Think Like a Freak - Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (2014)
Chapter 3. What’s Your Problem?
If it takes a lot of courage to admit you don’t know all the answers, just imagine how hard it is to admit you don’t even know the right question. But if you ask the wrong question, you are almost guaranteed to get the wrong answer.
Think about a problem you’d really like to see solved. The obesity epidemic, perhaps, or climate change or the decline of the American public-school system. Now ask yourself how you came to define the problem as you see it. In all likelihood, your view was heavily influenced by the popular press.
Most people don’t have the time or inclination to think very hard about big problems like this. We tend to pay attention to what other people say and, if their views resonate with us, we slide our perception atop theirs. Furthermore, we tend to focus on the part of a problem that bothers us. Maybe you hate the idea of substandard schools because your grandmother was a teacher and she seemed so much more devoted to education than today’s teachers. To you, it is obvious that schools are failing because there are too many bad teachers.
Let’s consider this a bit more closely. In the U.S. push for education reform, theories abound as to the key factors: school size, class size, administrative stability, money for technology, and, yes, teacher skill. It is demonstrably true that a good teacher is better than a bad teacher, and it is also true that overall teacher quality has fallen since your grandmother’s day, in part because smart women now have so many more job options. Furthermore, in some countries—Finland and Singapore and South Korea, for instance—future schoolteachers are recruited from the best college-bound students, whereas a teacher in the United States is more likely to come from the bottom half of her class. So perhaps it makes sense that every conversation about school reform should focus on teacher skill.
But a mountain of recent evidence suggests that teacher skill has less influence on a student’s performance than a completely different set of factors: namely, how much kids have learned from their parents, how hard they work at home, and whether the parents have instilled an appetite for education. If these home-based inputs are lacking, there is only so much a school can do. Schools have your kid for only seven hours a day, 180 days a year, or about 22 percent of the child’s waking hours. Nor is all that time devoted to learning, once you account for socializing and eating and getting to and from class. And for many kids, the first three or four years of life is all parents and no school.
But when serious people talk about education reform, they rarely talk about the family’s role in preparing children to succeed. That is in part because the very words “education reform” indicate that the question is “What’s wrong with our schools?” when in reality, the question might be better phrased as “Why do American kids know less than kids from Estonia and Poland?” When you ask the question differently, you look for answers in different places.
So maybe, when we talk about why American kids aren’t doing so well, we should be talking less about schools and more about parents.
In our society, if someone wants to be a hairstylist or a kickboxer or a hunting guide—or a schoolteacher—he or she must be trained and licensed by a state agency. No such requirement is necessary for parenthood. Anyone with a set of reproductive organs is free to create a child, no questions asked, and raise them as they see fit, so long as there are no visible bruises—and then turn that child over to the school system so the teachers can work their magic. Maybe we are asking too much of the schools and too little of our parents and kids?
Here is the broader point: whatever problem you’re trying to solve, make sure you’re not just attacking the noisy part of the problem that happens to capture your attention. Before spending all your time and resources, it’s incredibly important to properly define the problem—or, better yet, redefine the problem.
That is what an unassuming Japanese college student did when he took on the sort of challenge most of us wouldn’t dream about—or even want to.
In the autumn of 2000, a young man who would come to be known as Kobi was studying economics at Yokkaichi University, in Mie prefecture. He lived with his girlfriend, Kumi. They lit the apartment by candle since they could no longer afford the electricity bill. Neither of them came from a family of significant means—Kobi’s father was a disciple at a Buddhist temple, giving tours about its history—and they were behind on the rent as well.
Kumi heard about a contest that paid $5,000 to the winner. Without telling Kobi, she sent in a postcard to sign him up. It was a televised eating competition.
This was far from an obviously good idea. Kobi wasn’t gluttonous in the least; he had a slight build and stood barely five foot eight. He did, however, have a strong stomach and a good appetite. As a child, he had always cleaned his plate and sometimes his sisters’ plates too. He also believed that size could be overrated. One of his childhood heroes was the great sumo champion Chiyonofuji, a.k.a. the Wolf, who was relatively light but compensated with superior technique.
Kobi reluctantly agreed to enter the contest. His only chance was to outthink the competition. At university, he had been learning about game theory and now it came in handy. The contest would have four stages: boiled potatoes followed by a seafood bowl, Mongolian mutton barbecue, and noodles. Only the top finishers from each stage would advance. Kobi studied earlier multistage eating contests. He saw that most competitors went so hard in the early rounds that even if they did advance, they were too exhausted (and stuffed) to do well in the finals. His strategy was to conserve energy and stomach capacity by eating just enough at each stage to qualify for the next. It wasn’t exactly rocket science, but then his competitors weren’t rocket scientists either. In the final round, Kobi channeled his boyhood sumo hero and wolfed down enough noodles to win the $5,000 prize. The lights went back on in Kobi and Kumi’s apartment.
