Sunday, May 22, 2011

Learning from trial-and-error is the only way

Most of the problems we come up against are much too complex to benefit from an analytical solution.  There is only one option and that is to be open to trial-an-error learning.

Tim Harford applies this insight to various episodes from politics (including war), science and business. His Adapt: Why Success Starts with Failure is well worth reading.

Harford malkes his case by carefully describing the successes as well as the failures.  Of the latter, he studies several of them and finds that, "[Leonid] Kantorovich, [Salvador] Allende, [Robert] MacNamara and [Donald] Rumsfeld all seemed to operate on the assumption that better computers and better communication links would help the process of centralisation, gathering everything into one place where a planner could make the key decsision.  The exact opposite is true ... " (Location 1246)

But before we scoff at these four failures, we are reminded that their mind-set is widely shared.  In fact, all who resist learning from their own past mistakes are candidates for the fate of failure.  Yes, Harford also writes about the financial crisis of 2008.

Towards the end of the book, he briefly writes about his own three-year old daughter briefly lost in a car-free area of London and having a great time, oblivious to anything wrong.  He concludes this way:
The ability to adapt requires this sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure is a cost we will be able to bear.  Sometimes that takes real courage, at other times all that is needed is the happy self-delusion of a lost three-year old.  Whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure.  Without it, we will never truly succeed.


Here is the author discussing Adapt on Econtalk