What speed eating teaches us about our true potential

The business of eating hot dogs fast, and I mean really fast, wants to be taken seriously. In fact the elite contenders in Competitive Eating consider themselves to be professional athletes …and they’re not alone.

Nowdays the very best get asked to throw the opening pitch at baseball games, they do product endorsements, appear on Nike advertising and talk shows and to cap it all make guest appearances in The Simpsons game.

And the person who led this transformation was the slight figure of Takeru Kobayahsi of Japan. He isn’t what you’d expect. After all, competitive eating was famously an American affair which always got a little bit of coverage during the news-starved Summer months when an annual hot dog eating competition was held in Coney Island.

The winners were usually pretty big guys for obvious reasons; they ate a lot of hot dogs very fast. The standing record was 25 and 1/8 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kobayashi, who weighs just over 9 stone was laughed at by fellow competitors for being so puny.

Then he ate 50.

So comprehensive was his demolition of the previous record that the ‘urban dictionary’ says that to be a Kobayashi of something is to be the dominant player. Tiger Woods was once the Kobayashi of golf, for example.

How did he turn the formbook upside down? Kobayashi thought that the standing record shouldn’t be the limit for his ambition because it would fence in his imagination of the possible. The other contestants were carrying too much mental baggage: the existing record defined the limits of their goals.

In fact they had created an imaginary barrier not a physical barrier because they failed to think big about how to smash the record. Speaking to Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast, 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 have been told this or this is what society tells me”.’

So Kobayashi approached the competition with fresh thinking. He worked out that it was more efficient to separate the frankfurters from the bread rolls. This is called the Solomon method.

While he started eating the frankfurters two at a time he dunked the buns in a tumbler of water and then smushed them into his mouth. This makes them less dry – faster to chew and digest, and saves water-drinking time.

He also developed the ‘Kobayashi Shake’ which involves jumping up and down and twisting your torso to speed food down the oesophagus and create more stomach space.

So the question this leaves us with is this – did Kobayashi change the sport for everyone or was he a blip? To put it a other way – is he a one-off physical marvel (after all he can nowadays eat 69 hot dogs in 12 minutes or 97 hamburgers in 8 minutes) or did he simply identify the self-limiting mental baggage that everyone else was carrying?

Well, you know the answer to this. Following Kobayashi’s amazing triumph other competitors realized they had set limits on their own ambition. Joey Chestnut ate 69 hot dogs in 2013.

These limits are everywhere. This is the mental baggage that holds back our ambition.

‘… So if every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings I think is really great, it’s huge compared to what they think of themselves.’ Kobayashi said to Dubner.


This was first published on the virgin.com/entrepreneur blog