Steven Levitt, co-author of the famed economics book “Freakonomics” and a University of Chicago economics professor, was the keynote speaker for the Ford School of Public Policy’s centennial celebration. Levitt now works at Spin For Good, a consulting firm he co-founded. His lecture to a sold-out audience at Rackham Auditorium Friday was a collection of quirky anecdotes not unlike his three best-selling books: “Freakonomics,” “SuperFreakonomics,” and the new “Think like a Freak.”

In 1914, a year after the chair of the University’s Political Science Department declared the need for “training of municipal experts,” the University began the first American graduate public service training program. The Public Policy School’s Centennial Reunion welcomed alumni, students and members of the University community for a weekend of discussions, an open house and receptions.

Before the talk, The Michigan Daily had a one-on-one interview with Levitt:

What do you think is the most unconventional piece of advice in your new book, “Think Like A Freak”?

In society, there’s such a strong pressure not to quit — winners never quit, quitters never win. And in experiments in a study I’ve done where I got 25,000 people to come to my website and flip coins and decide whether to, say, quit their jobs or break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and the evidence came up really definitively that people just don’t quit enough at all. The biggest and best piece of advice in our book is when you’re not sure — you can’t decide whether to quit something or to break something off — almost for sure you should quit. There’s not nearly enough quitting in society. There’s way too much perseverance, there’s way too much sticking with stuff.

I’ve read a lot about how you’re not really into economic indicators, the stock market and those sorts of things despite being an economics professor at Chicago. You prefer to observe the world around you. So, what advice would you have for undergraduates and graduates who are going through school and the difficulties and drudgework that school involves? How could they maintain their creative spirit?

That is a great question and a hard question. Success in school is not closely tied to creativity. I can speak for myself that I made it through an undergrad at Harvard not thinking once. I was just an incredibly good memorizer and absorber of information and so I could get A’s without having to think at all. It wasn’t until I got into the real world that I realized that anyone asked me to think. There’s this tension between simply memorizing and regurgitating to do well in school and actually exploring ideas and being excited and following tangents. In the end as I look back on my own life and the people around me, I think the people who did what they loved and who were less worried about exactly their GPA and more worried about what they had passions for, I think those people turned out to be more happy in life. … If I could go back and talk to my student self I would say “care a little less and explore a little more.”

A lot of your findings have been met with controversy, such as the theory that legalized abortion reduces crime. How can students deal with controversy when they graduate?

One of my mentors was Gary Becker, who was a famous economist who is a Nobel Prize winner who did a lot of controversial work who just died last year. And one time when I was being criticized a lot — I’ve been criticized for a lot of things so I don’t remember the particular case — he sat me down and he said, “so how do you like being criticized?” and we talked about what was going on, I told him about the criticisms. And he said something which I think is really true. He said, “It’s no fun being criticized, but it’s even worse to be ignored.” He said, “The thing that really drove me crazy is when people ignored what I did.” So if you think you’re right, or even better, you know you’re right, then it’s not so hard to take the criticism. If you figure you’re wrong and it turns out you’re wrong, I think it’s incredibly important to admit that you’re wrong, and to go fight a different battle. But there’s nothing worse than trying to protect a public image that is not warranted, because you just don’t want to be embarrassed. There were a couple times where I’ve just plain been wrong and I admitted I was wrong and I’m glad I did and that worked out well.

But I think it’s even what you’re saying is less an issue for academics. Because part of academics is the acceptance of a wide variety of ideas, what you’re saying really, really binds is in the workplace because firms and organizations are very social entities. And there are very strong norms and it’s very hard to go against the grain in a firm, it’s very hard to rock the boat in a firm. There’s not the challenge that there is in academics. That’s where the really hard issues come up.

Your beginning and most famous research concerned crime. But, with your role at Chicago, as a consultant and your current book focusing on advice, it seems that that focus was diminished. How do you ensure that that passion is still part of your daily work?

What I love to do more than anything is get a big pile of data and a computer and me and the computer and the data and just understand it. Don’t know why but for just the weirdness that I have is that I love to do that. And the sad thing is that I almost never get to do that anymore and it really is a loss and a sign that I did something wrong that now I end up doing things that I can’t delegate. … It’s really a waste in the sense that I get to do a lot of things that for many people would be really fun, but they’re not that much fun for me. The things that I don’t get to do are the things that aren’t so much fun for other people. So I don’t know, maybe someday, if I’m true to my own advice pretty soon I’ll go back to my roots and I’ll spend a lot more time in front of a computer and a lot less time talking to nice people like you.

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