In the face of massive environmental, political, social and economic challenges that should unite us, we’ve divided ourselves up and spend most of our time shoving past each other with rigid ideology or inflated self-importance. Religious fundamentalists and reactionary political groups draw followers with their extremist rhetoric, friends are quick to fight over any topic on social media, and even news coverage gets caught up as pundits opine rather than inform.
It doesn’t have to be this way. After all, educators and business leaders have been telling us for years to be more nimble and adaptable, and we’ve never enjoyed access to more information or been able to connect with more people around the world. So why are so many of us retreating to our respective corners? How, instead, might we work together to solve the problems — big and small — that we face?
I don’t know any of the answers, but I did encounter a few good ideas about attacking problems when I read Think Like a Freak. The book is the latest installment in the Freakonomics franchise by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, which includes other books, a blog and a podcast, all animated by the notion that smart experiments and counterintuitive good ideas can help make things better.
One of their more entertaining anecdotes features Takeru Kobayashi, who won six straight eating contests using a system he’d developed through trial and error. By breaking hot dogs into smaller pieces and consuming them separately from the buns, which he dunked in water, he ate 50 in 12 minutes — twice the previous record. The key, Levitt and Dubner argue, was redefining the problem from how to eat more hot dogs to how to make them easier to eat.
The Freakonomics approach, which is big on data, experiments and questioning conventional approaches, appeals to me. It reminds me of the advice my high school calculus teacher once gave our class: “Work smart, not hard.” By having us approach difficult problems from different angles, he helped us avoid spinning our wheels.
I got similar advice in a marketing seminar this past summer. “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Generate plenty of ideas but don’t get too attached to any of them,” the facilitator told us, as he coaxed us to a more creative, flexible approach to problem-solving.
That strikes me as good advice, no matter how big or small the issue you’re tackling. I think back to the past few years at work. I’m naturally curious and love jumping from idea to idea, but I’m absent-minded and quickly grow bored with the details of implementation. Fortunately, I started getting better results once I utilized a system of reminder lists to keep my various projects on track — a mundane but powerful innovation.
Or take my health. A couple years ago, I struggled with low energy levels and needed to lose weight. By looking beyond the traditional low-fat dogma and researching what actually works, I hacked my eating routines and eventually lost 40 pounds. Problem solved.
Now, looking a world that seems too often polarized by rigid dogma, I’d wager that thinking like a freak is just what the doctor ordered. When all the usual approaches fail, it’s time to try something different. But Levitt and Dubner put it more eloquently.
“The modern world,” they write, “demands that we all think a bit more productively, more creatively, more rationally; that we think from a different angle, with a different set of muscles, with a different set of expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism.”
Josh Stowe is a web content specialist at the Notre Dame Alumni Association.