Stephen Dubner on the Wisdom of Hot Dog Eating Masters

Stephen Dubner: Whenever somebody does something so much better than everybody else, whether it’s a competitive thing or otherwise, it’s natural to ask well what do they do that’s so different?  So we tell the story of Takeru Kobayashi who you may recognize his name as the best, maybe slightly disputed now, but a great hot dog eating champion. When he competed in his first Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Coney Island hot dog eating championship, the world record was 25 and one-eighth hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.

And his first competition – and guys have been competing for many – 40 years or so.  So, you know, it wasn’t an overnight thing.  And his first contest eating hot dogs he didn’t just win and he didn’t just set a new world record, but he doubled the old record – 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.  So naturally you would ask how could he be so, so, so much better?  Was he an anatomical freak or was there something in his methodology and his approach and in his strategy and so on. That’s what we set out to find out. We spent a lot of time talking to him about his approach.  And it turns out what he did was he looked at the way all the past competitors were doing it, which is basically you have a pile of hot dogs and you pick one up two hands, eat it, and then fast as you can, dah, dah, dah, slub down some water, swallow, and then keep going as fast as you can.

He looked at it and he thought is that really the right way to solve that problem or to attack that challenge. And he thought maybe, but not necessarily. And so he decided to kind of break it down and try to experiment from top to bottom, and in Think Like a Freak we write a lot about the need for experimentation. Experimentation can give great feedback, great answers.  A lot of people are scared of experimentation, because they think you have to be scientists or they’re also scared of it because it means that you have to admit that you don’t know the answer. A lot of people like to assume they know the solution to a problem when they don’t.  But experimentation can really, you know, set you up to learn the real answer. So he tried a lot of different things. Not all of them worked, many didn’t. He found that if he broke the dog in two pieces before he ate that would help just a little bit at the start, because he’s first of all doing one move with his hands that he doesn’t need his mouth for so he’s starting to speed up there.

Then he found that he liked to separate the dog from the bun. He found that he could eat each faster that way. The dog actually goes down fairly easy, because it’s dense and salty and slick. The bun is actually airy and kind of hard. That’s why they were hard to chew together. So then he found that if he soaked the bun in warm water before eating then squeezed out the excess water then he could make a kind of bun ball, pop that in, that goes down. Now you might think, well wait a minute. Why would you want to take on excess water when you’re trying to eat as many hot dogs as you can. It turns out however that there was a benefit to this idea which in addition to making it faster which was that he was now getting liquid down his system without having to stop after eating each hot dog and drink. So he’s constantly making his process more efficient. He’s videotaping his training sessions. He’s recording all this data and analyzing it in a spreadsheet. He’s experimenting with pace. He’s experimenting with sleep. He’s experimenting with weight training.

And when it came time to compete for the first time he blows everybody’s mind and doubles the world record. So you could say well this is just a nice albeit silly, albeit disgusting story about some guy who did something better than everybody else. And that’s fair enough. But we make a couple of conclusions from it. The first is that what he really did that I think can be applied to any kind of problem is he redefined the problem he was trying to solve. So all the other eaters were basically asking themselves this question. How can I eat a lot of hot dogs in 12 minutes, right. That’s kind of the natural conventional question. He asked a very different question – maybe not very different – subtly different question that led to an entirely different result which was how can I eat one hot dog faster. And by asking a different question he came up with an entirely different set of answers. I’m gonna break it.  I’m gonna separate the dog from the bun. I’m gonna soak the bun in water.  I’m gonna do all this different stuff. So what he did in our view is he redefined the problem he was trying to solve. And as we write in Think Like a Freak, a lot of the problems that we all set out to solve as society whether they’re education problems or famine, poverty – any kind of policy problems. We often think we’re going for the real problem or the underlying problem when, in fact, we’re not.

We’re often attacking kind of a symptom or the part of the problem that bothers us. And sometimes you really need to redefine the problem you’re trying to solve in order to ask a better question like Kobay did to get better answers. The other lesson that I think we can draw from the Kobayashi success story has to do with limits and the limits that we are willing or unwilling to accept. And what I mean by that is this. We all face limits every day in our lives. There’s financial limits, time limits, limits of what’s socially acceptable and so on. And, you know, we’re mostly pretty, you know, we mostly adhere to them. There are however a lot of limits that we argue are not legitimate or they’re artificial barriers. And in this case of Takeru Kobayashi and the hot dogs there was this existing limit or barrier, at least a record, a world record of 25 and one-eighth before he came along.

So I asked him once, you know, how – “Did you think you could break that record your first time out?” And he said, “Oh, I didn’t pay any attention to that world record.” We said, “Why not? It was, you know, the world record of this big contest.” He said, “Because I knew that the other eaters before me were asking the wrong question about eating hot dogs that I knew that the record wasn’t legitimate.”  And so he literally kind of divorced from his mind the idea that this existing record existed 25 and one-eighth. Now you could say would he have still, could he have still broken the world record if he had treated that old record as legitimate? Maybe but in our view it’s hard to imagine that he would have doubled the world record – 50 – if he had honored the legitimacy of that existing record.  So we argued that that was, in his mind, an artificial barrier, the old world record.  He wasn’t going to accept it. By refusing to accept it he beat it by a mile.

And we argued that we should all look around at our situations – work, family, politics, whatever.  And look at what we think are real barriers and where they may not be real, where they may be artificial.  And the next time you come up against an artificial barrier at work when someone says, you know, “This is the way we do this project, because that’s the way it’s always been done.”  Or “This is as much as we can expect to do” or “This is as good as we can expect to be.”  If you think that barrier is not legitimate, credible – it’s artificial, throw it away. Throw it as far as you can, get on with your own thing and think like a freak.  That’s really the idea.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton


Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics, on his latest book with Steven Levitt, Think Like a Freak.

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