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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  3,677 ratings  ·  274 reviews
Author Q&A with Tim Harford


So are you an economic missionary, or is this just something that you love to do?

It began as something that I love to do--and I think I am now starting to get a sense of it being a mission. People can use economics and they can use statistics and numbers to get at the truth and there is a real appetite for doing so. This is such a BB

Paperback, 320 pages
Published May 1st 2011 by Little, Brown Young Readers (first published January 1st 2011)
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Daniel Namie
May 30, 2011 rated it liked it
"Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure" by Tim Harford should never have developed into a book. Entertaining and inevitably true, success does and always starts with failure, but to continuously argue the point for 275 pages become cumbersome and tedious. To credit Harford's book, I did enjoy the first 100 pages, which should of stopped there. "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure" is a much more applicable essay/thesis than a book.
Chris Dymond
Aug 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some reviewers have admonished Tim Harford for repeating the same thesis over and over again & effectively turning a whole bunch of blog posts into a book. I disagree - the parameters of adaption change with context - frequency & diversity of variation, consequences of failure, cultural appetite for experimentation, etc. - so the book doesn't so much repeat but investigate the contextual nuances of a (not particularly groundbreaking but fascinating nonetheless) initial idea. And I think it does ...more
Adam Wiggins
Dec 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Adapt has a clear and compelling thesis, and is strikingly well-written -- the two traits I seek most from non-fiction works.

My summary of the thesis: success in anything is best achieved through lightweight experimentation, copious failure (and the learning that goes with it), and a rigorous selection algorithm.

Stated this way, it sounds obvious, but this is the opposite of how most for-profit companies, governments, and individuals behave in their own pursuits: big investments in centralized a
Gumble's Yard
Jan 15, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
Interesting book by The Undercover Economist. The style is a little unusual, Hartford draws on lots of examples but goes into them in a lot of detail (including clearly having interviewed many of the protagonists) so that at times the individual chapters seem more about the examples/interviewees than the actual theme.

The book’s central theme is that an adaptive/evolutionary approach which embraces safe failure is the only real way to achieve lasting success. Specifically Hartford argues agains
Jun 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, business
An amalgam of Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics and The Innovator's Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business (and probably a couple other books) in a much more accessible format. His basic theory is that individuals and organizations should not be afraid to fail, and in order to adapt, should 'try new things, in the expectations that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure ...more
Sairam Krishnan
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting thesis and supporting narrative. Tim Harford is quite a good writer. Does feel like it could have been a bit shorter, though, but not complaining. There's enough in there to provoke a lot of thought and action.
Stephanie Thoma
Similar to Freakanomics, with late 20th century pop culture and historical accounts, and indirectly allude to learning from failure. I prefer Freakonimics (content and style) but enjoyed pieces of this book.

Some things I learned:

- ' A person who has not made peace with his losses is likely to accept gambles that would be unacceptable to him otherwise.'
This certainly explains some downward spirals/mid-life crises. A good friend, or reconnecting with common sense to cut losses is beneficial. The
Affad Shaikh
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I appreciate this book. I found it to be profound in the way it presented failure. I am currently reading whatever books I can on failure, and find that in this particular approach by the Harford, the frame that provides an understanding to mitigate failure is the best articulated, in terms of general process.

If you accept that "failure is not an option" is an oddity of thought given how failure itself has led to so many new and exciting developments, then the question turns on what is failure?
Maybe I had a different experience with this book because of the audiobook edition that I listened to (rather than reading it). As other reviewers have said, a relatively basic, powerful and useful thesis is in play here, with a variety of different angles and things to consider...all very loosely tied to the thesis through the *heavy* use of too-diverse anecdote which is expected to be self-evident and stand on its own without being explicitly tied back to the thesis.

