Tim Harford introduces us to the messy world around us with an insightful new perspective. Tim explains that gifts of character like creativity, responsiveness and resilience are not found without the disorder, confusion, and disarray to produce them. ...
Tim Harford introduces us to the messy world around us with an insightful new perspective. Tim explains that gifts of character like creativity, responsiveness and resilience are not found without the disorder, confusion, and disarray to produce them. Discover the wonder of mess and the unexpected connection it has with creativity.
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Srini: Tim, welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking
Tim Harford: the time to join us. It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me on this.
Srini: It is my pleasure. So I actually found out about your work because I read your book messy and absolutely loved it. I thought it was highly relevant to creative people.
Srini: I thought, yeah, there's just so much valuable insight in here for anybody who is either a knowledge worker creator, or for that matter, anybody who is living in this day and age, but before we get into all of that just based on the book and based on your background in my mind, I see you as a combination of a social scientist and economists.
Srini: So I want to stress to you. What social group were you a part of in high school and what impact did that end up having on the choices that you've made throughout your life in your
Tim Harford: career? I suppose two groups, the the debaters and the role-players. So role-playing games, most famous of which has Dungeons and dragons were a big part of my My activities, my hobbies when I was at school and feel assisted.
Tim Harford: But the other thing that I did a lot of while I was at school was public speaking and debating competitions. And so those two things I think really defined my social group home. I'm hard pressed to think of friends that I had that were not involved in one of those two groups.
Srini: I've always wondered about the subculture of people who play D and D cause I, when I was growing up, it always just seemed like a bunch of, weird nerds gathering or out of touch with the rest of the world.
Srini: And so I'm curious, what is it about the subculture of Dungeons and dragons that draws people to it that creates such a sort of loyal tribe and such a sort of fervent fanatics about this?
Tim Harford: I think it's worth pointing out that the. Way that Dungeons and dragons is played when you're say 12 years old is not necessarily the way that it's played when you're 47 years old.
Tim Harford: I think you would make the same point for oh yeah. People who watch movies when they're 12 and watch movies when they're 47 or people who go on dates when they're 12 and go on dates when they're 47, it's just not the same thing. It's not the same thing. And like dates and like movies, art culture there's a lot of different things that you can do with it.
Tim Harford: But for me, the fundamental thing about role-playing games is it's a highly imaginative, highly collaborative process where creativity is taken. Absolutely. As a, given everybody involved in a role playing game is creating maybe on a very small scale or maybe on a big scale. And it's just assumed in a way that I think is not true of other subcultures.
Tim Harford: So not everybody who enjoys riding a motorbike could strip a motorbike down and put it back together. Again, not everybody who enjoys playing with computers could build their own computer and not everybody who enjoys watching Marvel movies. Goes home and says, I'm going to write a script for a movie, or I'm going to draw my own comic, but pretty much everybody who plays Dungeons and dragons is tinkering with the game is messing around, is creating their own systems, their own modifications, their own scenarios.
Tim Harford: It's really just, it's so basic to the way you play. And I think that's, that's part of what I enjoy about it. Of course the other thing is that your you're having these exciting adventures, much like reading an exciting book or watching a movie. But you're doing it with your friends and you're making decisions together.
Tim Harford: And so that's a pretty bonding experience as any kind of adversity is a bit of a bonding experience. Now here, of course the adversity is similar. But I think it still works
Srini: well. So what I wonder, just based on the fact that, the way I asked you, the question makes me realize my own sort of, perception of it is somewhat biased, because all I know is just what I experienced because I didn't play.
Srini: Why do you think that people have the misperceptions, that they do have the types of people who play Dungeons and dragons and what are the misperceptions that people like me have? And what are the stereotypes that you've seen defied?
Tim Harford: I think it's perceived as being in a very geeky, nerdy game.
Tim Harford: It's perceived as being intellectual, not that cool, quite made. Not many female players, that's the cliche. I think all of those things are changing. And I speak as someone who's out of touch with the kind of the subculture. I still play a lot, but I don't know what the cutting edge has Dungeons and dragons is these days.
Tim Harford: But the impression I get is it's way more inclusive. Lots more female players. It's cool at in as much as there are quite a lot of celebrities who say they play it and the proud to play it. I think people, the people who spring to mind are Wil Wheaton and Stephen Colbert. And I'm drawing a blank on his name VIN diesel.
Tim Harford: They will. Yeah, no, they love the game and there are many others. So I think the, those perceptions are shifting I would encourage people listening to this. If they have a moment to go and listen to an episode of my podcast, cautionary tales that is specifically about an episode early on in the history of Dungeons and dragons.
Tim Harford: And it's about a young man who went missing and we called Dallas Egbert and this huge moral panic around why he had gone missing and what had happened to him and Dungeons and dragons was blamed. And this was all in 1979. So this was a very new game. It was not very well understood and I won't spoil the ending or really happened.
Tim Harford: But one of the points that comes out is of the media struggling, even to describe what this thing is. It's very hand wavy kind of terms like, oh, it's a very, it's a bizarre and intellectual game, that say, and it's just, this is just what happens when you've got something new and people don't know, they don't know what it is and they don't understand it.
Tim Harford: And then they start fearing it. So yeah, I would encourage people to check out cautionary tales. I think that they might find that fun to listen to.
Srini: Yeah. So you brought up overcoming adversity together, even in a virtual setting. And I wonder, for parents who are listening to this, what would you say to them about what the benefits are of these kinds of games for children later in their life?
Srini: And what have been the benefits for you from your D and D experience that have impacted your adult?
Tim Harford: I think before we get to the benefits, it's fun. It's fun to play and in a way that should be enough, it's fun and it's safe and it's not fattening. And of all the things that teenagers could be doing D and D is pretty safe.
Tim Harford: And it's great fun. A friend of mine who runs games for his son who is 14 and his son's friends, he says, now parents are just beyond happy that he's doing this because. They realize that this is a way for these young people to interact in a way they don't normally interact and to solve problems together and so on.
