Tim Harford

Author, Messy and The Undercover Economist
Host of the Podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy
Columnist, Financial Times

The economics of everyday life.

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Biography

Tim Harford, described by the New Statesman as ‘perhaps the best popular economics writer in the world’, is a behavioural economist, BBC radio and TV presenter and award-winning Financial Times columnist. Sometimes called ‘Britain’s Malcolm Gladwell’, Tim offers a distinctive blend of storytelling, humour and intelligence.

He is the host of the BBC World Service podcast series, 50 Thinks That Made the Modern Economy. It was rated #1 on iTunes in the UK. 50 Things presents brief stories of the ideas and inventions all around us — and the way they've shaped how we live, from the gramophone to the iPhone to Ikea's "Billy Bookcase". Tim is also host of the podcast More or Less. Both podcasts we listed as the top 30 podcasts around the world by the Times of London. His BBC Radio 4 series, More or Less, offers a genial smackdown of dubious statistics. It was commended by the Royal Statistical Society five years running for excellence in journalism.

Tim has written six books, the most successful of which, The Undercover Economist, has sold 1.5 million copies in over 30 languages around the world. Hartford’s most recent book, Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-minded World, argues that we underrate improvisation, randomness, and vagueness — and overrate the scripted, the controlled and the quantified. If we embraced a little more mess we'd get more done, and be more creative and resilient. The book has many ideas from his recent TED Talk, How frustration can can make us more creative. Tim is about to publish a book on the popular podcast series titled Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy (Little, Brown July 2017).

Harford's writing has won several prestigious awards, including the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism (2007), Economics Commentator of the Year (2014), Society for Business Economists writing prize (2014) and the Royal Statistical Society prize for journalism (2015).

Tim has also worked at Shell and the World Bank, and is a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. He has given numerous invited lectures, including at the Royal Economic Society, Google, the Bank of England, PopTech, the Sydney Opera House and (twice) at TED.

What the critics say

“Perhaps the best popular economics writer in the world” – New Statesman
“Britain’s Malcolm Gladwell” – Alex Bellos
“Our Chief Economic Storyteller” – The Independent

Credentials

  • Author of the million-selling The Undercover Economist and other bestsellers
  • The Comment Awards Economics Commentator of the Year 2014
  • Multiple award-winner for BBC radio series and Financial Times columns
  • Visiting fellow at Oxford University; former Shell and World Bank economist
  • Speaking includes: TED Global 2011, PopTech 2012, Sydney Opera House 2012, Wired 2012, Royal Economic Society annual public lecture 2013.

Books

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

Tim Harford

A lively history seen through the fifty inventions that shaped it most profoundly, by the bestselling author of The Undercover Economist and Messy.

Who thought up paper money? What was the secret element that made the Gutenberg printing press possible? And what is the connection between The Da Vinci Code and the collapse of Lehman Brothers?

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy paints an epic picture of change in an intimate way by telling the stories of the tools, people, and ideas that had far-reaching consequences for all of us. From the plough to artificial intelligence, from Gillette’s disposable razor to IKEA’s Billy bookcase, bestselling author and Financial Times columnist Tim Harford recounts each invention’s own curious, surprising, and memorable story.

Invention by invention, Harford reflects on how we got here and where we might go next. He lays bare often unexpected connections: how the bar code undermined family corner stores, and why the gramophone widened inequality. In the process, he introduces characters who developed some of these inventions, profited from them, and were ruined by them, as he traces the principles that helped explain their transformative effects. The result is a wise and witty book of history, economics, and biography.

Little, Brown (6 July 2017)

Messy

How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world

Tim Harford

The urge to tidiness seems to be rooted deep in the human psyche. Many of us feel threatened by anything that is vague, unplanned, scattered around or hard to describe. We find comfort in having a script to rely on, a system to follow, in being able to categorise and file away.

