Learn to Think Productively, Creatively, and Rationally

The wisdom of this book can be summed up as follows

“Letting go of conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back – and of the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle.” loc. 2366

Levitt and Steven tell you right at the beginning that this is no set of instructions to get you ‘to think like a Freak’. This book is a window into how a Freak looks at the world – how Levitt and Steven look at a problem and solve it. They do so through stories; stories of people who’ve used similar approaches to solve complex real-world problems like winning a hot dog eating competition or finding the root cause of stomach ulcers.

If you’ve read the Freakonomics books or listened to their podcasts, you’ll find this book interesting. If you have not, you’d still find the book interesting, but I suggest you start with them instead.

My notes/highlights

Even the smartest people tend to seek out evidence that confirms what they already think. loc. 188

Everyone’s entitles to their own opinion but not to their own facts. loc, 292

Smart people love to make smart-sounding predictions. lock. 346

When you ask the question differently, you look for answers in different places. loc.632

Only by redefining the problem was he able to discover a new set of solutions. loc. 746

It takes a truly original thinker to look at a problem that everyone else has already looked at and find a new avenue of attack. loc. 786

“Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat” -Amartya Sen. loc. 800

One trick that works for us is a cooling-off period. Ideas nearly always seem brilliant when they’re hatched, so we never act on a new idea for at least twenty-four hours. It is remarkable how stinky some ideas become after just one day in the sun. loc. 1039

We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s much better to ask small questions than big ones. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Small questions are by their nature less often asked and investigated, and maybe not at all. They are virgin territory for true learning.
  2. Since big problems are usually a dense mass of intertwined small problems, you can make more progress by tackling a small piece of the big problem than by flailing away at grand solutions.
  3. Any kind of change is hard, but the chances of triggering change on a small problem are much greater than on a big one.
  4. Thinking big is, by definition, an exercise in imprecision or even speculation. When you think small, the stakes may be diminished but at least you can be relatively sure you know what you’re talking about.

loc. 1055

As Albert Einstein liked to say, everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. loc. 1097

Why are kids so much harder to deceive? Stone cites several reasons:

  1. A magician is constantly steering and curing his audience to see what the magician wants them to see. This leaves adults – trained all their lives to follow such cues – especially vulnerable. “Intelligence,” says Stone, “doesn’t correlate very well with gullibility.”
  2. Adults are indeed better than kids at “paying attention,” or focussing on one task at a time. “This is great for getting stuff done,” Stone says,” but it also makes you susceptible to misdirection.” Kid’s attention, meanwhile, “is more diffuse, which makes them harder to fool.”
  3. Kids don’t buy into dogma. “They’re relatively free of assumptions about how the world works,” Stone says, “ and magic is all about turning your assumptions and expectations against you. When you’re pretending to shuffle a deck, they don’t even notice you’re shuffling.”
  4. Kids are genuinely curious. In Stone’s experience, an adult may be hell-bent on blowing up a trick in order to upstage a magician. (Such people are called “hammers.”) A kid, meanwhile, “is really trying to figure out how the trick works, because that’s what you’re doing as a kid – trying to figure out how the world works.”
  5. In certain ways, kids are simply sharper than adults. “We’re getting dumber as we get older, perpetually,” says Stone. “We just don’t notice as much after 18 or so. So with the double lift, kids may actually be noticing the slight difference in thickness between a single card and two cards stuck together.”
  6. Kids don’t overthink a trick. Adults, meanwhile, seek out non-obvious explanations. “The theories that people come up with!” Stone says. Most tricks, he says, are relatively simple. “But people have the most cockamamie explanations. They’ll say, ‘You hypnotized me!’ Or, ‘When you showed me the ace, was it not the case and you just convinced me it was?’ They don’t get that you simply forced a card on them.

loc. 1190

People respond to incentives. loc. 1238

We’ll very often say one thing and do another – or, more precisely, we’ll say what we think other people want to hear and then, in private, do what we want, In economics, these are known as declared preferences and revealed preferences, and there is often a hefty gap between the two. loc. 1293

Don’t listen to what people say; watch what they do. loc. 1296

Moral incentives don’t work nearly as well as most people might imagine. loc. 1349

Mullaney had come to believe that too many philanthropists engage in what Peter Buffett, a son of the uber-billionaire Warren Buffett, calls “conscience laundering” – doing charity to make themselves feel better rather than fighting to figure out the best ways to alleviate suffering. loc. 1389

Why did Brian Mullaney’s gamble work so well? There are several explanations:

  1. Novelty. When is the last time a charity – or any kind of company – offered to never bother you again? That alone is enough to get your attention.
  2. Candor. Have you ever heard a charity acknowledge what a hassle it is to get all those beseeching letters in the mail? In a world of crooked information, it is nice to hear some straight talk.
  3. Control. Rather than unilaterally dictate the terms of the transaction, Smile Train gave the donor some power. Who doesn’t like to control their own destiny?

loc. 1437

Backfiring of bounties are, sadly, not as rare as one might hope. This phenomenon is sometimes called, “the cobra effect.”

loc. 1533

Why do some incentives, even those created by smart and well-intentioned people, backfire so badly? We can think of at least three reasons:

  1. No individual or government will be as smart as all the people out there scheming to beat an incentive plan.
  2. It’s easy to envision how you’d change the behaviour of people who think just like you do, but the people whose behaviour you’re trying to change often don’t think like you – and, therefore, don’t respond as you might expect.
  3. There is a tendency to assume that the way people behave today is how they’ll always behave. But the very nature of an incentive suggests that when a rule changes, behaviour does too – although not necessary, as we’ve seen, in the expected direction.

loc. 1544

The best way to get what you want is to treat other people with decency. loc. 1553

So while designing the right incentive scheme certainly isn’t easy, here’s a simple set of rules that usually point us in the right direction:

  1. Figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about.
  2. Incentivize them on the dimensions that are valuable to them but cheap for you to provide.
  3. Pay attention to how people respond; if their response surprises or frustrates you, learn from it and try something different.
  4. Whenever possible, create incentives that switch the frame from adversarial to cooperative.
  5. Never, ever think that people will do something just because it is the “right” thing to do.
  6. Know that some people will do everything they can to game the system, finding ways to win that you never could have imagined. If only to keep yourself sane, try to applaud their ingenuity rather than curse their greed.

loc. 1556

“We can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.” – Daniel Kahneman. loc. 1944

“It’s easier to jump out of a plane – hopefully with a parachute – than it is to change your mind about an opinion.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. loc. 1946

Perhaps the best reason to tell stories is simply that they capture our attention and are therefore good at teaching. loc. 2065

The key is failing fast and failing cheap. loc. 2180

Quitting is at the very core of thinking like a Freak. Or, if that still frightens you, let’s think of it as “letting go.” Letting go of conventional wisdoms that torment us. Letting go of the artificial limits that hold us back – and of the fear of admitting what we don’t know. Letting go of the habits of mind that tell us to kick into the corner of the goal even though we stand a better chance by going up the middle. loc. 2366

We’d like to bury the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way, a smart way and a foolish way, a red way and a blue way. The modern world 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 expectations; that we think with neither fear nor favor, with neither blind optimism nor sour skepticism. That we think like – ahem – a Freak. loc. 162


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