Why success always starts with failure

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

One of my favorite books this year has been author and economist Tim Harford’sAdapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.” And recently, I had a chance to interview Harford about the book.

(Listen to our full conversation here.)

Harford’s book provides several examples of why “central planning” is almost always bad idea, for it deprives us of variation.

In one instance, he cites the production of an airplane called the Spitfire, which “defied overwhelming odds to fight off the Luftwaffe’s onslaught in the Battle of Britain.”

Interestingly, the so-called “experts” — including Winston Churchillopposed production of the plane in the 1930s. In all their planning for the future, it seems, they never predicted “the evolution of aerial combat.” Fortunately for Britain, the experts didn’t have the power to strangle the baby in the crib. The Air Ministry had the leeway to produce some planes on their own. And so, the plane that would later save the island by intercepting German bombers — was produced against the odds.

Central planning also created problems for the U.S. in the Iraq War, and Harford details how things finally turned around due to experimentation (and listening to the guys on the front line).

“General Petraeus didn’t invent the successful strategy,” Harford writes. “He did something far rarer and more difficult: he looked further down the ranks, and outside the armed forces entirely, searching for people who had already solved parts of the problem that the U.S. forces were facing.”

It’s difficult to read “Adapt” without coming to the conclusion that the American system — which allows for experimentation, variation, and even failure — has been a key to our nation’s success. As Harford notes in the book, “Three thousand of the USSR’s ten thousand engineers were arrested in the late 1920s and early 1930s.”

You can listen to our full conversation here.

Matt K. Lewis