Think Small to Solve Big Problems
Stephen J. Dubner is an award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality. He is best-known for writing, along with the economist Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics (2005) and SuperFreakonomics (2009), which have sold more than 5 million copies in 35 languages. Their latest books are When to Rob a Bank... and Think Like a Freak (2014).
Dubner is also the author of Turbulent Souls/Choosing My Religion (1998), Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper (2003), and the children's book The Boy With Two Belly Buttons (2007). His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and others.
Freakonomics, published in April 2005, was an instant international best-seller and cultural phenomenon. It made numerous "books of the year" lists, a few "books of the decade" lists, and won a variety of awards, including the inaugural Quill Award, a BookSense Book of the Year Award, and a Visionary Award from the National Council on Economic Education. It was also named a Notable Book by the New York Times. SuperFreakonomics, published in 2009, was published to similar acclaim, and also became an international best-seller.
The Freakonomics enterprise also includes an award-winning blog, a high-profile documentary film, and a public-radio project called Freakonomics Radio, which Dubner hosts. He has also appeared widely on television, including a three-year stint on ABC News as a Freakonomics contributor. He also appeared on the reality show Beauty and the Geek. Alas, he played neither beauty nor geek.
Dubner's first book, Turbulent Souls, was also named a Notable Book, and was a finalist for the Koret National Jewish Book Award. It was republished in 2006 under a new title, Choosing My Religion, and is currently being developed as a film.
The eighth and last child of an upstate New York newspaperman, Dubner has been writing since he was a child. (His first published work appeared in Highlights magazine.) As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, he started a rock band that was signed to Arista Records, which landed him in New York City. He ultimately quit playing music to earn an M.F.A. in writing at Columbia University, where he also taught in the English Department. He was an editor and writer at New York magazine and The New York Times before quitting to write books. He is happy he did so.
He lives in New York with his wife, the documentary photographer Ellen Binder, and their two delicious children.
Stephen J. Dubner: One argument that we make is that we could all benefit a little bit from thinking more like children, okay. Now you could say well, we're -- first of all everybody's biased in a lot of ways and we have our set of biases too. It may be that we embrace the idea in this book of thinking like children because we're kind of, you know, childlike. We have kind of obvious observations sometimes. There's observations that strike people as obvious. We ask a lot of questions that are not considered, you know, the kind of questions that people ask in good company or smart company. But one of the most powerful pieces of thinking like a child that we argue is thinking small. So I realize that this runs exactly counter to the philosophy of the arena in which I'm appearing which is thinking big, Big Think, but our argument is this. Big problems 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. What I mean by that is 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. So I mean, you know, history is littered with brilliant people who have attacked large problems in the past half century, century among them famine, among them poverty and most recently I think education reform, a healthy diet and so on. So these are all really big problems.
So our argument is -- you know what? There's a lot of people out there thinking big. Maybe some of them will be successful. Probably not so many honestly. It's very, very hard. Our argument is -- you know what? Let the people who are gonna try to think big solve big problems -- let them go. There's enough people doing that. Why don't you just try to think small. Why don't you try to find one piece of the problem that you can identify and peel it off and try to solve that problem or answer that question. So there are a lot of reasons why it's better to do that. It's easier to satisfactorily answer a small question or solve a big problem because you can get the data, you can understand the incentives, it's just inherently much less complicated. If you can come up with a solution to a small problem there's a much better chance you'll actually be able to get it done. A lot of people feel like they come up with the answers to big problems but then you need to get all the political and capital will to do it. And that can be much harder than actually solving the problem.
So if you can peel off a small piece of a problem and then someone else peels off another small piece and you add them up, you're constantly, you know, working toward a better place. So I'll give you an example. If you think about, let's say, education reform. Even that very phrase is kind of weighted or biased toward the supply side, the schools. It's basically saying that oh, all the kids and the families who are sending their kids to school -- they're all doing exactly the right thing. But education needs to be reformed because plainly the schools and teachers and principals, they're the bad people. So that's kind of an assumption already about where the problem should be solved. So you think, you know, people have been talking about the many, many inputs that go into education -- class size, technology in the classroom, resources spent, curricula -- the way the curricula are taught and so on.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Stephen Dubner talks about the importance of thinking small in order to tackle some of the world's biggest problems piece by piece. Dubner is the co-author of Think Like a Freak (http://goo.gl/LVlHtk).