Additionally, new concepts
Sep 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Harford’s Adapt is all about making a product, process, or person better by trial and error. I took a class in user interface design at UCLA led by former Apple designers that demonstrated the power of starting with a quick, rough prototype then refining it based on user tests to gather feedback. This book illustrates this adaption technique with many interesting examples. If you haven’t read Harford’s prior book, The Undercover Economist, I’d recommend reading that first although these books ar ...more
Lois Keller
Oct 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting collection of anecdotal evidence to try to key on what brings long term success. It's definitely biased towards the author's thinking/exposure, but it is really interesting and I think Tim Harford has something here. Definitely a fun read about applied data science.
Stacy Rogers
Oct 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Great book for young adults just starting careers.
Дмитро Булах
This book is fascinating. The author mixes his deep knowledge of economics, psychology, history and social sciences to deliver counter-intuitive insights on how the modern world works and how we could possibly fit into this. Not to be confused with any 'build-your-success' junk literature, this is inspiring read into the complex mechanics of markets, evolution and our minds backed by most recent science.
Really loved it even more than highly respected Undercover Economic.
Harford asserts that the modern world is complicated, and gives birth to complicated problems. Complicated problems are difficult to solve and require unconventional approaches.

In business, everyday life, and scientific exploration, the attempts to solve problems, succeed, or just survive, are fraught with failure. Harford asserts that failure is necessary for growth and learning; that for every successful evolutionary leap, whole generations of experiments have failed. His theory is that failu
Bastian Greshake Tzovaras
May 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
«We all need a critic, and for most of us the inner critic is not nearly frank enough. We need someone who can help us hold those two jostling thoughts at the same time: 'I am not a failure - but I have made a mistake'.»

Well, ask any scientist (and especially evolutionary biologists) how they feel about failure and adapting to it and you will see why this is yet another case of preaching to the choir. All in all, this book is a long essay on why you should not only accept failure but embrace it.
Thomas Edmund
Sep 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
the general message of Adapt (and I hope this doesn't count as a SPOILER or anything - hey it is non-fiction right??) Is that in order to really succeed there needs to be some space for failure - the ability to correct mistakes, and a plan to fail safely.

Harford's theory is essentially that just as in the biological world, the financial, military and personal realms need to undergo their own evolution to succeed.

Throughout the novel, Harford examines the financial collapse of 08, the BP oil spil
William Scott
Dec 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Adapt is an easy read, with plenty of entertaining anecdotes and stories to illustrate Mr Harford’s central thesis. This makes it a bit slower for readers who just want the core ideas, but doesn't detract from the worth of those core ideas: the world is changeable and hard to predict, and in such a world strategies that focus on decentralised adaptation and experimentation are more successful.

While this central thesis is easy to state, and is largely outlined in the first few chapters, the book
Derek Winterburn
One of my favourite radio programmes is the BBC's More or Less, presented by Tim Harford. In this book Harford goes more deeply into 'how things work' with a blizzard of anecdotal case studies.

Essentially, he argues, success grows out of a process akin to Natural Selection. This leads away from seeing progress as top-down to innovation being rather wild 'in the field' (Cf. divine creation vs Darwinian evolution.)

Largely he is not thinking of individual success but something larger scale: milita
Piinhuann Chew
Aug 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
[This book is NOT suitable for]
-People who don't believe that they can improve skills/talents magnificently
-People who don't like failures and risks

[This book is suitable for]
-People who want to improve in skills/career but stuck and don't know how to do it
-People who feel improvement and success are so hard and seem impossible

