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What a Hot-Dog Eating Contest Can Teach You About Problem Solving

The authors of the bestselling Freakonomics books shared their unconventional insights at the World Business Forum.
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 "Whenever you have the opportunity, you should soak your buns in warm water." This doesn't sound like traditional business advice, but journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steve Levitt, authors of the best-selling books Freakonomics (William Morrow, 2006) and SuperFreakonomics (William Morrow, 2010) don't deal in traditional wisdom.

Levitt defines himself as a rogue economist, tackling as he says, "a set of topics that no one else would touch." The duo's popular books look at social issues through a unique economic lens and have become a staple in the business world.

So the advice to soak buns in water? It's a lesson in problem solving from world-record breaking competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi. Dubner told what he called the "disgusting and ridiculous" story of how the thin Japanese man shattered world records and redefined competitive eating at Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island, N.Y.

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Kobayashi was broke when his girlfriend suggested he enter an eating contest to earn some extra money. After a small local win, he set his sights on the famous hot-dog eating contest in Brooklyn. Rather than try to replicate the methods of the bulky eating contest champions, Kobayashi experimented with several different methods.

His now trademark methods of wiggling his body to force food down, splitting the dogs in half and dipping the buns in water to make them more compact are now used by nearly all contestants in the contest.

At Kobayashi's first attempt at the hot dog eating contest in 2001, he ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record of 25. He went on to break his own record three times and won the contest six consecutive times (2001–2006).

Dubner offered these three lessons in problem solving from Kobayashi's success:

1. Redefine the problem.
All of Kobayashi's competitors were big guys who ate a lot, so by entering the contest, they were doing what they were already doing in a bigger way. To Kobayashi ,that was like deciding to run a marathon because you walk a lot. Instead, he viewed the problem differently, looking at eating like a sport and experimenting with different ways to compete.

2. Don't accept a barrier that turns out to be artificial.
The world record was 25 and Kobayashi doubled it -- something that seemed impossible. But some barriers are just cognitive. If Kobayashi had entered the contest believing that 25 was the limit, he wouldn't have surpassed it. "We are too obedient towards barriers that are artificial," Dubner says. When someone says that something can't be done, challenge it.

3. Think differently and experiment.
At the heart of the story of Kobayashi's success and many stories of innovation is the idea that you often have to try a lot of things – some of them strange – before finding success. As Dubner said, "Whenever you have the opportunity you should soak your buns in warm water."

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