We all benefit from tidy organisation — up to a point. A large library needs a reference system. Global trade needs the shipping container. Scientific collaboration needs measurement units. But the forces of tidiness have marched too far. Corporate middle managers and government bureaucrats have long tended to insist that everything must have a label, a number and a logical place in a logical system. Now that they are armed with computers and serial numbers, there is little to hold this tidy-mindedness in check. It's even spilling into our personal lives, as we corral our children into sanitised play areas or entrust our quest for love to the soulless algorithms of dating websites. Order is imposed when chaos would be more productive. Or if not chaos, then . . . messiness.

The trouble with tidiness is that, in excess, it becomes rigid, fragile and sterile. In Messy, Tim Harford reveals how qualities we value more than ever — responsiveness, resilience and creativity — simply cannot be disentangled from the messy soil that produces them.

This, then, is a book about the benefits of being messy: messy in our private lives; messy in the office, with piles of paper on the desk and unread spreadsheets; messy in the recording studio, the laboratory or in preparing for an important presentation; and messy in our approach to business, politics and economics, leaving things vague, diverse and uncomfortably made-up-on-the-spot. It's time to rediscover the benefits of a little mess.

Little, Brown (3 Nov. 2016)

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back

How to Run — or Ruin — an Economy

Tim Harford

A million readers bought The Undercover Economist to get the lowdown on how economics works on a small scale, in our everyday lives. Since then, economics has become big news. Crises, austerity, riots, bonuses — all are in the headlines all the time. But how does this large-scale economic world really work? What would happen if we cancelled everyone's debt? How do you create a job? Will the BRIC countries take over the world? Asking — among many other things — what the future holds for the Euro, why the banks are still paying record bonuses and where government borrowing will take us, in The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford returns with his trademark clarity and wit to explain what's really going on — and what it means for us all.

Little, Brown (29 Aug 2013)

Reviews

A chatty, witty guideThe Wall Street Journal
Economics made accessibleThe National

Praise

“What Harford has achieved with his new book is nothing less than the holy grail of popular economics."
New Statesman

“Every Tim Harford book is cause for celebration. He makes the ‘dismal science’ seem like an awful lot of fun.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point”

“With fascinating examples and vivid explanations, Tim Harford succeeds in turning macroeconomics into a gripping read.”
— Simon Singh, author of “Fermat’s Last Theorem”

“Harford manages to explain the topic with beguiling clarity and in the effortlessly breezy style that has characterised his previous books.”
The Times

“Our Chief Economic Storyteller”
The Independent

“when the author is as clear-thinking and easy to read as Harford… he has mastered the art of dealing with this subject without the use of a single diagram or mathematical equation.”
The Sunday Times

“Harford’s writing is astonishingly accessible.”
The Independent on Sunday

“he succeeds in giving lucid, accessible and ideologically balanced explanations… Anyone who really wants to understand the concepts of macroeconomics will be delighted with it”
The Sunday Business Post

Adapt

Why Success Always Starts with Failure

Tim Harford

In this groundbreaking book, Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist, shows us a new and inspiring approach to solving the most pressing problems in our lives. When faced with complex situations, we have all become accustomed to looking to our leaders to set out a plan of action and blaze a path to success. Harford argues that today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinion; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt.

Deftly weaving together psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics, and economics, along with the compelling story of hard-won lessons learned in the field, Harford makes a passionate case for the importance of adaptive trial and error in tackling issues such as climate change, poverty, and financial crises — as well as in fostering innovation and creativity in our business and personal lives.

Taking us from corporate boardrooms to the deserts of Iraq, Adapt clearly explains the necessary ingredients for turning failure into success. It is a breakthrough handbook for surviving — and prospering — in our complex and ever-shifting world.

