The Only Two Secrets You Need To Know

Flickr / Sophia Louise
Flickr / Sophia Louise

A few years before he wrote Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner wanted to follow me around. To shadow me so he can find out how depraved I was.

“I’m writing a book about the Psychology of Money. You’re going to be the first chapter.” He wanted to write about someone who made and lost millions and psychologically was a total wreck.

He came to my “house-colding” party. I was losing my house in NYC and about to move 80 miles north to the only place I could afford. A house 1/3 the size.

We were all depressed at the party. Well, my ex-wife said, this is it, as the elevator opened for the last time. My oldest daughter was crying. The house was empty. Stephen was writing in his notebook.

Then he came and visited me upstate a few weeks later in our broken down house at the time. We started playing Backgammon. We began a match in 2002 that is still ongoing. It’s a match of matches. We play to a 100 each match. I think the score is 2-1 in my favor but he’s about to make it 2-2.

He stopped writing on this book because his article about an economist in Chicago got very popular and he got a book deal because of it.

The day before Freakonomics came out, Stephen was depressed. “I don’t know what I’ll do if this book doesn’t work out,” he told me while we were playing.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it will be a bestseller.” I had read a copy. I had no idea if it would be a bestseller or not. I was just being nice.

A few days later he calls me up. “Look at the Amazon number.”

Holy S&&&! It was #2. #1 was a Harry Potter book. For the next year or so or three, Freakonomics was #2 or #1. Going back and forth.

I don’t think there’s been a non-fiction book like that since. So consistently in the top 2. After that it was a franchise: two more books, a game, a movie, a blog, a radio show, a podcast.

I’ve read and re-read all the books. But I’ve probably read the first book over ten times. I think I know why it’s a success. And I think the two reasons why it’s a success can be applied to business, relationships, writing, all creativity. Everything.

#1: AHA!

There’s an example in the second book of how monkeys learned how to use cash to pay for sex. The first case of animal prostitution?

That’s an AHA! It’s not enough to say “monkeys learned how to trade”. This would be interesting, but not ten times as interesting as any other fact about monkeys. But sex and monkeys and prostitution is ten times as interesting. It’s an AHA!

In the first book, they break down the economics of a crack gang and explain why so many crack dealers live at home with their mothers.

This is an AHA! It’s not like saying “Crack dealers end up in jail more than other types of drug dealers”.

What is an AHA! moment?

It’s saying or doing something that is ten times more than expected. As an example, Daniel Kahnemann has written that after someone makes $75,000 then their happiness starts to even out if they make more than $75,000.

A non-AHA moment would be, “that’s not true. It depends on where they live.” That might be a smarter way to put it but it would not be AHA!

AHA! might be that after $1,000,000 a year people become more and more miserable. And that $10,000,000 a year they become suicidal.

I’m not saying that is true. Who knows? I’m just saying that’s a ten-time addition to the original statement.

In business, you can’t offer a “cheap Uber”. That’s a small improvement over Uber. Who cares? What would be interesting is if Uber can pick up my laundry and groceries and even my prescriptions at the pharmacy. That’s an AHA!

I went to Best Buy to get a new phone this year. The upgrades were so meaningless that for the first time in ten years I didn’t get a new phone. No AHA! But if they told me, “the battery life lasts for two weeks instead of one day” I would’ve paid any amount of money.

In relationships you can’t be slightly more handsome or interesting than her last boyfriend. They broke up for a reason!

You have to show where you are 10 times better. If the last guy never returned her calls, then you can write love letters AND return calls. AHA!

As Steve Martin once said when his career was taking off, “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

In anything you want to be good at, go for the AHA!, not the HO-HUM.

#2: Secret Origins

My favorite comic book as a kid was a DC comic called, “Secret Origins”. Each issue was the secret origin of a different superhero.

It’s not enough to know that Batman is a good detective and is rich. It’s important to know that his parents were killed right in front of him.

He’s probably psychologically disturbed and constantly seeking revenge so he wears a skintight suit and gets pleasure beating people up.

In Freakonomics, they don’t just present a bunch of bland research. For every scientist whose research they discuss, they first get right to the heart of what the scientist’s personal story is:

why was he interested in monkeys who pay for sex? Why is he interested in the amount of methane gas that cows give off. Why is he interested in the IQs of people who spell their names wrong?

What was Stephen’s secret origin? When he was nine years old singing in a Catholic church choir with his religious parents, his dad collapsed of a heart attack and died.

Then he realized his parents had converted from Judaism and he started exploring this new religion for him – perhaps an abstract quest for the parent he lost.

The book that resulted, “Turbulent Souls” became a bestseller.

When Stephen was following me around, he called all my relatives and people I had worked with to find out who he was following, but from their perspective.

If something (a business, a relationship, a book, a character) is important to you, find out who they are. Don’t ask them WHAT their work is. Ask them WHY their work is. Ask them WHO their work is. Ask others about them.

Find where they are most disturbed because that fissure in the surface is where the earthquakes will come from.

Every single one of us, without a single exception, has gone through a period of enormous stress and sadness in our lives. This is the knife that shapes our futures.

Without understanding these moments, we miss the entire picture, we miss the subtleties of the work of art that each one of us uniquely is.

Look around at the people in your life. At the friends and family, but also the people you encounter.

An archaeologist doesn’t dig with a shovel. He digs with a spoon, extracting tiny pieces of dirt and artifacts that might represent centuries of lives and loves over millimeters of dirt extracted.

An archaeological dig can take years. So can a friendship. So can a love. So can a business or a work of art. The secret origins of the people all around you are like these archaeological digs.

Dig far enough and you’ll hit oil that will energize the relationship forever.


When Stephen finished Freakonomics, he sent me the first chapter about “The Psychology of Money,” which he decided never to write. The chapter about me.

“The [well known] Magazine might want to make this the cover story,” he said to me. Would you mind?

I read it and some other members of my family read it and they didn’t like what he said and I had to tell him no.

Instead I have his invaluable friendship, so I am the net winner. And I get to crush him in Backgammon.

Everyone has an AHA! in them. And everyone has a secret origin.

When I look at you, Claudia, every day I try to AHA! you. I keep trying to learn more of your secret origin. And the more I find, the more I love you. TC mark

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