Tim Harford: So that's, I found that I had that conversation with him quite recently and found that interesting and striking because I don't, I'm now trying to get my children involved, but mostly I just play with other 40 year olds. But the, but also what are the other benefits? So it's that it's highly literary.
Tim Harford: So there's a lot of reading. These were all books that fat, lots of small print and they inspired. Young people I think to go and read more. It's quite mathematical famously the early additions of Dungeons and dragons had a bell curve on about page three, just explaining the probability distribution of what happens when you roll three dies and the way they form a bell curve that sort of geekiness is just right there.
Tim Harford: You very quickly just learning to add and subtract numbers very fast as a totally natural thing. Just the whole bunch of numbers. You just quickly add them all up. So you D it's not advanced mathematics, but you get comfortable with maths. But I think most importantly, you are you are cooperating together in this imagined world.
Tim Harford: So it's quite close to a team building exercise that someone might do in an office away day. It's quite close to improvise theater, this idea of all buildings. Everybody else and trying to create something that no one person could do by himself or herself. So there's a lot going on there. And of course, yeah, if you're 12 years old, you're not reaching creative Heights with this stuff.
Tim Harford: And a lot of it's just, oh, I hit the goblin with my sword and I'm going to roll a dice and I miss, or I either. So I don't want to make grandiose claims for it, but I think it's a really, it's a really fun, creative generative way to spend time as a young.
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Srini: Yeah, I appreciate the fact that you brought up fun because these days I think that and the way you said it, and I appreciate that because I think often these days, everything, whether it's a kid in an activity, or even an adult starting an online project, there has to be some end in mind of, oh, I've got to do this in order to accomplish some goal.
Srini: And I think that we lose sight of the value of creativity when that happens.
Tim Harford: I think that's right. And it's really it's tough when I think back to the last 15 months or so the pandemic from my own experience, which has been, I think fine compared to most people's experience, I think a lot of people have experienced a lot of fear and a lot of loss and economic insecurity and all of these things.
Tim Harford: I feel I've been quite fortunate that I've been able to work in a safe way that still feels relevant, so I'm not complaining. But when I think about my experience, one of the things I think that I, I reflect on is the sense of always being on you're used to sitting at the same desk working and the feeling of guilt.
Tim Harford: If you're not. Doing. Yeah, I think we could all relate and it's not just about the pandemic. But I think the pandemic has really, I hadn't realized how much I was reliant on just making a date to go and see some friends or to go to the theater or see a movie or something. I hadn't realized how much I was relying on that to just stop me working.
Tim Harford: I had assumed that I probably would stop working at 7:00 PM anyway, but it turns out not, it turns out I would. So it's, it was a real lesson in learning to be more mindful and intentional about on a youth to stop now and you have to go and do something that's fun. And actually, one of the things that I have been doing is every week playing.
Tim Harford: Online, via discord so that most people will know discord. Is this sort of a, it's like a chat text, audio. These days, people talk about clubhouse, but discord was there long ago. I've been playing role playing games with friends from all over the country on discord every Thursday. And that's been, and they're expecting me at half past seven and I've got to stop work because I got to join the game and I don't want to let people down.
Tim Harford: It's been important.
Srini: I'm funding my roommates and I build Lego sets together really big sort of expert level Lego sets that have thousands of pieces. And I've always found that's such a great disconnect because I'm an avid snowboarder. And when the pandemic came around, my roommates, I was like, all you do is sit around and read, write, and work.
Srini: And I said, you have to remember, this is not what my life was like. I used to take entire weeks off just to snowboard.
Tim Harford: Yeah. Yeah. And that break it's so important. And you must have had so many conversations about what we've, what we learned from the pandemic. But I think one of the, one of the many lessons is just how much of what we did because it was a sort of habit.
Tim Harford: And then when all the habits are disrupted, this gets into some themes from MSCI, which we could discuss if you like, but when the habits are disrupted you, sometimes you find amazing things to do. But in any case you have to start thinking like, oh, I'm not just naturally cycling.
Tim Harford: Normally I cycle on my commute. There's no commute, so I'm not cycling. So am I going to be more deliberate about cycling? I can't go swimming. How am I going to get that exercise? And, yeah, I can't go and see friends. So how else am I gonna get that social interaction? Just to be more thoughtful about all of this has been a real it's a cliche, but it really has been a learning experience.
Srini: Yeah. So what has been the trajectory that leads you from being a kid who plays Dungeons and dragons and is on the debate team to becoming a author, a journalist and an economist, because that's, doesn't seem like a linear trajectory at all.
Tim Harford: It's not linear. I hesitate to even begin to answer the question because the answer could get very long.
Tim Harford: So let me try and be brief. I did philosophy politics and economics as a subject at university, meaning to major in philosophy and to drop economics, but I was persuaded to change my mind and stick with economics. And the strange thing was I really enjoyed economics, but I had always planned to drop it.
Tim Harford: And it's one of these things where sometimes you need someone to prod you and go, yeah, You are actually enjoying this, what you don't have to stick to your original plan. So qualified as an economist, I went, I taught economics at an Irish university for a year, went back to Oxford university to do a master's, to be an economics.
Tim Harford: And while I was doing all this got involved in scenario planning at shell, the big oil company, which was, I had a love, hate relationship with that job because I wasn't crazy about oil companies. And I wasn't crazy about big corporations in general, but that job was so interesting, surrounded by such interesting people, just trying to peer into the future and integrate lots of different views of the world.
Tim Harford: And one of the people I met who had come in to help us think about technology was a science writer guy called David , who did. Wonderful book about the history of E equals MC squared and all of the components of that equation and all of the people who've been involved in putting together Einstein's theory of relativity and making it all possible.
Tim Harford: And so by then I was probably about 26 and I remember having coffee with David and saying, I really would love to write a book like that only about economics, because I always loved my economics. It was always fascinating. And David of course just raised an eyebrow and grinned at me. Like I was an idiot because it was the, yeah, you don't need any permission to write a book.
