Think like a child, like a freak

The other day, I wrote about trying new non-intuitive habits and creating your own Retard’s Playbook or lifehacking manual.

Here I expand on a method to solve problems and find unexpected solutions, including just asking simple questions, being unbiased and taking the longer route from scratch, having fun and broadening your attention instead of focusing.

This article shouldn’t set you back more than five minutes.


Think Like A Child

I constantly try new methods to control my rescue dog while still being her friend and family.

The “problem” is that she wants to run up to other dogs. If she can’t do that immediately she barks (aggressively, although quiets down completely and wags her tail as soon as she is right next to the other dog). She is not the least aggressive or dangerous, but she can appear to be (she sounds and looks aggressive and is an 85 lbs German Shepherd-Doberman street breed).

think like a child aggressive german shepherd

“She’ll calm down if you just let her come close, I promise”

I’ve tried meatballs and sausages (throwing them on her, on the ground, shoving them up her face, in her mouth, just letting her sniff and lick the goodies and so on), I’ve tried verbal commands, physical cues (scratching, picking, gentle “fishing” with the leash), harsher pulling, wrestling her to the ground, turning her away, blocking her view, simply releasing her, sharp clapping sounds, click devices, running, slowing down, and so on. I keep trying whatever I come to think of.

My method with Ronja, as well as in other aspects of my life, resembles advice in a chapter of the book Think Like A Freak (a very serious competitor to my Retard’s Playbook) about thinking like a child.

Much of what is said there is applicable to anything from dog socialization and gym training to financial investments (three of my main interests). The below childish advice is mainly ripped from the podcast Freakonomics last Thursday:

Have fun. It turns out Sinead’s doctor wasn’t the fool she thought.

An 8-year old can play complicated computer games for 8 hours, but could hardly handle a full time job at the supermarket. The key ingredient here is fun; if you actually like what you do you have an unfair advantage over people who just do their job.

I used to like researching stocks, understanding business models and not least develop models for their drivers, metrics and financials. That’s why I was good at my job as a sell-side analyst 1994-2000 and during my first 10 years as a portfolio manager. With time, it became more and more of just a job – a boring, meaningless and almost dishonest job, where fundamental long term research didn’t stand a chance against the machinations of evil and ignorant politicians.

Think broadly. Children have a much broader attention compared to the laser like focus of adults. Children therefore can reveal a magician’s methods and discover a fully visible person sitting in an unusual place in a mall that the adults never see.

As I’ve learned through earlier science podcasts, children are like the R&D department of a large company (sees everything at once, but focuses on nothing), whereas adults work with production and marketing. During my career, the ability to switch between micro and macro, between focus and a more holistic view turned out to be very valuable (first ranked analyst, as well as European Hedge Fund Of The Decade, remember?).

Later, when hiring new analysts, I let the applicants solve typical McKinsey-type problems that require the ability to jump back and forth between a bird’s eye perspective and the nitty gritty details of a problem. All the people we hired that way turned out to be very good at researching companies and their shares.

Ask simply. Children, newcomers and outsiders tend to ask “stupid” questions that sometimes resolve the Gordian knot at hand. Soon, however, adults feel too embarrassed to ask simple and direct questions, since they are supposed to already know the answer. This childlike behavior was particularly useful as an IT-analyst in the mid-90s, navigating new technology and 3-letter-abbreviations designed for misdirection. There was a time when all a company had to do was include the term WAP in a pressrelease to see its shares rise by 5-10% that day.

Start from scratch. A final suggestion for harnessing the power of children is to ignore heuristics. It is much more time consuming of course, but scientists and long-term investors (investment horizons of at least one cycle of 7-10 years) have everything to gain from ridding themselves of prejudice and bias. 

I’m sure all these traits are just as important in any creative profession, research or entrepreneurial endeavor as it was in the world of finance.

