Tim Harford

Author of Messy & Adapt. Undercover Economist at the FT & presenter of More or Less on Radio 4

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON October 05, 2016

Discussion

Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
I'm a writer, broadcaster and economist. Happy to discuss any of my interests, including trial-and-error, the use of bad statistics in public life, or applying economic ideas to the everyday. But I'm particularly keen to talk about ambiguity, improvisation and randomness - all ideas from my new book "Messy"
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
What made you want to write about ambiguity, improvisation and randomness ?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell Well, I started with an interest in silos - why do we organise ourselves into tidy categories? (Republicans v Democrats. Economists v. Sociologists. Physicists vs. Biologists. etc.) But the topic soon got much bigger - all the different ways in which we try to pin down our lives and quantify them and organise them, that in the end don't help us very much.
Seth Williams@sethbwilliams · Designer, Product Hunt
How does having more ambiguity in your life help you to be more successful? Is it more important than structure?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@sethbwilliams There's a time for structure and a time for ambiguity. It's just that we often impose structure when we should be allowing a mess to accumulate. Let me give you a simple example: you've got emails and documents coming in. Do you fastidiously file them in a tidy folder structure? Or do you just let them pile up? (Maybe on your desk. Maybe in a big folder that says "Mail Archive". ) If they have a clear structure - say, IT support requests, or expense reports, then you should use a clear structure yourself. But a lot of the stuff that flies in at us has no obvious structure. If we try to file it away, we do so prematurely. We have folder categories that don't make sense to us later on. So when organisational behaviour experts study the filing strategy vs the piling strategy, they find that people who let piles of stuff accumulate often cope a lot better with their stuff. A pile of paper on your desk actually organises itself organically: as you handle documents and put them back on the top of the pile, the obsolete stuff slowly sinks to the bottom...
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
What are bad statistics in public life? 🤔
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ems_hodge They're everywhere!
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ems_hodge I've been covering out statistical conversations on the BBC Radio program "More or Less" for years. (The podcast is free by the way. Subscribe!) We look at the way politicians, companies and the media use and misuse statistics. It a great gig but sometimes disheartening...
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ems_hodge The most important point is that so often statistics are used for point-scoring. We need to use them to understand the world instead. I've lost count of the times a politician disappears down a statistical rabbit-hole to sell his or her policies, but when you ask a few tough questions you realise that nobody's bothered to evaluate the policies. So we have statistics as advertising - but we don't have statistics as science. Shame.
Laf. Julius@laf_julius · co- founder @evolvesports
Who is the best candidate in the presidential election to apply economic ideas? How do we reverse the 90% who owns 10% and 10% who owns 90% of the wealth in this world to create better opportunities?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@laf_julius Well, I'm British so I'm not going to tell you guys how to vote...
Ayrton De Craene@ayrton · Code @ Product Hunt
What can we do to inject more randomness into our lives when we’re often shown that planning is best?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ayrton You can be very deliberate about this if you like. I interviewed the amazing musician, composer and producer Brian Eno about his work with artists such as David Bowie. Eno uses a deck of cards, the "Oblique Strategies" (you can get an app or order them online). The strategies are random provocations: "focus on an embarrassing detail". "Go outside." "Use unqualified people". They make people very uncomfortable but have produced some of the great albums...
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ayrton Or, you can adopt the single best source of randomness: get interesting other people involved. Talk about your ideas. Listen to theirs. And find someone who sees the world differently.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Do you improvise daily in your career? Has it ever lead you astray?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ems_hodge We all improvise daily, if we have face-to-face conversations. But we often don't take the skills (remarkable skills!) we've developed into other arenas. Most obvious example is the presentation: we should prepare by thinking really hard about the point we want to make and the story we need to tell - instead of just typing out bullet points. Our natural command of language will usually get us through, in a more authentic way.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
What’s the most random thing you’ve ever done that lead to something great?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@jakecrump Well, I had to be forced into it. (A lot of people have to be forced into this sort of thing.) As a schoolkid I was really into public speaking. But I was terrified I would dry up, so I used to type out all my speeches. Bad idea, but I was scared of what might happen if I did something else. Then I spoke at a big competition where the rule was, "only one 3x5 inch card". Good rule. I tried to work around it by using very tiny writing. So I was squinting at this card trying to read it, and I lost my place. And while I was finding my place, I kept talking. And I realised - of course! - that what I was saying off the top of my head was much better than what I had written down. Never looked back.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@jakecrump I should point out that the greatest orator of the 20th century had a similar experience. Martin Luther King used to prepare his speeches meticulously. 15 hours of prep for every 20 minute Sunday sermon. He'd memorise it and deliver by heart. But then one day: the Montgomery Bus Boycott. MLK is bounced into a leadership role. He's nervous. He's tired. (His daughter, Yoki, is only a few days old.) He has to go and give the biggest speech of his life - TV cameras, huge audience, newspapermen, stakes very very high. And he has just 15 minutes. So - he jots a couple of notes. He prays. And then he goes and gives the most passionate, forceful speech of his life. It's full of small flaws and errors but none of that matters. "I Have A Dream" was half improvised too - the half we all remember.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
