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Social Darwinism at its best

Published on Friday, 24 Jun 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Author: Tim Harford
Publisher: Little, Brown

British economics guru, popular psychology writer, and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford is being touted as the new Malcolm Gladwell. And with good cause. Just as Gladwell's Blink, The Tipping Point and What The Dog Saw provided brilliant observations into the world of business and the vagaries of the market, this - Harford's fifth book - is also the kind of work that veteran business leaders, ambitious young graduates and casual readers alike will find absorbing, with messages that are applicable in the workplace and the marketplace. Moreover, it's a fun read. Despite being a statistician, Harford seems incapable of writing a dull sentence or making an obvious and laboured point.

Speaking to reporters at the launch of Adapt, the author touched briefly on the eclectic nature of this wide-ranging and penetrating work: "It's [a book] about how difficult problems get solved. And my conclusion is that these sorts of problems only ever get solved by trial and error. So when they are being solved, they are being solved through experimentation, which is often a bottom-up process. When they are not being solved, it is because we are not willing to experiment, or to use trial and error."

This, indeed, is the central message of Adapt, but it's one that is often disregarded in Hong Kong, where short-term gains are usually prioritised, and with - all too often - any kind of perceived work-goal setback being punished by the system, instead of being viewed as part of the journey to success.

Building on the appeal of works such as The Undercover Economist and The Logic Of Life, this is Harford's most ambitious work so far. Adapt could fit quite well into the self-help shelf in the bookstore, in that its key insight is that none of us are clever enough to know in advance what will succeed and what won't. And that the secret to a fulfilling life is to recognise this, be willing to risk experiments, and accept that failure is all part of the rich tapestry of life.

Those who don't experiment are usually trying to avoid to never fail, but then they can never win either. Successful people and organisations fail a lot but when they do succeed, they do so on a truly rewarding scale.

The logic is succinctly and convincingly argued, and examples are drawn from a variety of topical issues - the Iraq war, international aid programmes, and the 2008 global banking meltdown, among them. Harford's lucid, jargon-free prose, coupled with his mastery of deftly chosen topics, provide fresh insights into why 21st century events have unfolded in the manner they did.

The big driver then is all "social Darwinism" - institutions and behaviours of immense complexity arise more from adaptation than from design. This has implications across a dizzying array of human endeavour - from regulation of the financial markets, corporations, and competition policy, to military strategy on distant battlefields.

But Hartford is on best form when talking about the global financial crisis, which he says was compounded by the complexity of the financial markets in addition to self-evident macroeconomic policy errors on a biblical scale. Policy-makers around the globe made a bad call on cheap credit from China, and other emerging economies, and we are all still paying the consequences, he asserts with conviction.

The book's subhead reads: "Success always starts with failure". One wonders what was the failure that set him up - an overachieving author (still in his 30s) - for success. As Harford explained at the book's launch: "I was working on a book ... it was going to be a sort of Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones' Diary-styled fictional comedy, in which the hero was this economist and through the hilarious things that happened to him, all these economic principles would be explained, which is a great idea. But the trouble is that I am not actually funny."

However, Harford is brilliantly clever, and this fastidiously researched work is an inspiration. Having stumbled with comedy fiction, the redoubtable Harford is going from strength to strength with the facts, as he sees them.


Five insights

  • Any setback is punished by the system
  • Setbacks must be viewed as part of the journey to success
  • Nobody is clever enough to know in advance what will succeed and what won’t
  • Failure is part of life
  • Those who refuse to experiment are trying to avoid to never fail


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