The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every July Fourth on Coney Island in Brooklyn, is like the World Cup of competitive eating.
Last year, Matt Stonie beat Joey Chestnut’s eight-year streak by eating 62 hot dogs and their buns, but didn’t surpass Chestnut’s record of 69 in that same period.
It’s become normal to expect such ungodly amounts of processed meat and their doughy rolls eaten at such rapid speed, but it wasn’t until 23-year-old Takeru Kobayashi — or Kobi, as he’s known — entered the scene in 2001 and ate 50 dogs that anyone believed this was possible. Before Kobayashi, the record was just 25 and 1/8 eaten in 12 minutes.
In a 2014 episode of Freakonomics radio, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Kobayashi and got remarkable insight into goal-setting and motivation that’s applicable far beyond a competition that some might think is, quite frankly, disgusting.
As Dubner put it, “He redefined the problem he was trying to solve.”
“Here’s what the other competitive eaters were asking themselves: How could I fit more hot dogs in my stomach?” Dubner said. “Kobi asked a different question: How can I make one hot dog easier to eat?”
When Kobayashi was in college in his native Japan, a friend of his enrolled him in a competitive eating contest on a lark, but Kobi decided he’d give it his all. He paced himself better than his competitors and won. Realising that it was his psychology more than the size of his stomach that allowed him to win, he made the giant leap and decided he would be the greatest competitive eater in the world, to be crowned at Coney Island.
“The key to me was that I had to change the mentality that it was a sport, it wasn’t having a meal,” he said. He noticed that previous competitors in the hot dog eating contest ate as if a friend had dared them to eat a bunch of food. Kobayashi saw an opportunity to dissect the physical action of eating and optimise it for speed and efficiency.
Back in Japan, Kobi began intensely experimenting with different techniques for sausage and bun consumption. It was during this time he crafted the game-changing bun dip, where he dipped the hot dog bun in a cup of water to break down its starch, squeeze out the excess water, and toss it into his mouth as a ball. It wasn’t appetizing, but it worked.
That year, he more than doubled the existing record with the 50 hot dogs he ate. He would win six years in a row before Chestnut dethroned him as the dominant force in the Coney Island circuit, but what was even more remarkable is that the people who previously averaged around 25 hot dogs were now pushing themselves to 40 or 50.
Some mimicked his approach, but most important was that the limit had been redefined. As Dubner noted, Kobi had broken a 40-year artificial barrier.
“I think people have to have a reason to rethink what could be wrong,” Kobayashi said.
“I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is, and they decide that ‘Well, I’ve been told this or this is what society tells me’ — they have just been made to believe something.
“If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking for everything, the potential of human beings, I think, is really great.”
You can listen to the full podcast episode on the Freakonomics website.
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