(Non-)Masonic Book Review: Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak authors Steven Levitt and and Stephen Dubner are best known for their best selling book Freakonomics, in which they look at hidden incentives and unexpected correlations and causation in everything from sports to politics and crime, all through the lens of economic science.

In this book, they review some of their previously studied findings, and the work of others, with a focus on our own thought processes and behaviors. The main idea of Think Like a Freak is to learn how to think differently to find novel solutions to problems, and how to get past our own cognitive shortcomings and biases, or those of others.

Think Like a Freak is very well organized, with chapters grouping ideas into logical categorizations very well. I’ll arrange my comments on Masonic applicability likewise, though I don’t have comments on every chapter. The titles for each section are my own, based on what I drew from them, not the titles of the chapters in the book.

The Value of Thought (Chapter 1)

Consider this book an extension of a study in the Trivium, particularly of logic and rhetoric. Think Like A Freak does an excellent job of encouraging one to simply think – to rethink assumptions to learn more about one’s self and others.

One passage I found particularly insightful was about the time we spend thinking.

Most people are too busy to rethink the way they think, or to even spend much time thinking at all. When was the last time you sat down for even an hour of purely unadulterated thinking? If you’re like most people it’s been a while. Is this simply a function of our high-speed era? Perhaps not. The absurdly talented George Bernard Shaw, a world class writer and founder of the London School of Economics noted this thought deficit many years ago. “Few people think more than two or three times a year,” Shaw reportedly said, “I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

Contemplative practices including prayer, meditation, journaling, or even just removing one’s self from external stimulation by turning off the radio or TV, putting down your phone or book, and allowing yourself to just simply think can do wonders not only for your mental health and overall well-being, and your understanding of others, but also to your efficacy in the many facets of your life.

We, as Freemasons, are instructed in the use of our time. Contemplative, or mindfulness practices should be considered in how we divide our days, making time to spend in our thoughts and reflections, without the distraction of the vices and superfluities of this world.

I Don’t Know (Chapter 2)

The second chapter is all about how difficult, and how helpful it is to say “I don’t know.” In particular, there can be serious consequences to not admitting when we don’t know something. In education, politics, work, or lodge, “I don’t know” should always be an acceptable answer. No matter how much someone knows, how experienced they are, or how highly regarded they are, we should always be willing to accept this answer, especially if it is followed by “… but I’ll find out.”

We do a disservice to ourselves when we try to go beyond our own knowledge and grasp at straws. Admitting we don’t know lays the groundwork for collaboration in finding an answer and can establish trust by expressing honesty. Not only is it a matter of integrity, it also shows foresight and concern for not risking a wrong answer. In a Masonic context, this might apply to ritual, to Masonic jurisprudence or protocol, or to lodge management tasks.

The Self-Weeding Garden (Chapter 7)

This chapter in particular caught my attention for its applicability to Freemasonry. The main idea was that of creating systems that self-filter (gardens that weed themselves). Examples given were that of the online shoe company Zappos, and how they offer new-hires a generous cash incentive to quit immediately after training. This helps filter off the hires that aren’t as interested in the mission of the organization, or who aren’t intending to be in it for the long-haul, while spending less (in the cash incentive) than the cost of replacing them down the road or getting sub-par performance from them.

Another example they give is that of higher education. Many people work outside their field of study, but even in jobs that don’t utilize the curriculum from a degree, simply having it makes one a much better candidate for a job, and often eligible for higher pay. In large part this is because the degree demonstrates some degree of grit, that the prospective employee is more likely to stick around through harder times, to wade through bureaucracy, and put up with routine frustrations.

They also touch on midieval ordeals and the story of King Solomon’s judgement of the two mothers fighting for the baby, and how even on a small scale tests, or filters can be set up to make people sort themselves.

This idea applies really well to Freemasonry, in particular to how we guard the west gate. A little while back, when I was still a fairly new Mason, my lodge had a group of guys come through and get their first degree in a very short period. We invested time in the degree, in trying to work with them on coaching, etc., only to have them disappear, one by one. Some discovered that it wasn’t what they were looking for, some lost interest, one had a wife that didn’t want him involved. All of these were failings in our process.