Tim Harford: You want to write a book? I write a book. So I spent years trying to write and publish this book, which eventually became the undercover economist, which when I had finished the first draft, I didn't have an agent. I didn't have a publisher. I didn't have any reason to believe anybody would ever want.
Tim Harford: I think we're over a million and a half copies sold now. So people read it. But it did take several years to get from that first draft through to actually on the shelves. There was a lot of iteration. And while undercover economist was being redrafted and redrafted, I first went to the financial times on a summer internship and then to the world bank.
Tim Harford: Because the financial times said, we want to give you a job, but there's a hiring freeze. So I went to the world bank because that seemed like an interesting place to go if you're an economist. And it was two years at the world bank, all the while at the world bank submitting occasional pieces to the financial times.
Tim Harford: Cause I had a very cool boss at the world bank. Who said, if you want to Moonlight and write for the financial times, that's fine by me. Just don't write about the world bank. That's a really, that's a very cool boss because he's basically taking all the downside risk in order to give me more opportunities.
Tim Harford: He's he was a terrific boss, but I did things like I interviewed Steve Levitt, the author of Freakonomics just before Freakonomics came out. I interviewed two Nobel prize, winning economists, Gary Becker and Thomas shelling all while I was working for the world bank. And then I finally published the undercover economist, came back to the UK.
Tim Harford: Started working on the editorial board of financial times. And that was 16 years ago. And since then eight more books TV series, several radio series. But all that, the rest of it is all much more connected. It makes more sense after that point, because then it's okay, you're a geek who tells stories about geek land.
Tim Harford: You talk about statistics, talk about behavioral economics all of these ideas. And they're in the books, they're in the radio series, the podcasts, everything. But yeah, the first 10 years when I was, slightly annoyed at an oil company or hanging out at the world bank because I'd been promised a job in journalism, but there wasn't a job.
Tim Harford: That was all the preparation for actually doing what I eventually. Started to do, which was being a writer about nerdy subjects.
Srini: So as somebody who has written about behavioral economics, I wonder why do you think that with no agent, no publisher, no audience, you persisted through writing this manuscript and why is it that other people who have, a much easier time, at least, an abundance of opportunity at their fingertips, granted a lot more competition don't even try, even
Tim Harford: if it is.
Tim Harford: So it's a good question. I think the answer is complicated and I should say, I think I had an abundance of opportunity. There was plenty of opportunity. I didn't, the fact that I didn't have a publisher or an agent didn't mean I didn't have any opportunity. I had a decent job that I could, that I was able to scale down to four days a week instead of five days a week.
Tim Harford: I was really interested in the subject and I didn't have any kids. And so there's plenty of free time. To get some writing done. So I had the opportunity, but
Tim Harford: I did love writing the book and I do love writing books. And that helps, I guess you don't write nine books unless you like writing books. It's it's like 3d chess. You're trying to put together this complicated puzzle, all these different ways that you could put the story together. And I really it's difficult, but it's really fun.
Tim Harford: But I had a couple of very positive interactions with certain friends. So first there was David at the beginning who said, just do it. Why not? And who, every time I would send you. Like ridiculous. Like I'd sent him like 250 words. I've written the first 250 words, David, what do you think?
Tim Harford: And of course, all he would ever say is it's great. Keep going. Cause what do you sell? What do you say? Someone sends you a third of a page. But you know that you're looking for validation, but I, another friend of mine, I remember saying to her, this book, writing things really hard. She's another economist.
Tim Harford: She's another economist. And she said only an economist could say this. She said, of course it's hard. If it was easy, everybody would already have done it. And I was like, oh yeah, it's supposed to be hard. That was the thing. Of course it's supposed to be hard. Like you wouldn't train for the Olympics and then complain that it was hard to get the Olympic to the Olympics.
Tim Harford: W why or if we scale it back a bit, you wouldn't train to run a marathon and then say it's really hard to run a marathon. These things are supposed to be hard, right? That's one of the reasons why they're worth doing. And I had another friend who she was writing a book and we were swapping some chapters and color, very delicately edging around each other, because it's a very sensitive thing to be talking about someone else's first manuscript, but at a certain point, she said, you've written one chapter and I think it's pretty good.
Tim Harford: And I think you could probably just go and write the rest of the book really quickly if you wanted to. And at that point, the flood gates opened I'd spent a year on that first chapter, and then it was. It was a month per chapter after that. So I finished the book at another year. I remember working four days a week in an office job.
Tim Harford: We, I could write books that fast now. But those sorts of moments, people encouraging you, people reassuring you that the way you're feeling about the book is, is what you might expect. People giving you permission to just go off and write fast. All of that was really helpful. And one more friend, I basically very nearly gave up in retrospect, a couple of yards from the finish line when I'd had, one final agent had got back to me and said you should make this change.
Tim Harford: And this change in this change. And I'd said to a friend I'm just doing. I'm thinking of writing a book about public speaking, actually about debating and this pens it's like this agent is telling you, if you make these changes, he will represent you. How long do you think he's going to make the changes?
Tim Harford: And it was like two weeks. So you've been working on the book for three years and you're now going to give up at this point. And of course it's healthiest, but sometimes you need that wisdom from the outside observer to tell you what you should notice yourself. And of course, it's two hours into that process of doing the revisions.
Tim Harford: I was like, oh, I'm really enjoying this. Why did I hesitate for a moment? Before I started, I just, I felt a bit tired and I want the fucking fresh.
Srini: Yeah, it's funny you say that because I, the whole reason I ended up starting the podcast was because I was in this online blogging course and one of the first people I interviewed was one of the he's the 13th person I interviewed.
Srini: And I remember emailing him saying, Hey, I want to start a multi-author blog. Will you contribute? And he emailed me back and he said, actually, no. He said, you're a pretty average writer, but he said you were good at interview. So I think you should actually focus on that and spin it out as a separate site.
