In a previous post I expressed my appreciation for Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. This time around I’d like to address a few reservations.
1) Think Like a Freak (or look like one)
“Thinking like a Freak means you should work terribly hard to identify and attack the root cause of problems.” – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
In TLAF the authors include a fitting G.B. Shaw quote, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Then they go on to confirm the futility of retraining anyone’s brain, including their own, to think like Freaks — or even to think.
To help explain my reservations, let’s divide people into three types.
- Freaks – driven, steadfast, intrepid freethinkers.
- Freeks – vacillating, capricious, tepid early adopters.
- Norms – frightened, defensive, fickle sheep.
For every Freak there are thousands to millions of Norms. The ratio of Freaks to Freeks is slightly less.
The gap between types can be traced to 1) the root cause of all behavior, a neurological drive to maintain dopamine flow and 2) Eons of vindictive Norms eliminating the DNA of Freaks and Freeks who threaten deceptions, hypocrisies, beliefs, safety, power, finances, and dopamine flow.
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.” – Jonathan Swift
Freaks trigger dopamine with audacious thoughts and esteem-inflating expectations of personal achievement.
Freeks trigger dopamine by pondering, adopting, adapting, sharing, wearing, and taking credit for Freaks’ insights, with proclamations of lofty ideals, and status-elevating delusions of being Freaks and looking down on Norms.
Norms trigger dopamine by flocking to authority figures, dogma, and groups offering safety, power, acceptance, approval, status, and money.
Protecting dopamine flow
“Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.” – Thomas H. Huxley
Faced with threats to safety, acceptance, approval, status, and dopamine flow, Freaks persevere, Freeks acquiesce, Norms implode.
The power of ignorance
“Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.” – Aldous Huxley
Freaks resist ignorance, Freeks ignore it, Norms wallow in it.
Ignorance might not be bliss but it does provide an easy and effective way to protect dopamine flow.
2) Think Like a Freak for Dummies
“Show us a ‘perfect’ solution and we’ll show you our pet unicorn.”
– Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
By including such haughty advice in a book trumpeting perfect solutions, Levitt and Dubner provide a perfect example of how critics hide behind smug putdowns to convince themselves that what they can’t understand, and/or don’t want to know, isn’t worth knowing. Additionally, the authors show how an ability to sing the praises of renowned Freaks, famous for beating the odds, doesn’t correlate with identifying, supporting, or even listening to unknown Freaks being beaten by the odds.
Based on the above and similar caveats in TLAF, I suspect Steven and Stephen had second thoughts about raising false hopes. It’s as if their moral compass sent them scrambling for subtle ways to warn readers “Don’t try this at home. The Freaks we write about succeeded because they’re so much smarter, more resourceful, and determined than you will ever be.”
3) Think Like a Mini Freak
“To think like a Freak means to think small, not big. Why? For starters, every big problem has been thought about endlessly by people much smarter than we are. The fact that it remains a problem means it is too damned hard to be cracked in full.” – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
By touting the advantages of thinking small the authors again flip from overpromising to underestimating their audience. That’s not to suggest thinking small never makes sense. It’s just that following so many tales about big thinkers with such small-minded advice isn’t really thinking like a Freak.
Brian Mullaney, Barry Marshall, Tony Hsieh, and even Takeru Kobayashi didn’t accomplish what they did by thinking small. Neither did Fred Smith, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs who advised “Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
I happen to be a layman who’s never taken a science course. I don’t consider myself a Freak and yet, by seeking a root cause of all man-made problems, managed to make one of the most significant breakthroughs of the 21st century.
Granted, my discovery was there for the noticing because, when it comes to protecting dopamine flow associated with understanding how a neurotransmitter usurps free will, Freaks, like Freeks and Norms, tend to ignore dopamine repellent information, no matter how obvious it is.
4) Think Like a Hustler
“We should also note the obvious point that no one likes to feel manipulated. Too many incentive schemes are thinly disguised grabs for leverage or money, so it shouldn’t be surprising that some people push back. Thinking like a Freak may sometimes sound like an exercise in using clever means to get exactly what you want, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
It’s ironic how Levitt and Dubner’s books are filled with inspiring tales of Freaks who risked everything to champion mostly selfless breakthroughs. Then the authors’ show how little they understand Freaks by offering petty advice about hoodwinking marks without letting them know they’re being conned.
5) Think Like a Quitter
“Now that we’ve arrived at these last pages, it’s pretty obvious: quitting is at the very core of thinking like a Freak.” – Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
This is possibly the most inane advice in the book. On the bright side, Freaks are unlikely to listen and Freeks might benefit from it.
How is it possible neither author realized they chose the Freaks lionized in their books because, despite years of rejections, dismissals, condemnations, setbacks, smug putdowns, and worse, they refused to quit?
As Alejandro Gaviria noted in his Amazon.com review of Think Like a Freak, “But the stories, not the free advice, are the most valuable part of this failed book. In the last chapter, the authors recognized that, after three Freaknomics books, perhaps it was time to think about quitting. If they had heeded their own advice, they’d have quit earlier and they’d have never written this book.”
While I totally agree the stories are the most valuable part and partially agree about the authors quitting sooner, I don’t consider TLAF a failed book. What Levitt and Dubner accomplished is entrepreneurial and impressive. They took a topic Malcolm Gladwell would have covered in a single book, wrapped it in a gimmicky title, and turned it into a cash cow they’ve been milking for years. That said, I would have given them a lot more credit if they’d simply rode into the sunset instead of glorifying quitting to convince themselves throwing in the towel somehow proved they think like Freaks.
6) Think Like an Entrepreneur
“Pay attention to how people respond; if their response surprises or frustrates you, learn from it and try something different.”
– Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
In the end, my biggest disappointment with TLAF is how the authors missed a valuable opportunity to help readers by challenging them to honestly evaluate the psychological and emotional (i.e. dopamine related) issues that keep Norms and Freeks from thinking like Freaks. Instead, they opted to entice potential customers by offering an imitation self-help book that confuses thinking like an entrepreneur, hustler, and/or quitter with thinking like a Freak.
The sad truth is even brilliant Freaks fail because they’re so far ahead of the herd there’s simply no way to repackage, reword, refer to insights so dopamine-repellent they freak everyone out. Meanwhile, copycat entrepreneurs succeed all the time by reformulating, reworking, rebranding products, books, and fads that accomplish little more than temporarily satisfying insatiable dopamine cravings on the way to permanently clogging landfills.
On that note, I’d like to end with a piece of useful advice from one my favorite Freaks, Abraham Maslow. Dr. Maslow is famous for formulating a hierarchy of deficiency and being needs by studying healthy individuals, which was the opposite of what his colleagues were doing.
“I have learned the novice can often see things that the expert overlooks. All that is necessary is not to be afraid of making mistakes or of appearing naive.”