[Problem of the book]
-This book is 95% narrative stories. The author offers no specific heuristics that readers can apply generally in their daily lives. Some of the examp
Mar 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I do proselytize a bit too much about books but this was one of the ones that I feel warranted it. Like all of these, there are a lot of anecdotes, so you are warned. Overall, I just enjoyed the implicit discussion around losing sight of the bigger purpose. There is a backlash right now over goal-setting (and rules) and I think it's because we can get so caught up in the goal or rule that we forget what the overall purpose is that we are driving toward. This illustrates that beautifully, and is ...more
Diana Nagy
If you want a history lesson, this is a good book to read. The stories helped you determine how success really does start with failure. It truly is how all true success comes about. But I didn't find it as interesting as most other non-fiction books because I like more advice relating to what I can do to improve myself, not necessarily what someone else did, particularly when it is relating to something that I've never done, and likely will never ever do. But try it, you just might like it. I ga ...more
Thom Beckett
Jun 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
Interesting, well-written book that often explains complex economic details in very simple language (indeed, it includes one of the best explanations for the credit crunch that I've read anywhere). The premise, that setting up systems so that there is room for failure, is persuasive and Harford is the first to point out areas in which the simplest version of his theory is likely to fail, and therefore hones it as he goes. A really excellent read.
This book was fairly unremarkable and definitely a letdown from Harford's past efforts. The example were mostly from the stock fair of non-fiction writing. The thesis is fine, but overstated and the book never really comes together. The disconnected, and unbelievably long-winded conclusion at the end is a microcosm of the whole. Not enough substance, not enough flow, not enough interest.
John Benson
Dec 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
While this book is written primarily for businesses to think about their decision making, his examples come from every aspect of life. The ideas he suggests can help in every part of life. It is somewhat like a Malcolm Gladwell book and keeps your interest.
Nov 30, 2016 rated it liked it
I skipped the military chapter of this book, but found the other examples of how tightly coupled planning leads to unexpected outcomes to be fascinating. I like Tim Harford, and this book did not disappoint.
Apr 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: society
I don't know who started the snappy one word title trope, but this is another book of the Gladwell mould. Captivating stories, a compelling argument, and the nagging feeling that it's just a little too neat to fit a narrative, in this case demonstrated in the final chapter in which he tries to argue this applies to an individual's life too, without any of the critical attention displayed elsewhere. The main lesson I drew was 'don't be a whistleblower'.

Although the title is 'adapt', the subtitle
Jul 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
I don't know who started the snappy one word title trope, but this is another book of the Gladwell mould. Captivating stories, a compelling argument, and the nagging feeling that it's just a little too neat to fit a narrative, in this case demonstrated in the final chapter in which he tries to argue this applies to an individual's life too, without any of the critical attention displayed elsewhere. The main lesson I drew was 'don't be a whistleblower'.

Although the title is 'adapt', the subtitle
Jun 29, 2020 added it
Shelves: 2013-14
This month I read Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford. The main message of this book is that experimentation is the only way to find the best solution to a problem and not the status quo. Many examples were used to illustrate this point including an examination of the Iraq war, the popularity of micro-loans in Pakistan, an economist who tried to reform Soviet Russia, and the invention of the toaster.

The most interesting concept I encountered in the book is that the top d
Macy Akins
Jan 31, 2019 rated it it was ok
Within the past couple of week I have looked for a book. I just finished the book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford. This book was about seeking new ideas and trying to find new things. When you are trying something new, you want to make sure it is not out of reach by too much. However, the only way you will be able to achieve something is through failure.

This book was not too special. The advice that was in it is advice I had heard during my life. It was so drawn out
George Goodall
May 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
I'm a fan of everything Harford writes but this one got lost on my bookshelf for a while. It was worth the read. Tim starts by revisiting Tetlock's work on experts and notes that they're often wrong. He then juxtaposes this against our cult worship of business leaders. Why would they know better than Tetlock's political experts? They don't as demonstrated by the natural evolutionary pattern of businesses. Harford's thesis is that adaptation is alive and well in the business world and we have to ...more
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Tim Harford is a member of the Financial Times editorial board. His column, “The Undercover Economist”, which reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences, is published in the Financial Times and syndicated around the world. He is also the only economist in the world to run a problem page, “Dear Economist”, in which FT readers’ personal problems are answered tongue-in-cheek with the late ...more

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