Srini: So I replied back an hour later with a mock-up of a website saying, Hey, when do you want to get started? I think that was what he had in mind. But yeah, I mean to this day, and it was funny cause I've had the opportunity to write books to the publisher and I, he was one of my first calls.
Srini: I said, apparently my publisher disagrees with you, but he was right. I am a far better interviewer than I am a writer. Like writing I do for myself. I
Tim Harford: feel like it's not easy to get that kind of really direct, clear feedback. That's and that's a valuable gift. He gave you there. I built a career off of it, so I'm sure you recognize it, but I just, we do.
Tim Harford: I think we do we struggled to seek out that sort of advice. I guess you never know. Who's going to give you that sort of advice. We tend to look for much more generic. We assure. Comments like it's going fine. Keep going. And those are valuable comments sometimes, but sometimes you need something much more crisp, but incisive less of that, more of that.
Tim Harford: Yeah. And I think the
Srini: other thing I see, particularly with creative people, and this is a lesson I learned when I was writing my first book of the publisher. I had a writing coach is being able to separate feedback on you as a person from feedback on the work, because her feedback was always brutal.
Srini: It was never, if you did anything good, the most you got was a good, and if it was lousy, it would be like lazy, try again. And by far she was one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer. And I think it was, it took me a month, but I finally understood it. This is not you saying anything about me personally.
Srini: You're doing the job. I hired you to
Tim Harford: do one of the privileges. I think of. Writing long enough that you get to experience different editors, as you start to realize that a lot of these comments are just a particular additive style and, somebody just is a very positive and some editors are not particularly positive.
Tim Harford: Some will give you a few quite general pointers try bringing sections three further up and see if you can show up in the conclusion or something like that. But others will just do line by line. They'll edit your commerce. And that's all valid as editorial input, but as a writer, you can't help or creative in general.
Tim Harford: I think you can't help but tends to take it personally. And I think you're particularly vulnerable. Some people are very vulnerable, their whole careers, but I think you're particularly vulnerable early on because you haven't had so much of that creative feedback and you are going to tend to take it to heart.
Tim Harford: I'm quite struck by I'm just reading a manuscript as a friend of mine has written and it's his first book and he's I would say as a sensitive soul and the book's great. It's really good. And I think it's going to be a very successful book, but he's clearly very 10. You don't want to poke too much cause he will.
Tim Harford: It hurts him. And I sent him one chapter. He sent me, it was on my specialist subject. So I sent back a whole load of like quite detailed technique. Check this out. I think this is not quite right. You need to look this up and and he just sent me these long essays explaining why he'd made these decisions.
Tim Harford: I'm like, I don't need to read any of this stuff. I'm just telling you, it's telling you, you might want to check that definition, but if you're happy with what you've written, you're fine. You don't need to explain yourself to me, but I see where he is. He's he's, it's feels like such a precious thing and it is a precious thing.
Tim Harford: Yeah, but he's going to be fine because the book's going to come out and it's going to do really well.
Srini: I think that makes a perfect segue to getting into the concepts and messy. So what made you want to write messy of all the books?
Tim Harford: It was so messy is a slightly messy book about all of the things that we find hard to pin down predict, define the joys of improvisation, the joys of the stuff that can't quite be measured or doesn't neatly fit into any category.
Tim Harford: And you can see I'm already struggling to to describe this book. So w which is actually I'm now, I just heard a wonderful interview with ed Catmull, the creator of Pixar. And he was saying that at least a third of Pixar movies needed to fail the elevator pitch. Oh, it's a movie about a rat who wants to learn to cook.
Tim Harford: Like he, he was proud that a lot of these movies you couldn't really define. So I've made me feel better about messy, but so messy is this, as I say, is this book about all of these things that are hard to pin down. And a lot of it is about not all of it, but a lot of it is about the creative process and how our creativity responds to being forced to make things up on the spot or how it responds to disruption or how it responds to creative friction or collaborative fiction, working with people we don't want to work with originally, it was born of an observation that's quite familiar, which is a lot of the interesting stuff happens at the intersections.
Tim Harford: So like you take two academic subjects, put them together. Like the point where they meet is where the cool stuff's happening. That's quite a familiar observation. And I wanted to write about that and to write about why, nevertheless it's difficult. Like the structures that we build around, bookshelf bookstores have classifications and academic journals have classifications and academic departments have classifications.
Tim Harford: So I wanted to write about that tension, but as you will know, having read the book, there's not that much of that subject left in the book. By the time I finished with it, it went all kinds of places. And I had a lot of fun writing it. I really enjoyed my skin. I have to say.
Srini: Yeah. I, it, there's so many things that it struck me.
Srini: I noticed patterns for my own creative work that I observed that you brought up in the book and then I, observed things that people have, set in contrast to what you've said in the book. So one of the things you say at the opening of the book is that often we're so seduced by the blandishments of tidiness, that we fail to appreciate the virtues of the messy, the untidy unquantified uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty.
Srini: And I think that the reason that struck me so much, as you mentioned here before we hit record that you'd heard somebody like Cal Newport, a cure on the show. We've had people who almost, do some degree, preach the exact opposite of what you're saying that has made them successful, because I know you go on to talk about distractability, which we will.
Srini: But why is it that. So seduced by this, because, think about the aspirational media that's created from people like David Allen, all the way to people like Cal Newport, where there is this sort of rigid discipline mindset involved in their message and how they are able to accomplish what they do.
Tim Harford: I have to say I'm a big fan of Cal and David and the I think both of them would probably tell you it's not as easy as it seems like. So if you take, for example, Cal Newport's time block planning method when you hear about it, you're like, okay, what he does is he's he's got this, he's got the days journal and it starts at ATM, whatever the time block planning method is, you just write down what you're going to do with every moment in the day.
Tim Harford: And then you do that. That's the, I think what a lot of people here actually, if you talk to Carol about it, he, or you read his staff, you listened to him, he would say no, that's obviously that's not, what's going to happen in your day. Your you're going to have to tear up that plan two or three times, maybe more.
