Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

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Overview

When faced with complex problems, we have all become accustomed to looking to our leaders to set out a plan of action, to blaze a path to success.

In this groundbreaking work, Tim Harford shows us a new and inspiring approach to solving the most pressing problems in our lives. Harford argues that today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt. ...

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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

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Overview

When faced with complex problems, we have all become accustomed to looking to our leaders to set out a plan of action, to blaze a path to success.

In this groundbreaking work, Tim Harford shows us a new and inspiring approach to solving the most pressing problems in our lives. Harford argues that today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt. Deftly weaving together psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics, and economics, along with compelling stories of hard-won lessons learned in the field, Harford makes a passionate case for the importance of adaptive trial-and-error in tackling issues such as climate change, poverty, and the financial crisis.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611745023
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company
  • Publication date: 5/17/2011
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged; 10 hours
  • Sales rank: 1,020,765
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet 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, Wired, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. His previous books include The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life.

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Read an Excerpt

Adapting

‘The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.’

– Friedrich von Hayek

‘Cross the river by feeling for stones.’

– Attributed to Deng Xiaoping

 

1 ‘You could easily spend your life making a toaster’

The electric toaster seems a humble thing. It was invented in 1893, roughly halfway between the appearance of the light bulb and that of the aeroplane. This century-old technology is now a household staple. Reliable, efficient toasters are available for less than an hour’s wage.

 

Nevertheless, Thomas Thwaites, a postgraduate design student at the Royal College of Art in London, discovered just what an astonishing achievement the toaster is when he embarked on what he called the ‘Toaster Project’. Quite simply, Thwaites wanted to build a toaster from scratch. He started by taking apart a cheap toaster, to discover that it had over four hundred components and sub-components. Even the most primitive model called for:

 

Copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica (a mineral a bit like slate) around which the heating element is wound, and of course plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the all important sleek looking casing.

 

The scale of the task soon became clear. To get iron ore, Thwaites had to travel to an old mine in Wales that now serves as a museum. He tried to smelt the iron using fifteenth-century technology, and failed dismally. He fared no better when he replaced bellows with hairdryers and a leaf-blower. His next attempt was even more of a cheat: he used a recently patented smelting method and two microwave ovens, one of which perished in the attempt, to produce a coin-sized lump of iron.

 

Plastic was no easier. Thwaites tried but failed to persuade BP to fly him out to an offshore rig to collect some crude oil. His attempts to make plastic from potato starch were foiled by mould and hungry snails. Finally, he settled for scavenging some plastic from a local dump, melting it down and moulding it into a toaster’s casing. Other short cuts followed. Thwaites used electrolysis to obtain copper from the polluted water of an old mine in Anglesey, and simply melted down some commemorative coins to produce nickel, which he drew into wire using a specialised machine from the RCA’s jewellery department.

 

Such compromises were inevitable. ‘I realised that if you started absolutely from scratch, you could easily spend your life making a toaster,’ he admitted. Despite his Herculean efforts to duplicate the technology, Thomas Thwaites’s toaster looks more like a toaster-shaped birthday cake than a real toaster, its coating dripping and oozing like an icing job gone wrong. ‘It warms bread when I plug it into a battery,’ he told me, brightly. ‘But I’m not sure what will happen if I plug it into the mains.’ Eventually, he summoned up the courage to do so. Two seconds later, the toaster was toast.

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Table of Contents

1 Adapting 1

2 Conflict or: How organisations learn 40

3 Creating new ideas that matter or: Variation 87

4 Finding what works for the poor or: Selection 125

5 Climate change or: Changing the rules for success 167

6 Preventing financial meltdowns or: Decoupling 197

7 The adaptive organisation 240

8 Adapting and you 267

Notes 285

Acknowledgements 325

Index 329

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First Chapter

Adapt

Why Success Always Starts with Failure
By Tim Harford

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 Tim Harford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374100964

Rose crossing a square in Spain, could be Valencia or Granada or any of the places where two girls stay the summer after high school, sleeping under rowboats or in flowerbeds, in hostels or pensions with balustrades and mites made venerable and happy by tourists, but it happens to be a less trafficked area of Barcelona, not far from where Senegalese vendors pray, and Rose is all chrysalis, bruisable and diffident, aware of contours, thrilled by the people she will meet, the ones who will reveal all her possible faces, still hidden in magic invisible cloaksleeves.

She is crossing a newly washed square toward Lana in a white t-shirt called a wife-beater, and does it matter whether she holds aloft two drinks and one straw, or one drink with two straws, and whether the drink is horchata or limonata, and that in a shaded patio Lana sits awaiting Rose with some dark-browed man they have just met?

The man doesn’t matter: he just spells the name of some new adventure together. Rose’s tongue inches forward, all is potential. The surface of her skin could be a plum’s, ripe and ready for anything, because someone just granted her new sap: at that point, Rose is still included in Lana.

All that matters is crossing toward her friend, their bubble mostly unburst, Rose no longer an observer, now someone deserving to take breath and live, every footfall commuting what had been one long and lonely life sentence.

What goads her on could be as happenstance as the single brush of an arm as they stride along a railway platform, enough to act as a million fireflies of encouragement in the dark of all they leave unsaid. Rose, crossing toward Lana, shivers. They will never be lovers, they have been newly set loose on the world, fairly oblivious to everyone else. Masters or meteors: two girls at seventeen.



Continues...

Excerpted from Adapt by Tim Harford Copyright © 2011 by Tim Harford. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2012

    No single, simple solution can solve the complex problems of tod

    No single, simple solution can solve the complex problems of today’s almost inconceivably complicated, interconnected world. Economist Tim Harford understands that evolution – gradual adaptive change – breeds far more success than revolution. In this thought-provoking book, Harford draws examples from multiple disciplines, illuminates the gap between how things work and how people think they work, and maintains reader interest with his entertaining style. getAbstract recommends Harford’s tactics for dealing with complexity to anyone who wants to think more clearly, assess policies or plan for the future.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2012

    Liked

    The book, in some way, complements "Learned optimism." Where Learned Optimism approached experimenting from the point of view of optimism n had gone further n advised the reader to choose optimism (experiment) if the cost of the action (the experiment) is small. While advocating pessimism if the cost of action is "too high". This of-course is a poor book review of both books. Overall I found the book easy n satisfying to read. --Avi Farah

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2012

    Overall liked it

    The writer effectively captured the importance of learning and adaptating based on success and failure. Drawing parellels between the evolution and extinctions of businesses was particularly interesting yet entertaining.

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    Posted May 27, 2011

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    Posted July 10, 2011

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    Posted August 19, 2011

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