These men should have been courted much longer before initiation, indeed, even before receiving their petitions. They should have been invited out to events, invited out for coffee or lunch by various brothers, etc. Men that come to us with interest, should be given an opportunity to get to know us, and us them, and should learn enough about the institution to know if it’s what they’re looking for before they get a petition.

When we shove a petition into a man’s hand simply because he wandered into our building, we’re setting him up for failure, and setting ourselves up for disappointment. Even if it does work out and the brother sticks around, we really haven’t done our due diligence to make sure he’s the sort of man we want representing our lodge, or the craft as a whole.

Several states have adopted various programs as recommendations to lodges about how to handle this process (six steps…) – establishing some recommended number of events for men to join us at or some recommended period of time. Most brothers I’ve talked to from lodges that have implemented this have had wonderful results. This is the self-weeding garden. A process that takes some time, requires some amount of effort, and gives occasion to build relationships in advance of turning in a petition is going to both filter out some of the men that probably would have disappeared on us after initiation, and create more investment and interest in those that do stay.

Similar thought processes about creating self-weeding gardens can probably be applied to lodge leadership positions and offices as well.

Persuasion (Chapter 8)

Chapter 8 covered a lot of ground relating to changing opinions, particularly in those who are very entrenched. There is a lot of good material here with direct applicability to discussions with those of anti-masonic leanings, particularly if it is a family member or someone for whom the long-term stakes may be high.

As applies to talking to an anti-mason, the big takeaways are –

  1. Logic and fact will not help you. You’re going to have to break through ideology and herd thinking barriers before any shift in position can take place.
  2. Don’t dismiss the shortcomings of your position, of Masonry, in this case. We do have some blemishes in our history that need to be acknowledged as problems, or at least not dismissed. These might include the Morgan Affair, past Masonic cronyism in small towns, racial divides in the craft, clandestine Masonry, etc.
  3. Don’t insult the other party – applying labels, name-calling, or insulting will immediately shut the other party down to any and all potential for persuasion.
  4. Communicate your position through stories – there is a rich body of stories told and retold at grand lodge, festive boards, in forums or on Reddit, or just between brothers, all of which are descriptive of the nature of our benevolent craft. Whether it’s a story about your own journey in Freemasonry, about something your lodge or another has done for a Brother or the community, or whatever else it may be. Communicating through stories allows the other party to relate to the ideas differently than if the same point were made directly.

Why Are We Still Doing It? (Chapter 9)

This chapter was all about quitting. It discusses the sunk-cost falacy and how it’s sometimes better to forget our investment in something and walk away, and discusses all that we can learn from failures.

I’m sure we have all been witness to lodge programs that failed miserably. Maybe it’s a bring-a-friend night that no one came to, or a public event that had only a few of the lodge members in attendance. The key takeaway here is to not be dismayed when something doesn’t work, but to learn from it and do things differently in the future.

While not addressed directly in the book, I would add that a great corollary is that having done something in the past (or having done it a certain way) is a terrible reason for doing the same thing again. Traditions are important in lodges, but the past isn’t our only guidepost. When we’re deciding if the lodge should participate in an event, make a donation to some other organization, should have chicken or beef for a dinner, you’ll almost always hear – “what did we do last year?” or “We should do [X] because that’s what we’ve always done.” Most of the time it really doesn’t matter what you’ve always done – every one of these decisions should be made anew based on what the members actually want now, or based on the current financial situation of the lodge, or based on what else is on the calendar at the moment, etc. Tradition is good, but it should never override prudence, candor, or proper judgement, or even preference.

Final Thoughts

There are more, other takeaways to be sure, but these are the ones that jumped out at me. Overall this is a great book, and a quick read. It has great ideas for improving how you think, and how you think about thinking. I highly recommend it in general, and think there are definitely some areas in which it is directly applicable to our lodge experience.

The idea of this (Non-)Masonic Book Review series of posts is to take a look at books from all sorts of genres and see what can be extracted and applied to Freemasonry, or how the ideas can be coupled with those from Freemasonry for an enriched Masonic experience or personal development. In most cases the ideas in the books are extrapolated upon from my own personal experience in the craft. These reviews are not necessarily endorsements of the books (as tastes may vary), but are an attempt to extract value from them for a Masonic audience. This content is my own and is not endorsed by nor necessarily representative of my or any other Grand Lodge or other Masonic body.

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