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Why It Pays to Think Like a Freak

The upside's huge, Steven 'Freakonomics' Levitt says in a new book

By Richard Eisenberg

Odds are, you’re familiar with the Freakonomics juggernaut — the bestselling books by University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, who hosts public radio’s Freakonomics Radio program.
But do you know how to think like a freak? Or why you’d even want to?
The Freakonomics guys, who take an unorthodox, sometimes seemingly nutty, approach to economics (one of their tenets: the conventional wisdom is often wrong), have just written a kind of how-to book that answers those questions: Think Like a Freak. I confess being partial to smarties who think unconventionally; you might want to check out my Next Avenue interview with another one of them, career consultant Stephen Pollan.
(MORE: What's Your Money Mind?)

Recently, I interviewed Levitt to learn how we can get our freak on at work, when handling our finances and in our lives overall and what the payoffs are for trying.

A word of caution: The authors write, “We are probably not the kind of people you’d typically want to ask for help; and some of our advice tends to get people into trouble rather than out of it.”
With that caveat in mind, here’s my interview:
Next Avenue: Why is it helpful to think like a freak?
Levitt: Well that’s debatable, but it’s worked out well for me.  We’ve had a lot of fun and success solving tough problems and entertaining people along the way. Since we wrote Freakonomics, we’ve gotten thousands of emails, about 10 or 20 a day.
We say: try to take a different approach to consider a problem.
How does someone do that?
It’s hard for everybody to think differently. It’s strange to me, I go to big firms and people are caught up in a lot of what they should do, but that's based on assumptions that don’t make sense.

(MORE: Do You Worry Too Much?)

You say that one way to think like a freak is to think like a child. What do you mean?
I’ve come to believe that one of the things that’s important when sizing up a situation is to think like a child because almost no one does that.
A child has the luxury of time and self-confidence. A child goes off on tangents, a child lacks boundaries. Children don’t know how the world works so they’re willing to challenge the boundaries.
If you think like a child, it frees you up to come up with ideas that are a little off, but which have originality.
You also say thinking like a freak means not being afraid to say: ‘I don’t know,’ especially at work. Why?
It’s almost impossible to say ‘I don’t know’ at work. You can’t admit that. But that’s no way to learn how to be better.

So I take the premise for everything I do that ‘I don’t know’ almost every time. Then everything follows from that.
Work is the best example of why thinking like a freak can pay off.
But isn’t it possible that you’ll meet resistance because people at work don’t think that way?
You might be right. It helps if you work for a place where people encourage this. Like Zappos. The CEO, Tony Hsieh, even pays new employees to quit if they’re not truly excited about their job.
If you run a team at work, you should tell them that you encourage them to think like a freak.
You write about the guy who won the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest by thinking differently. He cut the hot dogs in half and dipped the buns in water so they’d go down more easily. What can we learn from him?
Right. Takeru Kobayashi is a Japanese guy who was completely unknown to the 4 of July contest until he ate 50 hot dogs; the record had been 25. He redefined the problem.


The solution wasn’t about making his stomach bigger, it was about technique. He said ‘I don’t know’ how to do it and then worked day after day, with spreadsheets and wound up doubling the number anyone had eaten. People thought he was a freak of nature.

Now the record is around 69 or 70 hot dogs. It just took one guy to think differently.
What is the lesson for the rest of us?
It makes sense to follow the conventional wisdom most of the time. But if you really care deeply about something, there are often big gains for breaking with the pack. Take a different perspective with ways of thinking that nobody has had before.
(MORE: Saving for Retirement: Retrain Your Brain)

How should people think like a freak when they’re planning for retirement?
Should you save as much as people say? That’s an open question, with a lot of disagreement among economists. People and policymakers worry that individuals are not saving because they have no self-control.
Actually, a lot of people shut down because the numbers they hear about how much to save are unrealistic.
But when you’re at a job and Human Resources defaults employees into aggressive savings plans, people save whatever the default rate is. It’s such a simple idea. And it might make you think: Are there other things I could do to save for retirement so I don’t have to think about it?
Why should you think like a freak when you’re looking for a job?
There are often many applicants going after one job. You’re almost guaranteed not to get it if you’re in the middle of the pack. If you think like a freak, you can get yourself away from the pack. It won’t always pay off. But being different and taking risks can have real payoffs.
So does that mean you should do something like make your resumé into a cake — just to stand out?
I think it’s a great idea. What’s the worst that could happen? Yeah, you have to spend money on the cake but in work settings where standing out is a plus, something good could happen. Of course, there’s the opposite possibility.
We’re all risk-averse and we’re taught to be cautious. But when you’re looking for jobs, risk-taking is good. Without it, you might not get the job.
Take rock stars. There are thousands of people who want to be rock stars but the ones who make it are different, they’re odd, they’re creative.
Speaking about rock stars, you write that David Lee Roth was thinking like a freak when he wrote into the Van Halen contracts that there could be no brown M&Ms in their dressing rooms. Why?
He found a cheap and easy way to see if the promoter was up to handling his stage show, which was incredibly complex and probably very risky with its pyrotechnics and heavy machinery.

Buried in the band’s long contract, on page 40, was this M&M clause. David Lee Roth knew that if there were no brown M&Ms, the promoter had carefully read the contract and he could be confident the promoter paid attention to the other 52 pages.
That was a completely different way of thinking. To me, it was genius.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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