There was more money to be made in Japanese eating contests but Kobi, having tasted amateur success, was eager to go pro. He set his sights on the Super Bowl of competitive eating, as the sport is known: the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. For some four decades it has been held at Coney Island in New York City—the New York Times and others have written the contest goes back to 1916, but its promoters admit they concocted that history—and it routinely draws more than one million viewers on ESPN.
The rules were simple. A contestant ate as many hot dogs and buns (“HDB,” officially) as he could in 12 minutes. Any HDB or portion thereof already in the eater’s mouth when the final bell rang would count toward his total as long as he swallowed it eventually. An eater could be disqualified, however, if during the contest a significant amount of HDB that had gone into his mouth came back out—known in the sport as a “reversal of fortune.” Condiments were allowed but no serious competitor would bother. Beverages were also allowed, any kind in unlimited quantity. In 2001, when Kobi decided to enter the Coney Island contest, the record stood at a mind-boggling 25⅛ HDB in 12 minutes.
At home in Japan, he practiced. He had a hard time finding regulation hot dogs, so he used sausages made from minced fish. Instead of buns, he cut up loaves of bread. For months, he trained in obscurity, and he arrived at Coney Island in obscurity as well. A year earlier, the top three finishers were all Japanese—Kazutoyo “the Rabbit” Arai held the world record—but this newcomer was not considered a threat. Some thought he was a high-school student, which would have made him ineligible. One contestant mocked him: “Your legs are thinner than my arms!”
How did he do? In his very first Coney Island contest, Kobi smoked the field and set a new world record. How many hot dogs and buns would you guess he ate? The record, remember, was 25⅛. A sensible guess might be 27 or even 28 HDB. That would be more than a 10 percent gain over the old record. If you wanted to make a really aggressive guess, you might suppose a 20 percent gain, which would mean a bit more than 30 HDB in 12 minutes.
But he ate 50. Fifty! That’s more than four hot dogs and buns per minute for 12 straight minutes. The slender twenty-three-year-old Kobi—full name Takeru Kobayashi—had essentially doubled the world record.
Just think about that margin of victory. The Coney Island hot-dog contest isn’t as historically significant as, say, the 100-meter dash, but let’s put Kobayashi’s feat in perspective. The 100-meter record is as of this writing held by Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter with the perfect name, at 9.58 seconds. Even in such a brief race, Bolt often beats his rivals by a few strides; he is widely considered the best sprinter in history. Before Bolt, the record was 9.74 seconds. So his improvement was 1.6 percent. If he had treated that record as Kobayashi treated his, Usain Bolt would have run the 100 meters in about 4.87 seconds, for an average speed of roughly 46 miles per hour. That’s somewhere between a greyhound and a cheetah.
Kobayashi won Coney Island again the following year, and the next four years too, pushing the record to 53¾ HDB. No past champion had won more than three times, much less six in a row. But it wasn’t just the winning or the margin of victory that set him apart. The typical competitive eater looked as if he could gobble down Kobayashi himself; he was the kind of man famous in his fraternity house for consuming two entire pizzas and a six-pack at one sitting. Kobayashi, meanwhile, was soft-spoken, playful, and analytical.
He became an international superstar. In Japan, the enthusiasm for eating contests cooled after a schoolboy choked to death imitating his heroes. But Kobayashi found plenty of competition elsewhere, setting records in hamburgers, bratwurst, Twinkies, lobster rolls, fish tacos, and more. A rare defeat came in a one-on-one TV event. In roughly 2.5 minutes, Kobayashi ate 31 bunless hot dogs, but his opponent ate 50. The opponent was a half-ton Kodiak bear.
Initially, his dominance at Coney Island was perplexing. Some rivals thought he was cheating. Perhaps he took a muscle relaxant or some other foreign substance to quell the gag reflex? He was rumored to have swallowed stones to expand his stomach. There were even whispers that Kobayashi represented a Japanese government plot to humiliate the Americans—at a contest held on Independence Day, no less!—and that Japanese doctors had surgically implanted a second esophagus or stomach.
Alas, none of these charges seem to be true. So why was Takeru Kobayashi so much better than everyone else?
We met with him on several occasions to try to answer that question. The first meeting took place one summer evening in New York, over dinner at Cafe Luxembourg, a quietly chic restaurant on the Upper West Side. Kobayashi ate daintily—a small green salad, English breakfast tea, a bit of duck breast with no sauce. It was hard to imagine he was the same person who crammed so many hot dogs in his mouth when the bell rang; it was like watching a cage fighter doing needlepoint. “Compared to the American eaters,” he says, “I don’t eat very much regularly. To eat quickly is not very good manners. Everything I do is against the manners and morals of Japanese people.”
