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Book Review: Think Like A Freak: The Authors Of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
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Book Review: Think Like A Freak: The Authors Of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Think Like A Freak: The Authors Of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Think Like A Freak: The Authors Of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Millions of copies of Freakonomics have been sold since its publication in 2005, and if you haven’t read it, you have certainly heard of it and how its self-proclaimed “rogue economist” applies economic principles to pop culture issues including match-fixing in professional sumo and the effects of legalized abortion on violent crime. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner share shelf space with a recent wave of populist social science explainers praised by some as accessible and groundbreaking, while critics call them out for oversimplification. Now they are back with a third book in the series (a second book, SuperFreakonomics, was published in 2009), which they describe in the introduction as their first attempt at being prescriptive, rather than merely descriptive.

“This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful,” they write, “whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.” What their advice mostly boils down to is outside-the-box thinking (a phrase whose use itself is antithesis to the mindset it trumpets) with specific guidelines for creative problem-solving and persuasion. Illustrating their argument with stories comparing the Biblical King Solomon with Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth, for example, keeps things interesting and memorable, and here is the book’s greatest strength: the authors’ ability to tell a good, memorable story in setting up and supporting their theses.

In addition to the power of story in persuasion, Levitt and Dubner emphasize the efficacy of properly identifying the small problems that cause the big problems, and how incentivizing changes in behavior can alter everything for better or worse. One particularly interesting chapter explores the concept of “teaching your garden to weed itself,” which touts the method of approaching a problem so that deliberate, selective elimination of data (or circumstance, or people) points to desired outcomes. In the example of Van Halen’s famous touring contract, whose rider famously insisted on a large bowl of M&Ms candies “but absolutely no brown ones,” the band wasn’t flexing its rockstar status for its own amusement; rather, the M&Ms demand was an easy way to see if promoters and venue managers had read the entire rider, which specified requirements for safely putting on the band’s show. If the band saw brown M&Ms on the snack table, it would know the requirements hadn’t been read carefully, and that without further action, the band, the audience, and the venue were at risk: an example of letting the garden weed itself.

In today’s TED-obsessed mass culture conversation, a great deal of attention is given outside-the-boxers like the authors of Freakonomics, and one definitely sees the appeal. The stories in their books are fascinating, and the implied need for shifts in theory, thinking, and practice has clearly hit a resonating note with many. Yet while they admit that becoming a freak means “you’ll have to grow accustomed to people calling you a crank, or sputtering with indignation, or perhaps even getting up and walking out of the room,” they don’t offer meaningful advice about dealing with this consequence, other than an entire final chapter preaching the value of knowing when to quit. Here is where this book (and others of its type) consistently fail. Coming down off the high of a great read like Think Like a Freak usually involves a sudden drop, as if from the edge of a cliff, when one recognizes that altering the status quo is usually a long, lonely, steep, uphill effort not eagerly embraced by those in power to alter it.

Think Like a Freak is one of Amazon.com’s twenty “Best Books of 2014” in the business and investing category, and unless you’re among the critics who feel books like this lack a certain sophistication in thought or don’t attempt enough scientific rigor, it’s a pretty good reminder of certain approaches to problem-solving that are useful to keep in your toolbox. It’s a very well-written, clear, accessible, memorable look at great problem-solving in action, and definitely worth a read.

 

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Book Review: Think Like A Freak: The Authors Of Freakonomics Offer To Retrain Your Brain, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Executive Leadership Articles

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