Solve Problems by Thinking Small

Think like a freak
In Think Like a Freak, the authors of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner offer to retrain our brain. The central thesis of the book is that we need to think small to tackle some of the world's biggest problems, piece by piece.

Big problems, they say:

… are by their nature really hard to solve for a variety of reasons. One is they're large and therefore they include a lot of people and therefore they include a lot of crossed and often mangled and perverse incentives.

But also a big problem — when you think about a big problem like the education reform. You're dealing with an institution or set of institutions that have gotten to where they've gotten to this many, many years of calcification and also accidents of history.

Things have gotten the way they've gotten because of a lot of things a few people did many, many years ago and traditions were carried on. And now to suddenly change that would mean changing the entire stream of the way that this institution has functioned for many years.

Therefore, attacking any big problem is bound to be really hard and the danger is you spend a lot of resources — time, money, manpower, optimism which is perhaps one of our most precious resources attacking a problem that you can't make any headway on.

Instead, using curiosity like a child, we should look to find a small part of the problem and tackle that, then see who else is working on part of the same problem and make the connection. Curiosity is the secret to a bigger life, and Levitt and Dubner illustrate with real life examples how to break free from our biases and assumptions and find powerful questions:

  • Learning to say “I don’t know” — we do worry other people will think less of us if we do; yet when we are honest about it, we open the door to finding something out
  • Thinking like a child to ask better questions — this means we need to set aside preconceptions and redefine problems
  • Understanding incentives — what motivates people, whether that be financial, moral, or social factors, while good as an awareness tool can help us only so far in getting to our desired outcomes
  • Figuring out when to let a project go — we should  use small experiments and seek feedback to figure out what works and what doesn't. It is especially useful to watch what people do vs. listening to what they say
  • Persuading others — this is hard, because of social pressures that lead to herd mentality and mental closure and will require learning the art of framing situations as collaborative, telling compelling stories using data and context, demonstrating a knowledge of both the strength and the weakness of our argument, and being entertaining to keep people's attention

What would a world where we apply these points to our daily lives look like? Experimenting more to see what works, challenging the status quo more frequently, letting go of a bad situation faster to free resources and energy for a better one, and so on.

Watch a short video where Stephen Dubner talks about some of their findings below.


[image Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]