From the Northeastern Section of the ACS, focusing on career management and development

December 2021
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Adapt. Tim Harford’s book notes
Filed under: First Year on Job, Leadership, Mature professionals, Observ. Trends
Posted by: site admin @ 6:25 pm

Was reading David Brooks’ blog and agree with
his opinion that Tim Harford’s book, Adapt , is a
must read.  These days, as all readers know, you
can find books on Amazon, get a Kindle version
online, get a review and find all sorts of insights
by and with the author interviewed by other writers.

This post tries to save some time and summarizes
seven amazing take-aways about this book.

1 Building on Benjamin Jones intuition that the
burden of knowledge demanded to make breakthroughs
happen in our complex world inspires the use of “prizes”
and “competitions”.  [Don’t be surprised if the ACS
‘builds on’ crowdsourcing Innocentive to use prizes
as a mechanism for innovation.]  page 108.
He cites HHMI, Gates Foundation, Innocentive and
other prize funding sources.

2 Our world is too complex for quick and easy
solutions to complicated problems, he points out.
Biologists have studied similar situations and have
found what nature doesevolution.  either learn
from failure or learn to be satisfied with continuous
improvements.  Find ways to allow for failures
and learn from them.  Page 10.
[Sounds like searching for a job!]

3 Apply Peter Palichinsky’s three principles
(not the Peter Principle!!  an incredible Russian
) of innovation  page 25
  a. seek new ideas and try new things;  realize
some will fail
  b.  when trying something new, try it on a
scale that you can observe the result quickly and
it is survivable
  c.  know when you fail and learn from it

 4  Understand that many people and organizations
are not comfortable with trial and error, and
admitting error (or ‘failure”).  page 32
Organizations need to manage trial and error by
 - having an accurate “big picture” of what they are
doing, what their competition is and their goals
(adjusting on the way)
 - having all constituents in good communication
working on the same goals with honesty and
integrity (no filtering of negative information!)

5 There are three classes of errors, it is
pertinent to know:
 - slips: human mistake due to our frailties,
like “fat-finger mistakes” selling 1 share of stock
at 60,000 units of currency rather than 60,000
shares at 1 unit.
 - violations:  known unethical or illegal action
like Enron or Bernie Madoff.
 - mistakes:  actions done on purpose, with unintended
consequences, due to incorrect instructions or a
poor model, like CDOs in the last financial meltdown.

Much time and energy goes into differentiating
violations from mistakes.

6 Humans have difficulties dealing with mistakes.
They are generally of three natures–
 - denial: ‘we can’t separate our error from our worth’ ,
 - chasing our losses until they go away: we could not
have made a mistake and we go over the same route
repeatedly, and
 - hedonic editing: ‘the mistake does not really matter!’

7 Adapting is an acquired skill and needs a supportive
Personal senses of security and self confidence that it
is worth dealing with errors to get to the goals are

2 Responses to “Adapt. Tim Harford’s book notes”

  1. site admin Says:

    Did you see the C&EN article “Entrepreneurs wanted” in the 9-5-11
    issue, page 14. It headlined a Francisco presidential initiative to spur
    chemistry jobs.

    R. Baum pointed to an online report available at

    that recites a history of the chemical field earlier defined by universities,
    then large institutional companies, now apparently shifting to more
    smaller companies which may not have the resources to sustain
    transformational R&D.

    Membership from students to seniors should push the society to
    Commitment with a Capital “C”.
  2. site admin Says:

    ACS talks available: audio + power points

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