His mother did not care for his chosen profession. “I would never talk to her about my contests or the training.” But in 2006, when she was dying of cancer, she seemed to draw inspiration from it. “She was taking the chemotherapy, so she would want to throw up a lot. And she would say, ‘You’re also fighting the urge to throw up from eating so much, so I feel like I can try and sustain.’ ”
His features are delicate—soft eyes and high cheekbones that give him a spritely look. His hair is cut stylishly and dyed, red on one side and yellow on the other, representing ketchup and mustard. He begins to speak, quietly but intensely, about how he trained for his first Coney Island competition. Those months in isolation, it turned out, were one long bout of experimentation and feedback.
Kobayashi had observed that most Coney Island eaters used a similar strategy, which was not really much of a strategy at all. It was essentially a sped-up version of how the average person eats a hot dog at a backyard barbecue: pick it up, cram the dog and bun into the mouth, chew from end to end, and glug some water to wash it down. Kobayashi wondered if perhaps there was a better way.
Nowhere was it written, for instance, that the dog must be eaten end to end. His first experiment was simple: What would happen if he broke the dog and bun in half before eating? This, he found, afforded more options for chewing and loading, and it also let his hands do some of the work that would otherwise occupy his mouth. This maneuver would come to be known as the Solomon Method, after the biblical King Solomon, who settled a maternity dispute by threatening to slice a baby into two pieces (more on that later, in Chapter 7).
Kobayashi now questioned another conventional practice: eating the dog and bun together. It wasn’t surprising that everyone did this. The dog is nested so comfortably in the bun, and when eating for pleasure, the soft blandness of the bun pairs wonderfully with the slick, seasoned meat. But Kobayashi wasn’t eating for pleasure. Chewing dog and bun together, he discovered, created a density conflict. The dog itself is a compressed tube of dense, salty meat that can practically slide down the gullet on its own. The bun, while airy and less substantial, takes up a lot of space and requires a lot of chewing.
So he started removing the dog from bun. Now he could feed himself a handful of bunless dogs, broken in half, followed by a round of buns. He was like a one-man factory, working toward the kind of specialization that has made economists’ hearts beat faster since the days of Adam Smith.
As easily as he was able to swallow the hot dogs—like a trained dolphin slorping down herring at the aquarium—the bun was still a problem. (If you want to win a bar bet, challenge someone to eat two hot-dog buns in one minute without a beverage; it is nearly impossible.) So Kobayashi tried something different. As he was feeding himself the bunless, broken hot dogs with one hand, he used the other hand to dunk the bun into his water cup. Then he’d squeeze out most of the excess water and smush the bun into his mouth. This might seem counterintuitive—why put extra liquid in your stomach when you need all available space for buns and dogs?—but the bun-dunking provided a hidden benefit. Eating soggy buns meant Kobayashi grew less thirsty along the way, which meant less time wasted on drinking. He experimented with water temperature and found that warm was best, as it relaxed his chewing muscles. He also spiked the water with vegetable oil, which seemed to help swallowing.
His experimentation was endless. He videotaped his training sessions and recorded all his data in a spreadsheet, hunting for inefficiencies and lost milliseconds. He experimented with pace: Was it better to go hard the first four minutes, ease off during the middle four, and “sprint” toward the end—or maintain a steady pace throughout? (A fast start, he discovered, was best.) He found that getting a lot of sleep was especially important. So was weight training: strong muscles aided in eating and helped resist the urge to throw up. He also discovered that he could make more room in his stomach by jumping and wriggling as he ate—a strange, animalistic dance that came to be known as the Kobayashi Shake.
Just as important as the tactics he adopted were those he rejected. Unlike other competitive eaters, he never trained at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. (“If I do that, I don’t know how much of what I ate.”) He did not listen to music while eating. (“I don’t want to hear any extra sounds.”) He found that drinking gallons of water could expand his stomach, but the end result was disastrous. (“I started to have a sort of seizure, like an epileptic seizure. So that was a big mistake.”)
When he put it all together, Kobayashi found that his physical preparations could produce an elevated mental state. “In ordinary cases, eating so much for ten minutes—the last two minutes are the toughest moments, and you worry. But if you have great concentration, then it’s enjoyable. You feel pain and suffering—however, as you feel it, you feel more excited. And that’s when highness is upon you.”
But wait a minute. What if Kobayashi, for all his methodological innovation, was simply an anatomical freak, a once-in-a-lifetime eating machine?
The best evidence against this argument is that his competition began to catch up with him. After six years of domination at Coney Island, Kobayashi was overtaken by the American eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who went on to win seven straight Coney Island contests as of this writing.