Abacus (1 Mar 2012)
Little, Brown; 1st edition (2 Jun 2011)

Video

Adapt Trailer

Reviews

Adapt or ….?The Enlightened Economist
The Joy of Making MistakesForbes
Living with MistakesThe New York Times
On failureThe Washington Post
AdaptMarginal Revolution
Knowing you're wrong is more important than being rightCanadian Business
Google Gets It, HBOs Didn't: Success Begins with FailureBloomberg.com
AdaptFinancial Times
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with FailureThe Guardian
ReviewManagement Today
AdaptPublishers Weekly
Media Spotlight: AdaptMortgage Strategy
Learning from mistakes for successCity A.M.

Praise

“Tim Harford has made a compelling and expertly informed case for why we need to embrace risk, failure, and experimentation in order to find great ideas that will change the world. I loved the book.”
— Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality

“Tim Harford could well be Britain’s Malcolm Gladwell. An entertaining mix of popular economics and psychology, this excellently written book contains fascinating stories of success and failure that will challenge your assumptions. Insightful and clever.”
— Alex Bellos, author of Here’s Looking at Euclid

“Adapt is a highly readable, even entertaining, argument against top-down design. It debunks the Soviet-Harvard command-and-control style of planning and approach to economic polities and regulations and vindicates trial and error (particularly the error part) as a means to economic and general progress. Very impressive!”
— Nassim N. Taleb, distinguished professor of Risk Engineering, Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and author of The Black Swan

“Harford’s wide-ranging look at social adaptation is fresh, creative and timely.”
— Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing

“This is a brilliant and fascinating book—Harford’s range of research is both impressive and inspiring, and his conclusions are provocative. The message about the need to accept failure has important implications, not just for policy making but also for people’s professional and personal lives. Adapt should be required reading for anyone serving in government, working at a company, trying to build a career, or simply trying to navigate an increasingly complex world.”
— Gillian Tett, author of Fools’ Gold

Dear Undercover Economist

The very best letters from the Dear Economist column

Tim Harford

Are there tangible benefits in flossing? Is it wrong to fake orgasms? What does the perfect online dating ad look like? Should we bother doing the ironing? Is it really impossible to buy the perfect Christmas gift? (Other than this book, of course.)

Economists might not be the first people you would think of to give you advice on such diverse areas as parenting, the intricacies of etiquette or the dark arts of seduction. But for years bestselling author Tim Harford has been doing just that: answering the most challenging questions in his brilliant column, where he uses the tools of economics to give practical advice about everyday dilemmas, conundrums and concerns. From family rows and the stock market to buying socks or speed dating, you'll find within these pages a witty — and of course rational — explanation for almost everything you ever wanted to know about life.

Little, Brown (30 July 2009)

The Logic of Life

The Rational Economics of an Irrational World

Tim Harford

Life sometimes seems illogical. Individuals do strange things: take drugs, have unprotected sex, mug each other. Love seems irrational, and so does divorce. On a larger scale, life seems no fairer or easier to fathom: Why do some neighborhoods thrive and others become ghettos? Why is racism so persistent? Why is your idiot boss paid a fortune for sitting behind a mahogany altar? Thorny questions–and you might be surprised to hear the answers coming from an economist.

But Tim Harford, award-winning journalist and author of the bestseller The Undercover Economist, likes to spring surprises. In this deftly reasoned book, Harford argues that life is logical after all. Under the surface of everyday insanity, hidden incentives are at work, and Harford shows these incentives emerging in the most unlikely places.

Using tools ranging from animal experiments to supercomputer simulations, an ambitious new breed of economist is trying to unlock the secrets of society. The Logic of Life is the first book to map out the astonishing insights and frustrating blind spots of this new economics in a way that anyone can enjoy.

The Logic of Life presents an X-ray image of human life, stripping away the surface to show us a picture that is revealing, enthralling, and sometimes disturbing. The stories that emerge are not about data or equations but about people: the athlete who survived a shocking murder attempt, the computer geek who beat the hard-bitten poker pros, the economist who defied Henry Kissinger and faked an invasion of Berlin, the king who tried to buy off a revolution. Once you’ve read this quotable and addictive book, life will never look the same again.

