imgres-5What’s the key to thinking like a freak?
“Be willing to ask the kind of questions other people don’t ask,” said Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonmomics.
Dubner delivered the closing keynote address at Dell World in Austin recently with Steven Levitt, the other author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. The former book sold 4 million copies and dealt with a wide-range of topics from cheating teachers to self-dealing realtors. Dubner and Levitt have a reputation for explaining complex and unconventional topics like prostitution using economics and statistics. They often take a contrarian view of the world.
“Everyone’s always afraid to admit they don’t know the answers,” Dubner said. “Be willing to go all the way to the edge.”
The authors regaled the crowd with personal and professional tales from Levitt helping a high-priced prostitute in Chicago set her prices to Dubner recounting a tale about Yale Economist Keith Chen studying capuchin monkeys exchanging money for sex and food.
Levitt also recounted a story about his father and how he helped him find his niche in economics by looking at subjects that nobody else wanted to tackle.
Levitt says he got admitted to a Phd program in mathematics at MIT even though he had only taken one undergraduate class in math. He says he was in way over his head. But during that time, professors didn’t fail students because a rash of suicides had led the administration to become more lenient. To fail someone, a professor had to go to great lengths. So instead, they kept passing the students along. During a break, Levitt went home to talk with his dad about his future. His dad, a physician, told him he faced a similar dilemma in his early years as a medical researcher. His mentor told him he had little talent and advised him to study intestinal gas. The elder Levitt did and went on to become known as “The King of Farts” and one of the world’s leading authorities on intestinal gas.
So Levitt learned early on to find a niche that nobody else wanted to take on.
And even though Freakonomics didn’t tackle business subjects, the book became one of the bestselling business books of all time, Levitt said. As a result, Levitt and Dubner got invited to talk to companies all over the country.
He grew frustrated with one large retailer because it refused to change the way they did things.
“Just because you’re at work doesn’t mean you learn to stop thinking,” Levitt said.
The retailer advertised on both television ads and in newspaper inserts. But it couldn’t tell which was more effective. Levitt advised the retailer to stop running ads in newspapers in certain markets and examine the impact on sales. But the retailer was afraid to do that.
“Running the experiment would be admitting that you don’t know what the answer is,” Levitt said.
He challenged the crowd to say in an important meeting that they didn’t know the answer to a question. The goal is to get people to think creatively and innovatively to solve problems and to break out of their ruts.