Book Review: Think Like a Freak



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Book Review: Think Like a Freak

by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner


Non-fiction; Sociology, Economics

About the Book:

The authors of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, are back with their third novel – Think Like a Freak.  This new book still contains their trademark blend of captivating storytelling and unconventional analysis, but this time they illuminate their thought process on how they “think like a freak” to look at issues, problems and life hacks.  The goal – to retrain your brain to look at the situation differently.

Keypoints include:

  • Put away your moral compass—because it’s hard to see a problem clearly if you’ve already decided what to do about it.
  • Learn to say “I don’t know”—for until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.
  • Think like a child—because you’ll come up with better ideas and ask better questions.
  • Take a master class in incentives—because for better or worse, incentives rule our world.
  • Learn to persuade people who don’t want to be persuaded—because being right is rarely enough to carry the day.
  • Learn to appreciate the upside of quitting—because you can’t solve tomorrow’s problem if you aren’t willing to abandon today’s dud.

Great stories and data analysis include secrets of a Japanese hot-dog-eating champion, the reason an Australian doctor swallowed a batch of dangerous bacteria, and why Nigerian e-mail scammers make a point of saying they’re from Nigeria.

Favorite Quote:

The conventional wisdom is often wrong. And a blithe acceptance of it can lead to sloppy, wasteful, or even dangerous outcomes.
– Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Why I liked this book:

First I digress….

I tend to be a very goal focused individual which has served me all in my adult life. I am able to analyze a problem, create a plan and execute. I took a corporate training back at the Center for Creative Leadership in 2007 at a key junction in my career when I was moving up the corporate ladder into management. The organization that I worked for recognized that “what got you here” may not also “get you there” and invested in further learning for rising stars. 

This training highlighted our personality traits through a variety of tests including the Meyer’s Brigg test.  The training was excellent and emphasized that none of the personality traits are really right or wrong. It’s all about how we process information and communicate with others. Armed with this knowledge, we can recognize our own traits and potentially the difference in others, then we can work to bridge the gap on miscommunications.   Myself and my classmates absorbed this information likes sponges and it changed the way we communicated with our colleagues as well as learned how to manage ourselves – professionally and personally.

A few key takeaways from the at class:

My test came back that I am introverted, though I appeared to my colleagues as an extrovert at work. I found that I was overwhelmed by all-day meetings or even big loud parties, yet was trying to “fit in”.  An introverted personality does not mean that you don’t like people. It does mean you process information better alone as opposed to group discussion like extroverts.   I learned to schedule more breaks to process information and allow myself time to recharge.  Many other introverts do this too. I read that Tim Ferris will take several bathroom breaks during dinner parties to give himself a moment to recharge from all the energy in the room.

My test also revealed a very high J score.  J’s appear to the outside world as orderly, definitive, task-oriented, on-time. However, they focus so much on the goal that they may miss new information.  This was definitely glaring for me.  My super-focus and ability to execute were great as I started my career, but were going to be deadly for me as an entrepreneur or management that needed to be able to pivot and take input from others.

The last takeaway was a different test highlighting how much of our working time we spent on Thinking vs Planning vs Doing.  I was heavily weighted in Doing, then Planning and light on Thinking.  Another key takeaway to spend more time in this area which can shortcut a lot of planning (or re-planning and doing (or re-doing) in the long run.

A short week and I had an assessment of three things that changed not only how I could improve my managerial and entrepreneurial skills, but really how I viewed learning about myself.  There was no right or wrong things I was doing, just observations in how I could improve communications with others, take in information and self-sanity.  I had always been a life-long learner, but now I was more comfortable with learning about MY mind.

Back to the book….

At that point, I stumbled into the first two first books by these authors, Freakonomics published in 2005 and SuperFreakonomics published in 2011.  These books looked at socio-economic issues and turned them on their head. Instead of the damning moral condemnations that usually erupted from tough issues ie crime and abortion, they looked at data leading to causality to provide a context for a conversation.  I was hooked not only for the incredibly interesting data analysis, but also at their approach to looking at issues with curiosity instead of contempt or moral high-handedness.

This new book provides their framework for HOW they look at issues, their process of analysis.  I always enjoy their writing and the podcast with Steven Dubner’s whimsical conversation on tough topics.   This book was an easy like for me as I enjoyed adding some new tools on how to look at issues.

I have been overseas for the better part of 2 years, and coming back to the USA in this finger-pointing environment has been jolting.  In today’s world  in the USA, the conversation is so polarized that you can barely ask “why?” before being labeled a traitor for not whole-heartedly agreeing with someone.   I see so many people quickly labeling people and organizations “sexist”, “racist” and other terms and jumping all over anyone who simply asks “why” or “tell me more” in an effort to understand.  Quite honestly, I have found that they cannot even explain their accusation, but are simply regurgitating the popular vernacular. 

This is in stark contrast to my year of 2018 traveling especially in Eastern and Central Europe where the conversations are approached with curiosity.  I have had conversations in the last year about Muammar Al Gathafi, the Soviet Union, and Romanian protests from people who did not agree with the American viewpoint, but approached the conversation with an intent to explain their point, potentially persuade and usually an interest in understanding a different philosophy.  My new friends and I all left all those conversations not changing our minds per se, but definitely gaining a perspective and data points and I think the others did too utilizing many of the strategies detailed in this book.  

The key point… we left not only on good speaking terms, but great ones with an interest to learn more and broke down a barrier of perceptions based often time on the media.

The book also contains an interesting section relating to history & travel showing modern behaviors driven from root causes centuries ago.  These include how Norman overloads effected why some Italian town are more likely than other towns to participate in civic and philanthropic programs, why some countries in Africa have experienced brutal wars and corruption related to colonial occupation and others have not, protestant work ethic vs income in Germany, and how hypertension was selected in the slave trade to the Americas affecting people hundreds of years later.   All of these issues are moral hotbeds with often deep wounds, however researchers through “thinking like a freak” looked to find causality in hopes to help future generations.

I hope this the type of thinking (and conversation) in Think Like A Freak can be more utilized in exploring tough issues to look for causality instead of condemnation which simply causes people to back further into their corner or shut down.  For me, I will venture on learning with curiosity.  This quote from the book resonated deeply “The conventional wisdom is often wrong. And a blithe acceptance of it can lead to sloppy, wasteful, or even dangerous outcomes.”  

So, if I do ask “why?” and get labeled for just asking, I will proceed on thinking like a freak and not blindly following the crowd in the quest for the answer.

Inspired to visit the read Think Like a Freak?



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