Abacus (5 Mar 2009)

Reviews

The Method in our MadnessFinancial Times
Romeo v. JulietThe American Spectator
Those Sweet Mysteries of Life, DecipheredThe New York Times
Harford Vs. FriedmanForbes

The Undercover Economist

Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!

Tim Harford

The Undercover Economist is a bestseller in Korea, Canada, Spain and Israel.

An economist's version of The Way Things Work, this engaging volume is part field guide to economics and part expose of the economic principles lurking behind daily events, explaining everything from traffic jams to high coffee prices.

The Undercover Economist is for anyone who's wondered why the gap between rich and poor nations is so great, or why they can't seem to find a decent second-hand car, or how to outwit Starbucks. This book offers the hidden story behind these and other questions, as economist Tim Harford ranges from Africa, Asia, Europe, and of course the United States to reveal how supermarkets, airlines, and coffee chains — to name just a few — are vacuuming money from our wallets. Harford punctures the myths surrounding some of today's biggest controversies, including the high cost of health-care; he reveals why certain environmental laws can put a smile on a landlord's face; and he explains why some industries can have high profits for innocent reasons, while in other industries something sinister is going on. Covering an array of economic concepts including scarce resources, market power, efficiency, price gouging, market failure, inside information, and game theory, Harford sheds light on how these forces shape our day-to-day lives, often without our knowing it.

Showing us the world through the eyes of an economist, Tim Harford reveals that everyday events are intricate games of negotiations, contests of strength, and battles of wits. Written with a light touch and sly wit, The Undercover Economist turns "the dismal science" into a true delight.

Abacus (3 May 2007)

The Market for Aid

Michael Klein and Tim Harford

Tim Harford and Michael U. Klein

In an accessible style Michael Klein and Tim Harford analyze some of the hot topics in the aid industry today. They argue that the aid industry is changing, old models of aid are under pressure, and both donors and recipients will ask more and more of aid agencies in the future. The chaos of competition and the search for new ideas are frightening to some and risk harming the people whom the industry is supposed to benefit. Yet at the same time there is a tremendous opportunity for harnessing competition to improve performance and find better ways of helping the poor. Klein and Harford argue for rigorous methods of evaluation and creative use of the private sector to produce a more effective aid industry in which new experiments are encouraged.

World Bank Publications (June 2005)

Topics

Tim tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

Tim favours a strong narrative style of presentation, illuminating his argument with memorable stories. Some of his current popular speaking topics include:

How to See into the Future.

Two of the greatest economists in history failed to see the Wall Street Crash coming - yet one died a millionaire while the other died poor and alone. From this starting point, Tim explores the latest thinking on how to forecast, and what to do when your forecasts don’t work out.

The Art of Good Misstakes.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” We’re so often told to learn from our mistakes that it’s become a cliché. But why is it so hard – and how can we do a better job? With stories and ideas from psychology and behavioural economics – as well as aviation, ballet and a TV game show – Tim describes the art of good mistakes. (TED talk here)

Preventing Financial Meltdowns.

Have we learned the right lessons from the financial crisis? Tim isn’t so sure. He argues that there is a group of people who’ve been focusing on what really matters, and they aren’t the economists, bankers and lawyers we usually turn to – but experts in nuclear, industrial and aviation safety. A nuclear meltdown and a financial meltdown have much more in common than we realise. (PopTech talk here)

Ideas that Matter.

We talk a lot about innovation – but what do we really mean? Tim believes we’ve become fixated on a particular kind of innovation, and we’re missing out other possibilities. Ranging across high performance cycling, genetic engineering and military innovation, this is one of Tim’s most popular talks. (BBC talk here)

How to Run – or Ruin – An Economy.

