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What I Learned about Problem Solving from Hot Dog Eating Contests and my Favorite Podcast Host

by Katie Goodell


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a research conference with two other members of the Pivot research team, Karl and Steve. Those two will confirm that I was admittedly star struck with one of the speakers: Stephen Dubner, author of Freakonomics (among other books) and host of the Freakonomics Radio podcast.

If you haven’t listened to this podcast yet, I highly recommend it, and I’m not saying that just because I work in research. Each episode is a consistently accessible and interesting look at everyday topics, through the perspective of data and economic theories. In the radio-show-style episodes, Dubner “explores the hidden side of everything” by discussing a different topic each episode and interviewing experts, then considering the history and economic phenomena at play regarding the chosen topic. Some of my favorite episodes cover public education reform, sleep habits, and… belts (why do we wear them and how effective are they? Way more thought provoking than you might have imagined!). The dialogue can be humorous, informative, and just plain interesting, causing you to say “Huh!” and “These statistics are crazy!” and “I’ve never thought of that!” a lot.

Similar to his podcast productions, Dubner’s presentation at this research conference was funny and entertaining. He shared a few anecdotal stories and got a lot of laughs from the crowd, but ended with a couple great takeaways for the researchers in attendance. Dubner shared a true story about Kobayashi Takeru in 2001, whose name or face you might recognize from his many international competitive eating contest appearances and victories. Kobayashi served as an entertaining example of an individual who used creative problem-solving to address his problem at hand.

After training by eating fish sticks and bread rolls in his native country of Japan, Kobayashi entered Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest in New York and ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes! This set a new world record, breaking the standing world record by 24 hot dogs. Kobayashi had success because he didn’t address the “problem” of consuming all those dogs in a traditional manner (just chewing and swallowing faster so he could consume more than his competitors). Instead, he figured out that if he separated the dogs from the buns, he could chew more hot dogs per minute, soak the bread in water while he chewed, and then swallow that faster, separately from the dog. By studying the makeup of a hotdog (dog plus bun) and the varying levels of chewing energy each unique part took, he dealt with the challenge differently than everyone else (who always ate their dogs more traditionally with the bun wrapped around the dog). Kobayashi wasn’t focused on the low goal of eating just one more hot dog than his closest competitor, which would have also given him champion status, but instead changed the game creatively to give himself an unprecedented advantage and lead over the second place finisher.

Dubner’s illustration was paired with the instruction that, as researchers, marketers, and creatives, we should be careful not to be distracted by the traditional barriers to the problem we’re trying to solve. We can’t expect always to come out on top if we’re addressing problems in the exact same way as our competition. Often, when we’re trying to resolve an issue, it’s easy to start with addressing the known barriers and determining whether or not we can overcome these barriers. What we should do instead, according to Dubner and his competitive eating analogy, is start with considering the end goal in order to look for more creative solutions. How can we reframe our approach to an age-old problem in a way that helps us bypass those traditional barriers? What does it mean for your business to reexamine the end goal and brainstorm new methods in reaching that goal? Forget the “Well, it’s always been done this way” claims and the “That’s never been done before!” statements. Creative problem solving means not getting distracted or hung up by those claims, and coming up with a new ways to succeed.

Hopefully this story encouraged you to think creatively in the same way Dubner’s presentation encouraged me. Or, at the very least, made you crave a hot dog for lunch. While you wait for lunch time, check out this Freakonomics podcast about food and science!

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