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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure Paperback – May 8, 2012
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“[Harford] offers a very useful guide for people preparing to live in the world as it really is.” ―David Brooks, The New York Times
“Brainy . . . Harford has a knack for making complicated ideas sound simple.” ―James Pressley, Bloomberg News
“Tim Harford's terrific new book urges us to understand profit from our muddling . . . Harford is a gifted writer whose prose courses swiftly and pleasurably. He has assembled a powerful combination of anecdotes and data to make a serious point: companies, governments and people must recognise the limits of their wisdom and embrace the muddling of mankind.” ―Edward Glaeser, Financial Times
“Harford's case histories are well chosen and artfully told, making the book a delight to read. But its value is greater than that. Strand by strand, it weaves the stories into a philosophical web that is neat, fascinating and brilliant . . . It advances the subject as well as conveying it, drawing intriguing conclusions about how to run companies, armies and research labs.” ―Matt Ridley, Nature
“One of the best writers who also happens to be an economist.” ―Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics blog
“This is a brilliant and fascinating book--Harford's range of research is both impressive and inspiring, and his conclusions are provocative. The message about the need to accept failure has important implications, not just for policy making but also for people's professional and personal lives. It should be required reading for anyone serving in government, working at a company, trying to build a career or simply trying to navigate an increasingly complex world.” ―Gillian Tett, author of Fool's Gold: The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall St. Greed Corrupted Its Bold Dream and Created a Financial Catastrophe
“Harford's wide-ranging look at social adaptation is fresh, creative, and timely.” ―Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing
“Adapt is a highly readable, even entertaining, argument against top-down design. It debunks the Soviet-Harvard command-and-control style of planning and approach to economic policies and regulations and vindicates trial and error (particularly the error part) as a means to economic and general progress. Very impressive!” ―Nassim N. Taleb, Distinguised Professor of Risk Engineering, NYU-Poly Institute and author of The Black Swan
“Tim Harford has made a compelling and expertly informed case for why we need to embrace risk, failure, and experimentation in order to find great ideas that will change the world. I loved the book.” ―Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality
“Tim Harford could well be Britain's Malcolm Gladwell. An entertaining mix of popular economics and psychology, this excellently written book contains fascinating stories of success and failure that will challenge your assumptions. Insightful and clever.” ―Alex Bellos, author of Here's Looking at Euclid
About the Author
Tim Harford is the Undercover Economist and Dear Economist columnist for the Financial Times. His writing has also appeared in Esquire, Forbes, New York magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. His previous books include The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life. Harford presents the popular BBC radio show More or Less and is a visiting fellow at London's Cass Business School. He is the winner of the 2006 Bastiat Prize for economic journalism and the 2010 Royal Statistical Society Award for excellence in journalism.
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Top customer reviews
Hartford's resources and interpretation are excellent, and the citations alone form a formidable addition to any "must read" list.
There are lots of wonderful perspectives in the book. To me the most interesting was the concept of decoupling implemented in the design of banking, nuclear reactors, and oil drilling platforms. If one part of a system fails, the other parts are protected from collateral failure. An absolute worst case failure causes very limited damage.
Decoupling a large, diverse bank would involve keeping the ordinary deposits accounts of individuals and corporations in a stand alone bank division. If the stand alone bank fails government protection of operations would be appropriate.
The rest of the banking activities would be in a separate bank that had no claim on the ordinary bank deposits or reserves. This means that capitalization for the ordinary bank part would in no way be connected to capitalization of the more speculative activities. If the speculative activities go bust they would have no affect on the capital and operations of the stand alone bank. The capital could not be moved or used in any way to cushion the speculative activities. An appropriate setup of the speculative bank should then be able to minimize the need for government backing.
Life is not risk free, but this book suggests that tremendous risks can be reduced by decoupling by design. I heartily recommend the book.
Anyway, I didn't like the military examples and all the stuff related to Irak. Maybe such examples make a clear point, but war stories are definitively not my my cup of tea. The main argument, trial and error are needed to reach success, is interesting, and many other sections of the book are valuable. If this is your first Harford's book, then I would suggest you having instead the one mentioned earlier. Otherwise, for those who like Harford, this is not his best (in my opinion), but it is not that bad.
Here are his own thoughts about the resiliency that is required of those who seek success, however defined: "The ability to adapt requires a sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure [what I prefer to view as non-success or not-as-yet-success] 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 that willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never succeed."
The quest for business success involves constant experimentation. Obviously, the prospects for success are improved substantially within a workplace culture that encourages, supports, recognizes, and rewards prudent experimentation. But, as with ideas, the more experiments that are conducted, the more likely that there will be a breakthrough. The first challenge to leaders is to establish such a culture; the next and greater challenge is to sustain it. Harford has written this book to help his reader respond effectively to both challenges. His approach is philosophical, yes, because there are significant issues with important implications and potential consequences to take into full account. However, in my opinion, his approach is also pragmatic and his recommendations are eminently do-able.
Peter Palchinsky (1875-1929) is one of the most fascinating people discussed in the book. He was a Russian industrial engineer (often viewed as a technocrat) whose progressive ideas about human rights during Stalin's consolidation of power led to several arrests and finally, execution by a firing squad. Here is Harford's brief but precise explanation of Palchinsky's principles: "First, try new things; second, try them in context where failure is survivable. But the third an critical step is how to react to failure...[to avoid] several oddities of the human brain that often prevent us from learning from our failures and becoming more successful...It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit that we have made a mistake and try to put it right."
These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Harford's coverage.
o The Soviet Union's "pathological inability to adapt" (Pages 21-27)
o Why learning from mistakes is hard (31-35)
o The Tal Afar experiment (50-56)
o Friedrich von Hayek and "knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and space" (74-78)
o Lottery tickets, positive black swans, and the importance of variation (83-86)
o Skunk Works and "freak machines" (86-89)
o "We should not try to design a better world. We should make better feedback loops." (140-143)
o The Greenhouse Effect, 1859 (154-156)
o The unexpected consequences of the Merton Rule" (169-174)
o Why safety systems bite back (186-190)
o Dominoes and zombie banks (200-202)
o Making experiments survivable (214-216)
o Adapting as we go along (221-224)
o Google's corporate strategy: have no corporate strategy (231-234)
o When companies become dinosaurs (239-244)
o "Challenge a status quo of your own making"(249-256)
Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter One: "We face a difficult challenge: the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes, relative to the alternatives. Yet it is an approach that runs counter to our instincts, and to the way in which traditional organisations work. The aim of this book is to provide an answer to that challenge."