Often, he beat Kobayashi by just a whisker. The two of them pushed the world record ever upward, with Chestnut scarfing a mind-boggling 69 HDB in just 10 minutes (the contest was shortened by two minutes in 2008). Meanwhile, a handful of rivals—including Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti and Tim “Eater X” Janus—routinely eat more HDB than Kobayashi did when he first doubled the old record. So does the female record holder, 98-pound Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas, who has eaten 45 HDB in 10 minutes. Some of Kobayashi’s rivals have copied certain strategies of his. All of them gained from the knowledge that 40 or 50 HDB, once considered a fantasy, plainly isn’t.
In 2010, Kobayashi got into a contract dispute with the organizers of the Coney Island event—he claimed they limited his ability to compete elsewhere—and he wasn’t in the lineup. But he showed up anyway and, in the excitement, jumped onstage. He was promptly handcuffed and arrested. It was an uncharacteristically brash move for such a disciplined man. That night in jail, he was given a sandwich and milk. “I am very hungry,” he said. “I wish there were hot dogs in jail.”
Can the success of Takeru Kobayashi, as magnificent as it was, be applied to anything more significant than the high-speed consumption of hot dogs? We believe it can. If you think like a Freak, there are at least two broader lessons to be gleaned from his approach.
The first is about problem solving generally. Kobayashi redefined the problem he was trying to solve. What question were his competitors asking? It was essentially: How do I eat more hot dogs? Kobayashi asked a different question: How do I make hot dogs easier to eat? This question led him to experiment and gather the feedback that changed the game. Only by redefining the problem was he able to discover a new set of solutions.
Kobayashi came to view competitive eating as a fundamentally different activity than everyday eating. He saw it as a sport—a disgusting one, perhaps, at least to most people—but, as with any sport, it required specific training, strategy, and physical and mental maneuvers. Seeing an eating contest as an amplified version of everyday eating was, to him, like seeing a marathon as an amplified version of walking down the street. Sure, most of us walk well enough, and even for a long time if necessary. But completing a marathon is a bit more complicated than that.
It is of course easier to redefine a problem like competitive eating than, say, a faltering education system or endemic poverty—but even with complex issues like these, a good start would be to assess the core of the problem as shrewdly as Kobayashi did with his.
The second lesson to be drawn from Kobayashi’s success has to do with the limits that we accept, or refuse to.
Over dinner that night at Cafe Luxembourg, Kobayashi said that when he started training, he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the existing Coney Island record of 25⅛ HDB. Why? He reasoned that the record didn’t stand for much since his earlier competitors had been asking the wrong question about eating hot dogs. As he saw it, the record was an artificial barrier.
So he went into the contest not thinking about 25⅛ as any sort of an upper bound. He instructed his mind to pay zero attention to the number of dogs he was eating and to concentrate solely on how he ate them. Would he still have won that first contest if he had mentally honored the barrier of 25⅛? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine he would have doubled the record.
In recent experiments, scientists have found that even elite athletes can be tricked into improvement by essentially lying to them. In one experiment, cyclists were told to pedal a stationary bike at top speed for the equivalent of 4,000 meters. Later they repeated the task while watching an avatar of themselves pedaling in the earlier time trial. What the cyclists didn’t know was that the researchers had turned up the speed on the avatar. And yet the cyclists were able to keep up with their avatars, surpassing what they thought had been their top speed. “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ,” said the esteemed neurologist Roger Bannister, best known as the first human to run the mile in less than four minutes.
All of us face barriers—physical, financial, temporal—every day. Some are unquestionably real. But others are plainly artificial—expectations about how well a given system can function, or how much change is too much, or what kinds of behaviors are acceptable. The next time you encounter such a barrier, imposed by people who lack your imagination and drive and creativity, think hard about ignoring it. Solving a problem is hard enough; it gets that much harder if you’ve decided beforehand it can’t be done.
If you doubt the adverse power of artificial limits, here’s a simple test. Let’s say you haven’t been exercising and want to get back in the groove. You decide to do some push-ups. How many? Well, it’s been a while, you tell yourself, let me start with 10. Down you go. When do you start getting mentally and physically tired? Probably around push-up number 7 or 8.
Imagine now that you had decided on 20 push-ups instead of 10. When do you start getting tired this time? Go ahead, hit the floor and try it. You probably blasted right past 10 before you even remembered how out of shape you are.
It was by refusing to accept the existing hot-dog record that Kobayashi blasted right through number 25 that first year. At Coney Island, each eater was assigned a Bunnette, a young woman who held aloft a signboard to show the audience each eater’s progress. That year, the signboards didn’t go high enough. Kobi’s Bunnette had to hold up plain sheets of yellow paper with hastily scribbled numbers. When it was all over, a Japanese TV reporter asked him how he felt.
“I can keep going,” Kobi said.