#110 Stephen Dubner

whentorobabankStephen Dubner is back. Dubner joined James Altucher to talk about writing a book, the bittersweetness of it, and when to rob a bank. Dubner was a guest on episode #20 and his ideas are woven through many other posts. If you haven’t read any of his books, you may as well start with When to Rob a Bank, the one he’s promoting on the podcast.

The book, Dubner tells Altucher, is a “curation and organization of over ten years of posts” from Freakonomics.com. There, Dubner, his co-author Steven Levitt, and others have written about the freaky conclusions they’ve found interesting. The book is a collection of not only the best posts, but the most applicable too. “The best posts are not about a thing that happened,” Dubner tells James, “but about an idea.”

This book has been brewing a long time time Dubner says. There were over 8,000 posts that a team of people whittled down to 1,000 and that Dubner chose 132 from. He says that sometimes they looked at metrics like comments, (“you figure 300 people comment on something, it’s worth looking at again”) but mostly it is things that Dubner found most interesting.

Some of the posts that made the cut include, The Cost of Fearing Strangers, Terrorism, Part III, and 10,000 hours later: the PGA Tour?

Dubner tells James that some of the posts have brought more criticism than others, notably the terrorism one. The pair joke that terrorists finally know what to do after reading Freakonomics. In their jokes and the criticism is a bigger idea, that people aren’t thinking in broad enough strokes. Michael Mauboussin brought this idea up (in macro and micro terms) when he talked with Shane Parrish. For Mauboussin it meant thinking about Colonel Blotto, a game theory exercise. The macro takeaway from Blotto is that if you are the weaker player in a game, you should aim to have more places to compete. Dubner says that this example can be seen in terrorism, and gives the example of the Washington D.C. sniper attacks. There, two people terrorized the greater D.C. area for three weeks in October of 2002. Rather than be outraged, aim to understand the logic behind the application.

Not many people think in these terms and Dubner says his co-author, Steven Levitt, “doesn’t get the person who would be upset by it.” Thinking about these sorts of issues can be uncomfortable, but it’s thinking about them that helps us find solutions. Astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote that when we see a loose thread, we should tug on it to see if the whole shirt unravels.

This outrage is just part of being a bestselling author Dubner says. “The bigger the audience the more likely you are are to have variance in your reactions.” This comment is notable because of how economic his thinking has become. I’ve been reading Dubner since the first Freakonomics books, and he wasn’t always thinking like this. His transition is one that we all can have because it’s an evolution of thinking. Dubner has taken a new lens, fit it over his proverbial glasses, and found a better way to look at the world.

He goes on to tell James about the evolving title for this most recent book. The first iteration was, “Hooray for High Gas Prices” but Dubner says that didn’t work for the British publishers who said a cultural translation would require clarification that they were talking about petrol, not flatulence. The next attempt, “We were only Trying to Help” was rejected by marketing as too passive. Altucher tells Dubner that he should have just bought some Facebook ads and had people vote on it. Yeah, we could have done that, Dubner says, but it wasn’t about getting the most appealing title. It was about saying what he wanted.

“Freakonomics was twenty times luckier and one hundred times bigger than I could have imagined” Dubner says, it changed his life. “Once I realized that I was going to continue having a career writing what I wanted, that was it.” For Dubner it was about being financially able to live in NYC and not have someone tell him what to write. Mark Cuban (episode #24) said the same thing, noting that he was willing to “live like a student” if it meant not having to work. “It’s not about the money, honey.

Altucher says that he’s re-read Freakonomics many times looking for clues and he thinks that he’s boiled down what’s made it so successful.

  1. There is an “ah-ha” moment.
  2. There is a crisp story built around that moment.

Dubner says this sounds about right, and says that he writes in stories because “we remember stories.” Dubner paraphrasesAnton Chekhov’s advice to, “start in a place, in a way, that brings the reader in with an investment.” You don’t have to start at the start of a narrative arc. A better spot may be somewhere in the middle.


James moves on to ask Dubner about the path to mastery and they talk about Dan McLaughlin, who is trying to be a professional golfer by practicing for 10,000 hours. Dubner says that his progress is going well, but wonders if he’ll really make the PGA Tour. The problem, Dubner says, is the non-linearity of progress. If it was the case that 1 hour of practice = .05% improvement, then yeah, maybe. Unfortunately most of our skill development is closer to the Sigmoid Curve. During the early parts we build up a lot of skill quickly but plateau. Tim Ferriss (episode #109) says that he’s trying to figure out how to do this the most efficient way possible. Josh Kaufman also tackled this idea in his book, The First 20 Hours. If you’re looking not to go from the 5th to 95th percentile, but 95th to 99th, Ferriss recommends Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning.  To really dive deep, Dubner suggests The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

James ends the interview by thanking Dubner for his hard work, “you guys did all the work and I get to read it and in a couple of hours get all the knowledge.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano. That two really intelligent people share how much they value reading is telling. I’m a big fan too, and so are many other people. If you need suggestions, I send out a monthly list of what I’m reading. You can also sign up for a book club I run or browse the many other posts here, almost all of which include something good to read.


24 thoughts on “#110 Stephen Dubner”

  1. […] Stephen Dubner writes that this is one the ways he thinks like a freak. In his book, Think Like a Freak, Dubner has chapters like, “Think like a Child” and “The Three Hardest Words, ‘I Don’t Know.’” The point these guys are getting at is, don’t be a know it all. If there is something that befuddles you it’s best to figure it out. It happens to everyone, even Nobel Prize winners like Kahneman. […]


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