Tim Harford: And, but the point is that you should keep. Stopping and thinking about where you are and being willing to make a new plan. You shouldn't just be drifting around, making it up as you go along. So immediately we, we start with this idea of, oh, there's this plan. I'm just going to make this plan for the day.
Tim Harford: And the guy who is the guru of time block planning is saying no, that's just that's just plan a, there'll be a plan B, there'll be a plan C they'll be a plan D but we don't want to hear that. We just liked the idea of plan a and very often I think we we just love the idea that the world can be controlled, that the world can be defined.
Tim Harford: It can be planned. And of course, to some extent it can be. But then the question is when. It doesn't work like that when the plan changes when you have to adjust or adapt are you ready? And what are you going to do? And how are you going to adapt? And messy, I think is an exploration of different ways that people respond to these failures of the world to conform to the nice little boxes that we've tried to put it into.
Srini: It's funny you say that because I think that's so common for young people, especially you grew up in Indian culture, you're handed a life plan when you're, I think probably 10 years old, it's like, Hey, which of these three past doctor, lawyer engineer is going to be your life.
Srini: And I think that, as you get older, you start to see that nothing almost goes according to plan.
Tim Harford: Yeah, absolutely. And as I was saying earlier, the, I nearly got stuck studying philosophy and politics and not economics, which is. What I'm known for and what I love because I had made a plan to drop economics and the fact that new information came in and it was like, actually, this subject is great.
Tim Harford: It's really interesting. You never understood how interesting it was going to be. You're still gonna stick to the plan and you just, I needed somebody to give me that sort of slap and say, hang on a minute, are you sure you, the plan is still works? It's surprising how, there's a word for it.
Tim Harford: It's called plan continuation bias. We just get this idea in our heads that it can be really hard to take that step back and say, hang on change course change direction.
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Srini: Yeah. So one of the things that you say early on is the distractability can indeed seem like an issue or even a curse, but that's, if we're looking only at the hill change, our hill climbing part of the creative process, distractable brains can also be seen as brains that have an innate tendency to make those useful random leaps.
Srini: And you actually talk about the benefits of working on multiple creative projects and in cross-fertilization, which we'll get to. But I think the thing that struck me most. I think when people hear the idea of distractability being good, they're like, oh, perfect. That it's an excuse for me to go fuck off on Facebook for an hour.
Srini: And I think that there's a difference between that kind of distractability and the kind of distractibility that you're talking about here. So can you explain that distinction for people?
Tim Harford: So the particular concept that, and I'm an economist, I'm not a psychologist, but the particular concept in cognitive psychology to which I'm referring is something called low latent inhibition and late latent inhibition is basically the ability to choose stuff out.
Tim Harford: And low latent inhibition is that you are having more difficulty. So you, in a, you had a path when you're trying to listen to what someone's saying to you. Can you focus on what they're saying to you or is the noise of the other conversations distracting you if the noise of the other conversations is impinging on your ability to understand what's being said that's low latent inhibition.
Tim Harford: And I feel I've never had it measured, but I feel that I certainly have is at times in particular, I find it very difficult to ignore TV. If I'm, in a public space where there's a television, like a an airport or a, a bar or something, there's a TV on, I'm really find it hard.
Tim Harford: Not to look at the TV, even though I don't like TV, I'm not interested in TV. It's just constantly pulling my attention away. Now the Harvard psychologist, Shelley Carson, who started low latent inhibition, this kind of particular type of distractability. And what you found is that the Harvard undergraduates who had it.
Tim Harford: Vastly more likely to be serious creative overachievers. And by serious creative overachievers, we're talking, they ha they already had an album out or had published a novel and they're still undergraduates. That sort of thing. Now of course there's a particular, there's a sampling bias here, right?
Tim Harford: So like these people managed to get to Harvard despite being, having this, what you might say that we would call it neuro diversity these days, but you might say it's a kind of disability, the disadvantage, they still got to Harvard. They must have something going for them. But for me it does make sense that, another way to, to describe this is just to say these are people who keep noticing interesting stuff.
Tim Harford: Like they were constantly noticing interesting stuff. I don't know what to make of that, but I just find it fascinating. And the, one of the, one of the people that I found most interesting while researching MSCI was Brian Eno, who is a visual artist a musical artist, a ambient music, composer, a producer, a fascinating thinker.
Tim Harford: He's most famous for working on three of David Bowie's best albums, but he's worked with lots of other people like Coldplay and U2 and Twila Divo. And, but he finds the outside world extremely distracting. He can't go to a restaurant where there's music playing you just cause he can't get his ears off the music.
Tim Harford: So if the music's playing in the restaurant, he's can't, he can't have a conversation. So that's a disadvantage, et cetera. Except you're Brian Nino. So maybe it isn't,
Srini: it's funny you say that because I played the tuba for 12 or 13 years. And when I would study the only kind of music I couldn't listen to was classical music because of the fact that I would not be able to listen to music.
Srini: I would literally be thinking about fingerings and measures and like the things that were involved in the tuba part. Yeah.
Tim Harford: Yeah. That makes sense. That makes sense.
Srini: You talking about the benefits of working on multiple creative projects. And I think that, yeah, you say that these two leading creativity researchers, Howard Gruber and Sarah Davis argued that the tendency to work on multiple projects is so common among the most creative people, that it should be regarded as standard practice because of this whole idea of cross fertilization.
Srini: And you say the knowledge gained in one enterprise, provides the key to unlock another. And I learned that firsthand about seven, eight years ago when we redesigned our entire website and rebranded, and I'd been teaching myself how to draw for 30 days. And I realized I can't draw for shit. When it came time to redo the website and we got the first version, I looked at it, I said, this website sucks, but I know what's wrong with it.
Srini: We need to have one of our friends, custom illustrate all the icons. And I don't think I would have figured that out if it hadn't been for drawing. But on the flip side of that, I've seen a lot of people who are creative and because creative people have no shortage of ideas. The tendency I've noticed is that they'll go a thousand miles in a thousand directions as opposed to a thousand miles in one.