Here is a tip on how to explore and expand part of your still childlike capacity for a broader attention span. Try to listen to the bass only in, e.g., Bach’s flute sonatas (like this one). When you do find the bass, the rest of the music manifests itself indirectly in your mind but much grander than before. But watch out, it’s very easy to get caught by the melodic flute again and lose the bass.


That mindfulness and unfocused focus Bach experiment reminds me of the 3D stereogramme pictures of the 1980s, like these two:


To see the 3D picture, gaze through the picture as if looking toward the horizon, or possibly the wall behind your screen. The picture in all its 3D glory appears after some 10 seconds.



  • Have fun
  • Ask “stupid” questions
  • Be unbiased
  • Lessen your focus and widen your attention
  • Try a simple mindfulness exercise like listening to the bass only in a piece of classical music

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8 thoughts on “Think like a child, like a freak”

  1. So did you find anything that works with Ronja? My rescue dog has the same problem. The only think that I’ve had any luck with is covering his eyes. I suspect there’s some social anxiety causing it that could be fixed at the root.

  2. Nothing really works 100% (except keeping a meatball by her mouth so she can nibble at it throughout the passage), but staying in contact with her in several different ways is best; saying her name repeatedly (2x per second) bent down directly to her year while keeping a very short leash as we pass. As soon as the other dog is behind us she stops fuzzing and varning.

    Sometimes though, just approaching slowly is all it takes to keep her quiet.

    And in the park, when she is off the leash all is good. She wants to run over for a quick sniff but stops if I call her back). It’s just on the leash on a tight city street there still is a problem.

  3. Mr Mikael,

    A very enlightening post!

    May I write a missive?


    I’ve been struggling for some time with this topic.

    One side, you have the child-like wonder-dweller, willing to embrace every adventure as if it were your first, becoming truly excited about everything even the smallest part surreal.

    The other side – the “mature” side – realizes that bills don’t pay themselves, that you’ll never be able to do the things you really want if you’re not willing to take bold risks, go against the grain & stick your neck out.

    The “battle” you have is between the two.

    It’s very easy to succumb to the whims of childlike wonder – floating like a leaf in late Autumn winds between ideas, projects & fancies. Much more difficult to face tough questions, problems & issues, and stick with them.

    Whilst you advocate embracing the “inner child” (which is vitally important), perhaps a nod to the “masculine” within us is needed, too?

    Without focus & a willingness to “get noticed”, how would you achieve the things you know are needed for your own well-being? I highly doubt you exercised complete piety when engaged in the financial world. Indeed, I’m sure bravado accounted for at least some of the end-of-year bonuses?

    The underpin of this is simply the answer to the question: Are you trying too hard?

    If the answer is yes, I’d say you have to recant somewhat and become more holistic (IE explore more like a child). If the answer is no, you’ll probably be able to stick your neck out a lot more; get noticed, make some progress & then come crashing down.

    1. Great comment Rich! Your comments often make me feel inadequate and wanting to rewrite my post. Anyway, I’m learning…

      I think most ambitious people are “trying too hard”. They are brain washed by modern society and think that champagne spray parties, fashion, expensive watches, exclusive sports cars and yachts are inherently good and worthwhile goals. They are also led to believe that working hard, studying hard is necessarily better than taking a pause to reflect.

      Hence, I think most could benefit from being more mindful (as opposed to always being disciplined and focused)

  4. Mikael,

    It´s a real pleasure to read your post. Just the other day, I was thinking about this issue of broadening your attention versus focusing your mind like a “laser beam”. I feel like there is always a time for both.

    Not long ago, I was riding my motorcicle and decided to focus on the way ahead (dirt roads in the countryside of beautiful Nicaragua!), but lost sight of the whole terrain. I eventually fell off and almost broke my arms and knees.

    In retrospective, I came to the conclusion that while I was not being distracted, I took the tree for the forest. What a mistake!

    Just wanted to share this thought and thank you for your interesting insights!


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