Think Like A Freak

I confess that despite the popularity of the authors’, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, previous books—Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics—I haven’t read them. However, I watched a video of a short interview with Levitt and Dubner—for obvious, reasons they use surnames a lot—about their new book and decided to hit the Buy with 1-click button on Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything.

Thinking like a freak (TLF) is about ways to approach problem solving, about thinking “better”, about what gets in our way when we look for solutions.

Here are some of the central ideas:

  • Beware of your biases: too many people look for data that confirms what they already think, rather than seeking new evidence (which is the classic, rational scientific approach).
  • Beware running with the herd. This can mean embracing the status quo and abdicating responsibility.
  • Take time to think.
  • Be prepared to admit that you don’t know.

The next time you’re in a real jam, facing an important question that you just can’t answer, go ahead and make something up—and everyone will believe you, because you’re the guy who all those other times was crazy enough to admit you didn’t know the answer.

  • Dogmatism and over-confidence characterise the person who is bad predictor.
  • Being great at one thing, doesn’t mean you’re great at everything. [1]
  • Put away your moral compass. It may colour your assessment of possible answers.
  • The key to learning is good feedback. And acting upon it.
  • Experiment.
  • Make sure you ask the right question. Define or, better, redefine the problem.
  • Try to ignore barriers that may be artificial or imagined or supposed.
  • Identify and attack root causes not symptoms.
  • Don’t be afraid of childlike questions or ideas. Don’t be afraid of the obvious.
  • Nibble away at big problems by asking small questions.
  • There’s no correlation betwen being serious and being good at what you do. There’s nothing wrong with having fun.
  • On incentives:
    – It’s important to understand incentives. The herd mentality incentive wins out over moral, social and financial incentives. And be aware of unintended consequences. People will play the system. Treating people decently may help. Or encourage the bad apples to “ambush only themselves”.
  • On persuasion:
    – If they don’t get it, it’s your fault.
    – Don’t pretend your argument is perfect.
    – Acknowledge the strength of your opponent’s argument.
    – Don’t be insulting.
    – Tell stories.
  • On Quitting
    – Sometimes quitting is the right thing to do.
    – Celebrate failure.
    – Let go of conventional wisdom

So what’s the verdict on TLF? It is an entertaining read. The authors illustrate the key points with lots of stories, which alone are worth the price of admission. You will probably need to read some of the stories to make sense of the condensed ideas in the list above. [2]

So have Levitt and Dubner really said anything revolutionary? At the risk of being ultracrepidarianist, I’m going to say yes and no. Individually, none of the key ideas in the list are particularly revolutionary or earth-shattering, but as a package it works.

… there are no magic bullets, All we’ve done is to encourage you to think a bit differently, a bit harder, a bit more freely.

  1. I learned a new word Ultracrepidarianism. It means giving advice and opinions when you’re not qualified to do so. It reminded me of this Harry Frankfurt quote: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  ↩
  2. Almost 25% of the book is notes and references on the source material for the stories.  ↩


  1. Interested in your thoughts on This Will Make You Smarter by John Brockman

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