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'Adapt': Failure As An Option On The Way To Success

Tim Harford's first book, <em>The Undercover Economist</em>, has sold 1 million copies worldwide in almost 30 languages.
Fran Monks
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Tim Harford's first book, The Undercover Economist, has sold 1 million copies worldwide in almost 30 languages.

In a complex world, the process of trial and error is essential. That's what Tim Harford — columnist for The Financial Times — writes in his new book Adapt. And while that idea might seem like common sense, it's one that is often remarkably hard for humans to accept because errors are associated with failure.

The subtitle of Harford's book is "Why Success Always Starts with Failure." For anyone familiar with Internet startups, that concept probably sounds pretty accurate; it seems every successful Internet CEO has a list of past missteps under his or her belt.

Harford tells NPR's Renee Montagne that businesses outside the Web world stand to benefit from Silicon Valley's fearlessness because, ultimately, it's through mistakes that great ideas come about.

"Failure is inevitable; it happens all the time in a complex economy," he says. "How did the economy produce all these amazing things that we have around us — computers and cellphones and so on? There were a bunch of ideas, and the good ones grew and prospered. And the bad ones were pretty ruthlessly weeded out."

Not 'Going On Tilt'

But if failure can bring such great things, it seems counterintuitive that most people find it so difficult to learn from mistakes. The way Harford explains that paradox is through a poker analogy.

"If you talk to a professional poker player, he or she will tell you that the most vulnerable time in a poker game is just after you've made a mistake," he says. "You do something called 'going on tilt.'" That's when, following an error, a player starts making reckless moves in a last-ditch effort to chase his money — to erase the mistake altogether.

That's not just something that happens in poker. Harford says that stock-market investors, for example, will engage in the same type of activity — chasing losses, doubling down — in hopes of being able to exit the game without having to admit to any errors. That, says Harford, is not good for business.

"If the whole process of learning from failure means discarding stuff that's not working, but in fact, our natural reaction is to keep going, to throw more money behind it, to throw more emotional energy behind it ... that's a real problem," he says.

But it's a problem that some companies are surpassing by embracing the concept of trial and error, he says. And their businesses are improving as a result.

One company that's paving the way when it comes to such experimentation is Whole Foods. The supermarket chain recently implemented an unconventional employee-empowerment program that lets employees choose co-workers to be on their team.

"If they think, 'This person's a slacker, or doesn't have good ideas,' they can vote and say, 'No, we don't want this person to be working with us on the vegetable aisle,'" Harford says. "That decentralization is a fascinating process, and I think it's getting more and more widespread."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff