Tim Harford's “Adapt” – a brilliant book with a slightly daft subtitle

There are only very few people in life I’m really envious of. One of them is Tim Harford aka “The Undercover Economist“. Tim is doing a similar job at the Financial Times to mine at Handelsblatt. He writes about current economic research that is not necessarily related to day-to-day politics but is either relevant or sometimes just interesting.

However, Tim is lightyears more successful than I am. He is a household name in Britain, does a radio show on BBC’s  iconic Radio 4 (“More or less”) and has 22.500 followers on Twitter. His first book “The Undercover Economist”, published in 2006, is a world bestseller. It’s also incredibly good – something you can’t say about every bestseller in popular economics.

Tim Harford aka "The Undercover Economist" (Photo by Fran Monks)

However, the most surprising and sympathetic thing about Tim is that he is an amazingly nice bloke. In my 20 year as a journalist, I’ve very rarely met a colleague who is at the same time as successful and as friendly and helpful as Tim is. Arrogance and overconfidence seem just not to be in his DNA. Probably he just knows that he’s good and hence there is no need to show off.

In June, Tim’s latest book “Adapt – Why Success always starts with failure” came out. When I saw the title for the first time, my initial thought was: what a daft subtile! He hasn’t written one of those how-to-be-successfull-and-get-rich-fast books where he pretends to give simple answers that in fact do not exist, has he?

No, he hasn’t. Fortunately. Ironically, Tim’s new book is exactly the opposite. It’s a staunch and convincing call against simple answers. Be it financial stability, warfare, climate change or the end of poverty in Africa there is no panacea for everything, is the big message of “Adapt”.

The world is just too complex, and easy solutions tend to be misleading and even dangerous. Listen to the experts, but don’t trust them blindly and always be prepared that they may be proven utterly wrong in the next minute. Quite often, the best solutions for complex problems are found accidentally and unexpectedly.

Tim Harford's "Adapt" - a must read

The only sensible way to deal with such a world is trial and error, as Tim rightly asserts. Or, as the “Kings of Convenience” sing: “Failure is the best way to learn.” This all sounds fairly easy, but in fact it is a tough message, because there are only a few things we loathe more than making errors.

However, “trial and error” entails making mistakes. We must be willing to conduct and even appreciate them. Humans, however, have a deeply engrained tendency to overlook and deny their errors. Tim describes three different sources for this:

“denial, because we cannot separate our error from sense of self worth; self-destructive behaviour, because we (…) compound our losses by trying to compensate for them; and the rose-tinted processes (…) whereby we remember past mistakes as though they were triumphs, or mash together our failures with our successes”

We have a penchant to frame our our failures as successes and we “systematically reinterpret our past decision as being better than it really was”, says Tim. When it comes to our own errors, we love to delude ourselves.

“Adapt” not only deals with the big questions of economic policy, it addresses one of the most daunting questions of life in general: How can we make the world a better place?

Amazingly, Tim has a convincing and easy answer. However, it is not as most people would expect. Tim is not describing a recipe for a better world. He does not describe results. He describes a procedure (experimenting, trial and error) which is most likely to get us towards a better world.

Even more surprising is that Tim manages to give this answer entertainingly and light-footedly: He gives a lot of convincing and fitting examples – taken from his personal life, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and nuclear power stations.

One example is Tim’s description of an episode that is terrifying for every parent. His three-year-old daughter once got lost for 10 minutes in central London. The girl but didn’t panic at all. She “felt absolutely secure that she would find her family or that her family would find her,” Tim writes. The big lesson of this episode is:

“The ability to adapt requires [a] sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure is a cost we will be able to bear. Sometimes that takes real courage; at other times all that is needed is the happy self-delusion of a lost three-year-old. Whatever its source, we need the willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never truly succeed.”

Despite the abundance of examples like this, “Adapt” is much more than a nice collection of interesting stories. The whole book is founded on a rock-solid and rigorous analysis.

If there is anything that can be said against “Adapt” (apart from the subtitle) it is that it might be written too well – the reader is at risk of not realizing how serious and and far-fetching Tim’s conclusions are.

PS: By the way Tim recently has had “tea with the Economist” (true Brit!) in his kitchen in Hackney.


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