Srini: So how do you find the balance between those two things while also working on multiple projects?
Tim Harford: It's a risk, isn't it? The main stress I find with the multiple projects is just this sort of sense that stuff is going to get lost. Like you're having all these ideas and you don't have time to finish them all off.
Tim Harford: So at that point, you just need some simple system. I talk about Twila. Thorpe's famous system of boxes. It's so simple. It's not even a system, right? Except it works and try to throw up. She's a great choreographer. Her book, the creative habits is, should be required, readings, wonderful book. And, but she says whatever.
Tim Harford: She has something that she thinks might be a prod project. She just gets one of those big packing boxes. About two feet by one foot by 18 inches, the kind of Cabo box. And she just starts throwing stuff related to the project in it. And it's a very simple way of just accumulating ideas.
Tim Harford: And you don't need to think too hard. You don't need to be thinking about fine details and categorizations, you just, it's just this place holder that you can put stuff. So that I think is an important part of it. I think the. There is no hard and fast rules for how to stop. Just never completing anything and always just chasing after the next thing I, except to be aware of that's a risk that at a certain point you have to, what would Seth Godin say?
Tim Harford: You have to share when you've got it, you have to ship something. You have to say, okay, I've finished the draft of my book and I'm now going to send it to an agent, or I have a body of photography work, and I'm now going to try to find somewhere to exhibit it, or I'm not constantly using the start of a new project as an excuse to, to not finish the old project.
Tim Harford: So yeah, it's a temptation and it's a risk, but I think it's a risk that almost every creative person. You can think of, I think has worked in this way of just having multiple things going on at the same time. It just seems to be absolutely standard. And occasionally you might say it's slightly dysfunctional.
Tim Harford: So Leonardo da Vinci, didn't finish a lot of stuff. On the other hand, you paint the Mona Lisa, how much nobody's going to notice what you didn't finish so much more, do you want? And actually another of my cautionary tales podcast that I'm very proud of, quite recent is about Claude.
Tim Harford: Shannon is a great mathematician computer scientist who just produced this amazing thunderbolts of insight. He was like Einstein only for computer science. He also spent an awful lot of time. Pogoing around bell labs. He taught himself to juggle upside down and to unicycle and to walk on a tight rope.
Tim Harford: And then he set himself the task of unicycling upside down on a tight rope. And just when you look at his life, you go, did he just spend too much time, just endlessly messing around and never finishing anything maybe, but then you look at what he achieved and you say he achieved more than anybody in, in, in many ways.
Tim Harford: These two great thunderbolts of insight, maybe that's enough. So the whole, that whole cautionary tale is me wrestling with this dilemma that you've described of how distractible is too distracted. At what point do you say, actually you're wasting your potential. You're wasting your time. But I, he was absolutely one of the greats.
Tim Harford: And so can you separate all the non, the pogoing and everything? And there's so much it's funny how many dumb things he did. Cute. There'll be these there'd be YouTube baker projects these days. Like he made these massive shoes out of polystyrene. You can actually go and walk. They were like canoes.
Tim Harford: You could walk on water in these enormous shoes. There's so much stupid stuff like that, that he did. Can you separate it from his, his amazing insights in computer science that completely turn the field upside down twice. I'm not sure how.
Srini: Yeah, it's funny. It reminds me, we're watching this movie last night called the Mitchells versus the machines.
Srini: There's a hilarious animated show, a movie on Netflix and the movie starts out with a young girl saying I make weird art. And I thought to myself yeah, people should make weird art.
Tim Harford: Yes. I liked that. I liked that. At a certain point you want to be able to S to call it finished and put it on the wall or to get it into a bookshop or whatever.
Tim Harford: But there, there will be a lot of noodling around a lot of experimentation, a lot of projects that don't have a quiet.
Srini: You go to the chapter on collaboration, which I think that things, two things really struck me because they seem so obvious when you say them, you say, when our stream social media updates fits tightly into our preconceptions, we're hardly likely to mess it up by seeking out the people who disagree and the pattern repeats endlessly.
Srini: We gain new choices about who to listen, to whom to trust and who give your fan. And we use those new choices to tighten the circle around us, to people who are more and more like us. So I wonder if to points of view as a journalist, does it, how do you see as ever solving that problem?
Srini: Because that's what media is these days, particularly in the United States where our media is so polarized and
Tim Harford: divided. Yeah. Yeah. She, you reading that section out, I think to myself, gosh, that's become a very common lament in the five years since I wrote it.
Tim Harford: How do we break out of that? One observation is that social media does at least give you a spread of use. So it does tend to polarize, but at the same time, it does tend to throw out random stuff. And the random stuff can be worth pursuing. So my friend Tyler, Cowen, who blogs at marginal revolution and has a wonderful interview podcast.
Tim Harford: He advocates. Doing quite deep counts into Twitter. So he'll say he'll follow like Ethiopian politics, Twitter, or whatever. He'll find some people who are really into Ethiopian politics and the Devery now. And then he'll just check his list of people he's following, who were into Ethiopian politics or whatever it is.
Tim Harford: So for me right now, epic, epidemiology, Twitter, all the nerds who were talking about variants of concern and vaccine effectiveness and following the latest trials you can, I don't spend enough time on Twitch to make this worth my while I think, but you can curate them into a list and you can say, okay, I'm going to, I'm going to spend some time on epidemiology, Twitter.
Tim Harford: I'm not going to just. Epidemiology Twitter is what I'm going to go. And once you're building lists with that sort of thing in mind, they will tend to Crow to cut across other areas of concern. Whereas if you just on Twitter in a general sense, a lot of it is just people shouting at each other about politics and it tends to get into these political bubbles quite easily.
Tim Harford: So that's one possible approach. I think another thing that's worth doing is to seek out of just different media. I find blogs still. It still interesting. I know that quite 2004. But if you follow some interesting bloggers. They will be alerting you to stuff that's not quite on the new cycle.
