find that way? How do you learn to think like a freak? Among other suggestions, the authors give five ways to find the not-so-obvious solution that will ultimately get you ahead of the crowd.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” It’s hard for us to admit when we don’t know something because we are trained to believe that knowing the right answer will get us ahead (in school, on standardized tests, even the written drivers’ test). In reality, being able to say “I don’t know” when we don’t know something is a great way to understand a situation. This is similar to what I once pointed out from Roberta Ness’s book Genius Unmasked. In it, Ness argues that geniuses need to “find the right question.” In other words, they keep attacking the wrong questions until they finally hit on the right question. That’s part of admitting that we don’t know something. If we know we don’t know, we can approach the problem with a fresh perspective.
Disregard limits. Levitt and Dubner write about a man who won the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest even though he was skinny and a rookie. While people told him that he was too small and inexperienced, he ignored them and instead approached the problem with his own unique set of questions. Instead of asking, “How do I eat more hot dogs?” he asked, “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?” Dubner explains this disregard for limits: “Every one of us faces all kinds of limits every day, financial limits, temporal or time limits, expectation limits, social acceptability – what is cool to say or not to say… If you just think about the opportunities you have to ignore what seem to be legitimate barriers or limits, it’s just boundless. The majority of people do something in a particular way and think, ‘Okay, that’s the way it’s done, and you just can’t deviate that much because it must not work.’ But, if you want to try to change the world (hot dog contests aside), then you have to ignore those limits and approach the problem from a different angle.”
Start small. Have fun. In essence, think like a child. If you tell a child to do a puzzle, he or she will start with one tiny corner. And, he or she will also show the piece to you or a friend. Perhaps even sticking the piece on his or her forehead and asking a friend where it went. All these things seem silly, but they are actually part of learning and getting things done. Maybe feeling the piece on his skin helps the child understand where it goes in the puzzle. Children are also not afraid to try new things even if they will look silly or unsophisticated. If we start small and have fun, we will come up with a solution that is creative and successful.
Reward people. If you are in a leadership position, reward your employees for positive work. If you collect money for an organization or charity, reward your donors. These rewards need not be monetary. In fact, Levitt and Dubner relay the story of Smile Train, a charity that provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates. The organization knew how frustrating it is to keep being asked for money, so they told people, “Donate one surgery now, and we will never ask you for anything again.” An increased number of people donated – and after only one-third of them asked to not be contacted again. Smile Train got its donations with an added incentive (lack of pestering).
Flip a coin. When faced with a tough decision, flip a coin. It sounds counterintuitive, but most people know in their gut what they feel the right answer is. Thus, if you flip a coin and immediately regret the outcome, you know you should do the opposite of what the coin says. If, on the other hand, you flip a coin and are relieved by the outcome, you know that you are happy. As Dubner explains, “The most interesting part [of the coin flip experiment] is that many, many people, once they put the decision in our hands, whether the coin told them to quit or not, they immediately, in their gut, felt either very happy or very sad about it, which means that they really knew before they came to us what they really wanted to do but just needed some help making the decision.” So, flip a coin! Find out how you really feel.
Want to think like a freak? Maybe we all should give it a try…