I'm half-way through reading Tim Harford's book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. So far, the book is brilliant.
Anyone who's wondered why it's so difficult to find leaders who can provide us with solutions to today's problems should read this book.
We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders. Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it…every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the polls as reality starts to bite. This isn't because we keep electing the wrong leaders. It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.
Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter gatherer problems…. The challenges society faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader.
Harford argues this is not a way to solve today's problems because the world has become mind-bogglingly complicated.
The days of top-down design are coming to a close. Adapt walks us through how any problem —big or small— really gets solved in a world where, even something as simple as building a toaster, is too complex for one person to do on their own.
The toasting problem, after all, isn't difficult:
don’t burn the toast; don’t electrocute the user; don’t start a fire. The bread itself is hardly an active protagonist. It doesn’t deliberately try to outwit you, as a team of investment bankers might; it doesn’t try to murder you, terrorise your country, and discredit everything you stand for…The toasting problem is laughably simple compared to the problem of transforming a poor country such as Bangladesh into the kind of economy where toasters are manufactured with ease and every household can afford one, along with the bread to put into it. It is dwarfed by the problem of climate change – the response to which will require much more than modifying a billion toasters.
The complexity of hunting for solutions in a situation where the challenges never stop shifting are the problems of this book. Harford makes a compelling argument for embracing risk, failure, and experimentation rather than top-down solutions to solve today's complex problems.
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Full credit for this article goes to Farnam Street, who published it over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.