Tim Harford: That's not quite in the Twitter outrage cycle. Books are good and books and in books can polarize too, but often a book because a book is slightly out of the loop. It gives you a more timeless perspective. They can't just be furious about whatever it was that Trump said or whoever, because the book was written in 2012, it's ancient now.
Tim Harford: Or you could be really radical and you could actually deliberately seek out people who see the world differently. This is quite hardcore. For politics, I think it gets very frustrating, but I think for other subjects it's worth trying to do that. So as an economist to say, okay, I don't want to just follow the economists.
Tim Harford: I want to follow the psychologists who see. Economics, maybe isn't so realistic and they'll give me just a different cuts on things, a different perspective on things.
Srini: So let's talk briefly about improvisation because I think the thing that they're two things in particular that struck me that you said about improvisation.
Srini: You said perhaps the most important element in successful improvising is simply this being willing to take risks and to let go, that's much easier when you have little to lose, but even when there was a lot on the line, improvising can be your best way forward. And it makes me think about, even as a creator or somebody who owns a business, how, when you get to a certain level, you have a lot more to lose.
Srini: So for example, now we've raised a round of venture funding. I've written two books. So there are places where I have to draw a line where my own improvisation could cost me. And cause to your point, I think that when there's no audience, you have nothing to lose. So it's easy to take huge risks.
Srini: And the paradox to me has always been, those are the very things that get you into the position that you're in when you do have something to lose.
Tim Harford: Yeah. Yeah. It's a real dilemma. Of course you can improvise on a lot of different themes without actually taking that many risks. The, the risk ends up being that you maybe don't deliver the performance that you were hoping versus you say something outrageous and you get canceled.
Tim Harford: I think as long as you're reasonably sensible, the risk of that is fairly minimal. There is of course, a risk that you slightly underperform, but you can frame it in certain ways. When I think about Keith Jarrett, who as a musician is someone who fascinates me, part of the point of Keith Jarrett concerts is sadly he's ill.
Tim Harford: He doesn't play anymore, but the point of these Keith Jarrett concerts where he's just gonna play, whatever comes into his. And you take that risk as an audience member. That's part of the excitement, but you don't know what it's going to be. And you might go and see improv comedy and you know that some of it's going to fall flat and that's part of, so sometimes it can just be a thing that you you present, like this is an improvised, this conversation is improvised, right?
Tim Harford: You didn't send me a list of questions. I didn't know what
Srini: I was going to ask you. I put your next quote, right? When you said that,
Tim Harford: yeah. This sort of set up a conversation, a good conversation is improvised. Cause otherwise it's not a conversation. As I say in the book but you can frame things in as an experiment, as an improvised thing.
Tim Harford: People enjoy that. And there's a certain amount of forgiveness for that too. And you can see, if you're a performer, you can say, look, this bit is prepared in this bit is improvised and we'll color. You can take the best of both, but yeah, that's whisk. There is there's I know I've directed people to the cautionary tales podcast and there is one more.
Tim Harford: The first episode of season two, of course entails revisits a story that's in MSCI about these two speakers, Gerald Ratner, and Martin Luther king of course, heard of Martin Luther king. You may or may not have heard of general Ratner, but these two speeches they gave that completely defined their careers for better or worse, and the role that improvisation played in those speeches.
Tim Harford: And I don't want to spoil the surprise, but. People come up with a lot of assumptions about what was prepared and what was improvised. And when things went wrong, people blame the improvisation and it turns out actually a lot of the stuff that went wrong, it wasn't because of the improvisation and a lot of stuff that went right.
Tim Harford: It wasn't because of the script.
Srini: W it's funny, you talk about the script because, and you mentioned my questions and I think this is why this highlight struck me. You said a script can seem protective, like a Bulletproof vest. Sometimes it's like more like a straight jacket, improvising, unleashes creativity.
Srini: It feels fresh and honest and personal above all. It turns a monologue into a conversation. And I literally thought to myself, yes, this is why I never will send anybody questions in advance. And if they ask for them, I say, yeah, here's the questions. Just know I'm probably not going to ask you any of them.
Tim Harford: Yeah, absolutely. I've never, I have done interviews where people have said, oh, here are the questions we're gonna ask. It occasionally. You can say, don't ask me that question because it's a technical question and I don't know the answer and I'm not going to do the homework, so you won't get a good answer but I'm this sort of conversation.
Tim Harford: Would we have been better off if you'd sent me the list of questions held quite apart from the fact that we would have been way off the list of questions after about four minutes, when we went, when I went deep nerd straight into the Dungeons and dragons. Yeah.
Srini: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Harford: Let's
Srini: talk about winning because there's one thing I wanted to ask you about.
Srini: It was this whole idea of the ODA framework, because there's one thing that you said. And so you said, if you could disorient your opponent, forcing him to stop and figure out what's going on, you gain an advantage. And in my mind, I was like, wait a minute, Hey, I won this like steady losing streak on this NBA, two K video game with my roommate.
Srini: I was like, how do I do that in a video game? So can you tell me how I would use observe orient, decide and activate meet my roommate at this basketball game?
Tim Harford: Oh, I've got no idea. I don't know the game that you're talking about and yeah, no idea.
Srini: Give me the general principle
Tim Harford: behind it.
Tim Harford: So these things don't, you don't send me the questions in advance. We've just established it. So the general principle, this is this particular idea is very famous in a particular sub community. And it was developed by a guy called John Boyd. Terrific fighter pilot in the fifties sixties and then became very influential as a bit of a Maverick strategist and influence people such as Dick Cheney.
Tim Harford: And the boy's basic idea was that you're out on the battlefield and you're just trying to, it's very, it seems very pedestrian. You just trying to figure out what's going on, observe orient. And then you have to decide what to do. Like you've assessed the situation and you have to decide what to do and then you have to act, and then it's a loop.
