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Why Success Requires Failing... Again and Again

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 17, 2011 10:30 AM

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According to Benjamin Franklin, the secret to success is, essentially, hard work: "Plough deep," he suggested, "while sluggards sleep." That's a helpful axiom for simple endeavors, but it's near-useless when we undertake complex ones. It's not laziness that prevents us from crash-proofing our financial markets or stopping global climate change. It's the sheer, mind-numbing complexity of these problems that prevents us from solving them. In Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford, a British economist, aims to provide a road map to success in a complex world. We normally think of success and failure as opposites -- but, Harford argues, successfully engaging with complexity requires embracing, even encouraging failure, over and over and over again.

Harford's book starts from a simple premise: the world, he argues, is more complicated now than ever before. It's faster, more connected, and more elaborately recursive. Modern societies depend on a network of globe-spanning imports, industries, and information; modern decision-makers oversee huge hierarchies. Organizations and governments are continually growing in complexity -- in fact, they seem on the verge of unmanageability. Harford's goal is to figure out how difficult problems actually get solved amidst such vast complexity. To that end, and in a Gladwellian spirit, he undertakes a variety of case studies, looking at everything from the U.S. military's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq to the evaluation of international aid programs.

What Harford finds is that complex success depends upon repeated failure. No one person, no single plan can possibly get things right from the beginning, when there are so many moving parts. Instead, you have to embrace the unknowable, by developing as many plans as possible, and by trying them all out in a rigorous way. You need to encourage trial and error, and to make failure, when it inevitably happens, survivable. Only after you've figured out what doesn't work can you isolate what will -- and the only way to figure out what doesn't work is to actually try and see. Real-world failures, in short, are the only route to real-world success.

Harford argues, in essence, that failure is an untapped resource: Since it's inevitable, it needs to be harnessed. Many international aid programs, for example, turn out not to work, and money is spent until donors become disillusioned and move on to other programs. We know that many sensible-sounding programs will fail -- and therefore, Harford argues, we embrace and learn from that failure in an active way, by enacting many programs simultaneously in randomized trials. Accepting that many of the programs will fail right from the beginning will help us move more quickly towards the solutions that work. But that requires a difficult psychological adjustment: you have to be comfortable with failure, rather than ashamed of it.

Harford, like Nassim Taleb, contends that we ought to be very skeptical of anyone who claims know how to solve a complex problem; like Taleb, he has an essentially Tolstoyan sensibility. The world is bigger than the mind, and so real problem-solving requires huge teams of humble people willing to try things out and, if need be, to fail. Failure, therefore, isn't something to be ashamed of -- it's a necessary, unavoidable step in the making of progress. As Tolstoy put it: "Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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