The “Indiana Jones of Economics”, Bill Phillips, was an inventor, an adventurer and a hero – as well as being a truly great economist. In a yarn well suited to an after-dinner format, Tim uses the life of Bill Phillips to ask what modern economists can learn from their larger-than-life predecessors. (BBC talk here)

Misinformation is beautiful.

Data visualisation is all the rage, but with examples ranging from Florence Nightingale to the latest YouTube infographic hits, Tim shows that we’re being fooled by sketchy statistics dressed up beautifully. A humorous and visually striking statistical survival guide.

Big Data: Are we making a big mistake?

When Tim explained some of the fallacies behind the big data boom in the Financial Times, it was the newspaper’s most-read article of the year. From Google Flu Trends to retail targeting algorithms, Tim argues that big data will only fulfil its potential if we can avoid some very old statistical traps.

The Magic of Mess.

Tim’s latest TED talk is about creativity – and about the unexpected benefits of obstacles, interruptions and distractions. With examples from cognitive psychology, complexity science – and of course rock and roll – Tim delivers a powerful and inspirational talk.

How Obstacles Make Us More Creative

Challenges and problems can derail your creative process ... or they can make you more creative than ever. With examples ranging from jazz to commuting, and drawing on research from cognitive psychology and computer science, Tim Harford may just convince you of the advantages of having to work with a little mess.

Other topics.

Tim has crafted talks for his BBC show, “Pop Up Ideas” on: how we cooperate in difficult circumstances; the seductive appeal of maps; game theory and the cold war; how the geeks took over poker; and how economics is transforming kidney donations. Tim’s forthcoming book, The Magic of Mess (Spring 2016) argues that we over-rate tidy, scripted and quantifiable approaches to problems, overlooking the benefits of improvised, botched-together, ambiguous and imperfect solutions.

Videos

'Imperfections Can Make Us More Creative' | NPR All Things Considered

How messy problems can inspire creativity | TED

How to See into the Future | Oxford Union

Trial, Error and the God Complex | TEDGlobal

Preventing financial meltdowns | Pop!Tech

Get Adobe Flash player

How to support innovations that matter | BBC Radio 4 Pop Up Economics

Feedback

An international investment bank:
Dear Tim — We've had nothing but tremendous feedback on your speech, your session with Richard, the dinner, the interview, the other interview...this list goes on, which is testament to the amount of time you kindly gave to us. So thank you. It was an absolute pleasure working with you and I know your contribution was integral to the positive feedback we've received on the event.

Europe's Festival on the future:
We are very happy about your performance — working with you was very professional and truly great from a personal point of view as well — special thanks for that too :)

One of the world's leading telecommunications groups:
I would like to thank you for being a keynote speaker at [ . . . ] Summit. At the second year of [our] digital transformation Summit we had 4.000 attendees, 100.000 online viewers and covered widely at the press and news channels.

Therefore; I would like to thank you so much for your input. Your presentation had a great impact and I am so happy to meet you in person and pleasure to work with someone so kind like you. I also appreciate so much of your efforts for the live connection of the conference.

A major international financial institution:
Dear Tim — Your keynote was brilliant and most appropriate for the occasion. People are still discussing it! We really appreciate your participating in the conference.

A technology periodical:
Tim — you were a highlight. A natural storyteller with no need for props. Thanks for being part of the experience - really appreciate your work.

A specialty biopharmaceutical company:
We enjoyed Tim’s presentation and he has a great style which we were able to blend into our specific focus and make this a lively and interactive session.

He was a nice person to deal with and our team enjoyed his book.

A global academic publisher:
Thanks again for your involvement… you did such a wonderful job and we were so proud to have you there.

A leading US newspaper:
Harford has a knack for explaining economic principles and problems in plain language and, even better, for making them fun.

An economist:
Smart, charming, penetrating, and wise.

A leading body in the UK for taxation professionals:
I got very, very positive feedback from the members… everyone found it thought-provoking and enjoyable. You pitched it exactly right.

An economist:
Your performance was quite brilliant.

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