@timharford @jakecrump that's awesome
Nart Wielaard@nart_wielaard
Hi Tim. How do ou look at randomness in life given the fact that Big Data is building invisible barb wire in our lives? Will there be any kind of randomness left in a future where algorithms guide us in daily life?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@nart_wielaard Those scary big data algorithms often use randomness, of course, to test their hypotheses... and more generally a computer searching algorithmically for a solution to a complex problem will generally be programmed to add randomness, otherwise the search gets stuck down some dead-end.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@nart_wielaard But I take your point. An obvious example is Facebook's algorithm, which shows you things that Facebook thinks you want to see. That's just good business, right? But it subtly accentuates our own desire to hang around with people like us. Let's say you're a Republican but you also follow friends who are Democrats. But let's say that when your Republican friends post something, you're more likely to share it or like it. And when your Democratic friends post something, you read it and you ponder but you don't like or share. Pretty soon Facebook will stop showing you that stuff.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@nart_wielaard And of course this happens everywhere now. Eli Pariser's book "The Filter Bubble" warned us about it back in 2008 or so. I thought he was exaggerating back then but now I think he was spot on.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@nart_wielaard So we need to demand algorithms that add that dash of randomness. A fun little example is Serendipitor: It's like Google Maps, except that on any route you give it, it suggests random tasks like "If you see someone on a bike, follow them until they're out of sight." Fun stuff. We should have more. And of course we should also unplug from time to time and get outside, having face-to-face conversations. Face-to-face conversations are great: They're subtle, real-time, and you never know what you're going to say. Perfect.
Nart Wielaard@nart_wielaard
@timharford hear hear Tim. Thanks. I love a bit of randomness in my life. It will cost me a bit of efficiency. But hey, efficiency is sooo overrated
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
What would you do with a billion dollars?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell Wow. No idea. But now I feel I need to figure out the answer and go and write a column about it. You see - the power of talking to people you don't know, gets your creative juices flowing?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell I would pay attention to the movement in philanthropy that focuses on evidence: trying to run randomised trials, figure out value for money, etc. But having worked for the World Bank myself I'm aware that there's a lot of subtle stuff on the ground that it's hard to capture even with the best quantitative evidence. (I guess I'm saying Bill and Melinda Gates FTW, though.)
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
How do ambiguity, improvisation and randomness come into play in the startup scene these days?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell Everyone should read Brad Stone's "The Everything Store", all about the early years of Amazon. (Or they can read the relevant chapter in "Messy", where I draw parallels between Jeff Bezos, the brilliant general Erwin Rommel, and Donald Trump's primary campaign.)
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell Reading Stone makes you realise just how much Bezos was making it up as he went along - and in particular just how often he charged into a challenge without knowing how he'd overcome it. He was obsessed with doing things very, very quickly - before the big boys (Barnes and Noble, Walmart, Borders, ToysRUs) caught up with the potential of the internet.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell So that's one angle: rapid improvisation is an aggressive competitive strategy. You make a mess, move fast, and figure you can solve the resulting problems before your competitors do. (Trump vs Bush. Amazon vs. Barnes and Noble.)
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell But randomness also helps us solve problems. We're pushed into new territory. We escape our old cliches and find new mountains to climb. A favourite story from "Messy" is Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert in 1975. Improvising for an hour on an unplayable piano. He refused to play. Guilt-tripped into it. Recorded the concert only as a documentary record of a musical catastrophe. Turns out it was magical (and the best-selling piano album in history.) We don't know what we might be capable of until we're challenged.
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@bentossell If you want to get somewhere new and different, then START somewhere new and different.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
What's been the best piece of advice you've ever received and how did this impact you?
Tim Harford@timharford · Undercover Economist
@ems_hodge I spent the first few years of my career doing various jobs that were interesting but not quite right for me. I worked in a futurology think tank in an oil company. I was a research assistant for a great economic journalist, John Kay. I gave economics lectures to undergrads. But then I started asking colleagues for advice: what should I do next? My friend who was a writer encouraged me to become a writer. (Good advice.) Another friend was a senior economist at the World Bank. He advised me to get some experience at the World Bank. Another friend was managing a gas liquification plant in Qatar: he told me to get some front line business experience. One was a professor at a business school. He told me to get a PhD... The point is that everyone told me to basically do what they did. Which is understandable, because all of them loved their jobs! But the most impressive piece of advice I got was from my thesis supervisor. He told me NOT to get a PhD. He said I would do fine, but not brilliantly - and I'd do much better and have more fun out on the world. This was the one guy saying, "don't be like me. Do something else". I took his advice.