How to Think Like a Freak

By Simon Branney

Last week saw me attend a fascinating lecture at the Royal Geographical Society.  Hosted by Intelligence Squared and chaired by TV and radio journalist Clive Anderson, authors Stephen D Levitt and Steven J Dubner discussed their new book ‘How to Think Like a Freak’, a follow up to their highly successful books Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.

The book is all about how to think about different and from different perspectives to come up with solutions to any and all problems.  It sounds like something that would take a lot of thinking about to be able to do effectively but the first step is, according to the authors, knowing you don’t know when you probably do.

It also involves reviewing data and looking at a situation from a very objective, unethical and unemotional point of view.

To put it into context, they gave some real life examples demonstrating that thinking differently can solve all sorts of problems. 

The first and best one centred on a Japanese (I believe) student who was entered into a hot dog eating contest by his girlfriend for a laugh.  Being a slight, skinny under eater, the joke ended up on the girlfriend when he won the contest and $5,000.  He then decided to go pro, as you do, and entered into the 4th July Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest.  This is viewed as the contest to enter if you’re serious in the US.  The record stood at 25 hot dogs consumed in just 12 minutes.

Judging from his limited experience, he was concerned that he would not be able to beat that so started looking at data on previous winners and the tactics they had employed to win.  In his training, he tried breaking the hot dog in half and eating with both hands to shovel more into his mouth. 

He then tried thinking differently and approaching from a different angle.

Realising that he had two distinct parts of the hot dog to consume, the slippery, sometimes slimy sausage and then the very dry, dense and fluffy bun, which would take up valuable space and time, he looked at separating them rather than eating at the same time.

With the bun being dry, it encouraged contestants to drink water in between to refresh and rehydrate for better eating.  This, however, also took up space in the stomach.

Thinking like a freak, he decided that he would condense the bun by putting it into the glass of water making it into a much smaller dough ball which was easier and quicker to eat and which also hydrated him at the same time.

When he entered into the contest at Coney Island, he didn’t just win, nor did he just beat the record.  He smashed it, eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes with this new method.

And that is how you think differently to come up with a better solution to a problem.

If only it was all as simple as this!