"There are three essential steps to using the principles of adapting in business and everyday life, and they are in essence the Palchinsky principles. First, try new things, expecting that some will fail. Second, make failure survivable: create safe spaces for failure or move forward in small steps. ... And third, make sure you know when you have failed, or you will never learn."

- Adapt, page 243

Have you ever wanted a magic wand to solve problems, especially when they become overwhelming? Tim Harford gives us something better in Adapt. He provides us with insight on how to understand problems better whether they are big or small and get them solved. He demonstrates developing a better understanding of foundation principles, primarily variation, survivability, and selection as the keys to unraveling problems and developing workable solutions. Adapt illustrates how problems from overwhelming complex global issues to mundane setbacks of everyday life have similar features and unexpected complexity. He says, “Whenever such problems are solved, it is little short of a miracle. This book is about how such miracles happen, why they matter so much, and whether we can make them happen more often.” We all need to work a little magic occasionally when things go wrong.

Harford provides us with a plethora of useful insight through a variety of illustrative stories that serve as paradigms for productive trial and error and innovation in decision-making. Pluralism, continuous experimentation, and learning from mistakes are at the heart of turning failures into success. However, for those to be effective, we must master the first step. The first step is the one we are often most resistant to: it is getting comfortable with failure.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Be willing to fail

"We will have to make an uncomfortable number of mistakes, and learn from them, rather than cover them up or deny they happened, even to ourselves. This is not the way we are used to getting things done."
- Adapt, page 22

Published studies are about the experiments that worked, not about the trial and error. Often the news we receive from social media highlights others successes, not their failures. We filter our environment to observe achievements without knowing the process behind them. This results in the tendency to mistrust those who fail and doubt ourselves when we fail. Our brains have conditioned us to notice and celebrate success by making us feel good.

Although it is counter-intuitive, failure is how we learn to succeed. Learning success through trial and error means accepting problems caused by errors as they happen. Whether caused by bad luck or misjudgment it is important to take the problems in stride. Rather than denying the failure occurred, evaluate and recalculate before proceeding. This produces much better results. The key is learning to see failure as a positive opportunity instead of a shortcoming.

Take learning from mistakes one-step further and challenge your beliefs. Seek honest feedback even when the viewpoint of others is different from your own. Consider expert opinion but think for yourself. Ask what works instead of focusing on what sounds good especially in situations where the problem is at a distance. The more ways you look at a problem, the more likely you will be to produce a workable solution. Once we are comfortable with failure, we are ready for the next step, evolve.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Evolve to produce the best results

"Evolution is effective because, rather than engaging in an exhaustive, time-consuming search for the highest peak – a peak that may not even be there tomorrow – it produces ongoing, ‘works for now’ solutions to a complex and ever-changing set of problems."
- Adapt, page 17

Evolution is a success through the failure of the least fit. It weeds out the adverse selection and leaves us with the best option. This means we need to be flexible and try new things when ideas fail and realize what worked before may not work now. I imagine this is like being an octopus that can change its color and shape as it goes to adapt to changes in its environment. If we cannot change, we cannot be our best self in changing circumstances.

To evolve, we need to think counter-intuitively. Effective planning is rare partially because of our internal bias to believe changing our minds is a sign of weakness. Willingness to adjust our plans as circumstances change increases our chance of success. We have all experienced the pain of failure. We often choose leaders who reassure us that they are consistent, they have an exemplary record of achievement, and they will never change their mind. It seems to be a guarantee of success. We do not vote for people who say they will explore some ideas and see what works. A willingness to experiment is the most efficient strategy historically. Success in business mirrors evolution and is the result of trial and error.

Consistency seems safer than evolution on the surface. Honesty and intelligent evaluation and experimentation are qualities that produce excellent results over time. Instead of valuing these qualities, we tend to favor charming, charismatic leaders and agreeable followers with whom we identify. It is hard to distinguish between innovative genius and insanity because both states of mind are different from most people. We feel safer, choosing people who are consistent, it is more attractive. It is hard to identify with and accept those who seem different. It takes practice and courage to challenge our beliefs, to distinguish results-oriented, innovative leadership.

As we learn to accept failure and practice evolutionary style creative decision-making, it is important to remember failure also increases our tolerance for risk and might provoke risks that produce a catastrophic loss.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Failure increases risk tolerance

"Faced with a mistake or a loss, the right response is to acknowledge the setback and change direction. Yet our instinctive reaction is denial. That is why ‘learn from your mistakes’ is wise advice that is painfully hard to take."
- Adapt, page 37-38

We are more emotionally vulnerable if we have just suffered a loss. We are likely to keep our bets small while things are going well. Once we take a loss, our bets may become overly aggressive in an attempt to compensate for the loss. The right strategy is to recalculate after the loss and adjust the plan accordingly. Instead, we tend to react with denial; we often cannot let go of the memory of what we had, and the goal is to regain what we lost instead of look for new possibility.

Be willing to take risks and try new things but do not take catastrophic risks. Some things will fail. Take the time to understand the failure and learn from it. Harford uses gambling as an example. When poker players lose, they are more likely to make bigger bets to cover their losses. The show Deal or No Deal illustrates the same behavior; contestants who make an unlucky choice are unlikely to accept an offer from the Banker. In both cases, the initial loss often triggers a string of larger losses. The player is viewing their situation from their starting point instead of from the position they are in after the loss. If we do not take the time to reevaluate, we are likely to risk what we cannot afford to lose.

After reading this book, I have found it practical to use these ideas to develop a working strategy for managing problems inside and outside my realm of influence as the issues present themselves. I may not be able to control everything that happens in my life, but it is reassuring I have the tools to make effective decisions.

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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