How to think like a freak (or why you should think like a freak)

Wang Yip
4 min readMar 8, 2018

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of the best selling Freakonomics, presented a book that had a very interesting premise: they were offering to retrain my brain. I’d like to think that I’m a smart and humble guy but I couldn’t pass up on their offer and I’m always looking for ways to improve my thinking and decisions. Here is what I learned from the authors:

Redefine the problem to be able to discover a new set of solutions

I love this idea of redefining or reframing problems in different ways to come up with a new set of solutions. The story they use is of the competitive eater, Takeru Kobayashi, who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the record of 25 hot dogs in a minute. All of the previous competitive eaters were asking themselves “how do i eat more hot dogs” and Kobayashi decided to approach the problem differently (and more than double the previous record) by asking himself “how can I make the hot dogs easier to eat?” The next time you’re stuck on a problem, can you redefine it in a certain way to help you generate other solutions? For example, instead of thinking about how to lose weight through exercise / diet, think about how you can lead a more active life through different choices (such as taking the stairs or parking further away from your company).

When it comes to generating ideas and asking questions, it can be really fruitful to have the mentality of an eight-year old child

Do you have children? Do they ask what you think are fairly ridiculous or stupid questions? Think about that for a second — why are the questions stupid / ridiculous? It may be because the kids do not have any preconceived notions or biases that adults have and that can be magical when solving problems in different ways. One of the ways to generate innovative ideas is to come up with ridiculous ideas and the way to generate ridiculous ideas is to throw away any existing notions about feasible solutions.

Small problems vs. big problems

The authors talk about how three economists went to China where they were trying to fix the problem of poor education. They handed out eye glasses for free to students and found that those that wore eyeglasses learned 25 to 50 percent more than their peers who did not wear eyeglasses. This is the small problem vs. big problem — the big problem being education and the small problem being poor eyesight. When you have a very big problem, see if you can transform it into a smaller problem that you can easily solve.

The secret to persuading people

  • Don’t pretend your argument is perfect

When you are setting out to persuade someone, if you only tout benefits and no disadvantages or downsides, it will seem too good to be true (and your opponent will never buy it). By addressing some of the weaknesses in your argument, you create a more comprehensive argument that can address some of the challenges that your opponent raises.

  • Acknowledge the strength of your opponent’s argument

When you tell someone that their argument is stupid or baseless, this has the same effect as calling them an idiot — they will close up and it will be difficult to persuade them. It is better to get them on your side and that’s what I believe acknowledging the strengths

  • No ad hominem attacks

The moment you accuse or insult the person you are trying to persuade, they will close up and it will be even more challenging to persuade them.

  • Tell stories

Stories are one of the best ways to transfer lessons (think about how stories have been passed from generation to generation in the past).

Failure is not a total loss

Michael Bloomberg thinks of failure like this “if you go down a path and it turns out to be a dead end, you really made a contribution because we know we don’t have to go down that path again”. This is how the scientific community thinks about failure and it should really be applied to more areas of life — failures contribute knowledge to the whole and are therefore useful (though individual failures are pretty awful at the time). If you can reframe your view of failures, maybe you’ll make more failures more often and thus generate more innovative ideas — as I have learned, you can’t generate great ideas without producing a lot of bad ones at the same time.

Well, should you think like a freak? I have found that there are some interesting techniques but ultimately, the book’s premise is to think differently about things and to try different techniques and strategies to get yourself thinking outside the box. There are a lot of people who think normally and if you don’t want to generate the same ideas or get the same results as the masses, it helps to think differently (like a freak).

Wang Yip

Author of Essential Habits. I write about personal development, work and managing your career. Connect with me at