Life Reimagined

The Power of Positive Freaking

The Freakonomics guys reveal how to apply crazy-smart thinking to everyday life

You can’t accuse the Freakonomics dudes of thinking small. Starting with their original 2005 mega-bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores Life, Steven D. Levitt (the rogue economist) and Steven J. Dubner (the journalist) have created a Freaking empire: an equally titanic follow-up book, a movie, a radio show, a magazine column, a blog, maybe even a Freakonomics Seder plate. All of it is based on a few deceptively simple ideas:

• Things are not what they seem to be.

• Conventional wisdom is usually wrong.

• There’s a hidden side to everything.

With all of that Freaky brand expansion, one thing was missing: a way to make those ideas work in your everyday life. Until now. Their new book Think Like a Freak takes the pair’s ethos straight into the realm of self-help, inviting readers to challenge status quo and think unconventionally in all parts of daily living, from careers to relationships—and to achieve greater clarity through simple shifts in perception. We talked to Dubner about the glory of fatty foods, the evils of Facebook and the importance of thinking Freakily at life’s crossroads.

What’s the ultimate goal of thinking like a freak?

Dubner: Most of us, by the time we get to be 30 or 35, are locked into a bunch of habits and preferences that we were pretty sure were awesome when we were younger. By nature, we cling to these habits — desperately, sometimes. Thinking like a freak helps you reconsider your assumptions and perceptions. It cuts you loose and frees you up to think more productively and creatively.

Can you give an example of a common rut?

Dubner: So, I’ve had a set of die-hard beliefs that tell me that eating a lot of non-fat food is good for me and that watching TV is bad for me. I also thought that golf is a stupid sport that only old people do. Well then, I’m not going to consider the fact that eating fat is good in moderation. You know, TV might be pretty good in moderation, too. And golf is kind of fantastic exercise. Challenging old beliefs is a great thought exercise.

Sounds good in theory, but how can people actually do it?

Dubner: Set aside a chunk of time to do pure thinking. Make it a time when you’re not reading, or watching something on TV, or trying to “pay attention” to something. It turns out that most of us make very little time for actualmental exercise. It strikes me as strange that we have such a strong belief about physical exercise and such a weak one about mental exercise. But you need to carve out the time. It’s become gospel that if you’re not physically exercising, you’re either a bad person or a lazy person. Our minds are awesome computers. You will come up to the stuff that matters to you, what’s missing or flawed or broken in your life.

At midlife, it’s easy to beat yourself up over lost chances. Is it still possible to redirect your life, even if it’s clear you’ll never be a superstar?

Dubner: Diversified portfolios are good for investing. It’s the same with life. In the media, we see things as blockbuster hits or failures. But I don’t need to quit my job as a middle manager and become a surfer to make a substantial change. Maybe I keep my job, but I start doing three hours of surfing a week to shake up my neurons. We’re brainwashed into this cult of never quitting anything. It’s ok to give up, really. I applaud the upside of quitting a big dream to make room for the smaller victories.

Can we rewire our brains to willingly abandon a dream?

Dubner: Ask yourself, for every hour you spend on one thing, what else could you be doing? This is calledopportunity cost. For instance: I signed a record deal after college. I’d been lusting after the life of a rock star. My identity was wrapped up in this band. All my friends, everybody I knew other than my family, were connected to the band. I woke up one day and for whatever reason I thought: What would it be like to not be in the band? As simple a question as that. And, you know, I thought it’d feel pretty good. I’d miss this and that, I’d feel I let people down, but what would I do instead? What else was I losing out on? Just by asking that question, I could reach the quit.

The goal seems to be happiness. But what actually makes people happy?

Dubner: I’ve always been really interested in happiness — how it’s achieved, how it’s lost. There’s this idea that we think money is a big driver. When you look at data, it’s true that going from poverty to out of poverty is a great thing, a profound thing. Then, once you have enough money to be safe, well fed, and to protect your family, the next hundred, thousand, or even million dollars don’t make a really big difference. Stuff doesn’t make people as happy as experiences. And experiences that feel productive and contributory toward others make us feel even better.

How does social media skew our vision of happiness?

Dubner: Well, it exposes us to a lot of unrealistic, unachievable expectations. In social media, you see a lot of upside. You are constantly measuring your own happiness, abilities and competence against other people, whom you’re sampling at a really wildly unrepresentative level. The same thing happened with TV fifty years ago. We were surrounded by images of people who had more than us or were happier than us. You know it’s a fantasy, but the medium is so strong that it’s easy to forget.

Any parting words of advice for people trying to reach a goal?

Dubner: Almost none of life is all or nothing. Think incrementally, like a child! A kid isn’t looking to solve cancer. But a kid might know a sick person and wonder if there is one small thing that he or she could do to help.

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