Tim Harford: So you have to go back to, and then you have to observe the results, figure out what to do and then act and so on. And so on, that kind of seems pretty obvious Boyd's points. The becomes genius is. The aim in a conflict situation should be to consistently observe orient, decide and act so fast that the situation is changed before your opponent can act.
Tim Harford: So your opponent is constantly observing, deciding, and they have to restart, observe, decide, restart, observe, decide, restart, and you think, okay, that sounds clever, but what, give me an example. An example is what Donald Trump did to Jeb Bush in the public and primaries in 2016, which is Trump would say something that everyone thought was a bit crazy and Jeb Bush would withdraw to consult with his focus groups and come back about 36 hours later with some kind of response that had been very carefully triangulated.
Tim Harford: By which time Trump had just moved on to the next. Whatever Bush was doing was just hopelessly out of date. And it was incredibly effective Jeff Bezos at Amazon, the same thing, very calculated early on and Amazon, he was consistently making decisions that his own staff were saying, we can't do this.
Tim Harford: This is going to be a mess. We start, we're going to start shipping knives. But like our system is designed to the only catch was in the system, a hardback or paperback. And like now you're going to sell kitchenware. Like how can we do this? And he was very much of the mind that look, we are going to be crushed by Barnes and noble big book retailer.
Tim Harford: And then we're going to be crushed by toys R us, and then we're going to be crushed by Walmart, whatever. And the only. Way we're going to avoid being crushed is they're slow. And if we move fast enough, they'll never catch up. And if we're constantly taking risks, overworking our staff the fact that our warehouses are snarling up well, that's just, that is the price we have to pay in order to stay at head of the OODA loop of our enemies.
Tim Harford: I also describe a world war two general, who did this very effectively as well, but in a more, much more literal sense. But yeah, it's just that being willingness to being willing to say, I will make an imperfect decision now because it will force an even more imperfect decision from my opponent.
Tim Harford: And the aim here is to what. Not to produce the perfect decision.
Srini: It's funny because as silly as it sounds like I'm thinking about this video game that we play, it's a basketball video game and I'm thinking, oh, I could just pass and pass until we're like 10 seconds left in the shots to drive him through.
Tim Harford: Yeah. There were ways Magnus Carlsen, the chess player is very good at making moves just as there's time pressure. And you can see when you get computers to analyze these moves you can see his opponent, the quality of both players falls under the time pressure, but the quality of Magnises opponents moves, falls further than Harris.
Tim Harford: So he manages to basically turn the chess match into a street fight where he's, he's better able to. To land the punches then his opponent. I'm not sure Magnus would recognize the description of what I'm saying, but these, it is fundamentally this understanding that if I'm 10%, if I'm performing 10% worse, whether we're talking about a boxing match a debate presidential primary, a war, a chess match, whatever, if I'm performing 10% worse, but I can get my opponents to perform 30% worse than I'm ahead because it's a zero sum game.
Tim Harford: That's the basic insight from that chapter of messy.
Srini: Let's wrap this up by talking about incentives. And then you had a really great sort of nugget on life in general. At the very end, you said the trouble is that when we start quantifying and measuring the world, we soon begin to change the world to fit the way we measure it.
Srini: And I can't help, but think about how people become obsessive particularly creatives in the modern day world about their social media metrics. And so they end up spending all this time optimizing for metrics, as opposed to creating something decent or something worth consuming.
Tim Harford: Yes, it's an epic cell phone.
Tim Harford: Isn't it? This is awful because you're because none of this stuff matters. None of this stuff matters. And normally this sort of. You defamation of the character to fit the metric is something that gets imposed on us. Like it happens in organizations and hierarchies is whether were targets the idea that we now start to do it to ourselves in order to jump through these social media hoops is extremely depressing, but it, yeah, it's a very natural thing.
Tim Harford: I'm a numbers guy. I like the numbers. Numbers are, as I point out in my latest book, the data detective they're like radar, they show us what's going on in the world. They're incredibly powerful. But you got to understand that they're limited and numbers tend to be at their most dysfunctional when they're being used by one person to try to control the actions of another person.
Tim Harford: So like bonuses and incentive pay in a hierarchy, it tends to get really dumb really quickly. So just to. Pick up an example, the us news and world report ratings of colleges very influential in terms of how colleges are viewed. One of the ways to do well in those rankings is to be highly selective.
Tim Harford: Okay. And you know what that's measuring, right? Yeah. Lots of people. Yeah. So it's highly selective, but you can't measure that directly. So then you how do you measure indirectly? You measure it indirectly by how many people get turned out. That it turns out it's not very difficult to you want to turn down lots of people, you just have to persuade lots of people to apply.
Tim Harford: So then the next thing you do is you have this big recruitment drive and you make it super easy to apply, or just upload your resume, whatever, just click a button and we'll, we will automate the whole process and make it so easy. You can apply. We can reject. Everyone's a winner because our sale activity rates, our exclusivity metrics just went through the roof.
Tim Harford: And you can describe that and you can see, oh yeah, of course that's what would happen. But it's not so obvious when you first set the target because how many people you turned down is a really good measure of how desirable, how exclusive you are as a place, right up to the point at which anything actually rests on that metric, the moment you put any pressure to bear on the metric, it will immediately buckle.
Tim Harford: And this is a fact about the world that has been, it's got various names. So it's by psychologists and sociologists. It's called Campbell's law economists call it Goodhart's law. I mean it, yeah, it's it seems to be a fundamental truth about a university.
Srini: Yeah, I remember seeing there was a documentary about the college admissions scandal here in the U S and one of the people on it was a former admissions officer for Stanford, and he literally said, he said, this is all just a manufactured perception because of exactly what you're talking about.
Tim Harford: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Srini: So probably two of my favorite things you said towards the end of the book. Cause I feel like we could talk about this for hours, but in the chapter on life, you say, real creativity, excitement and humanity lies and the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones and an appreciation of the virtues of mess and fulfilling our human potential is something we can encourage our children from an early age.
Srini: If we dare, when we overprotect our children, denying them the opportunity to practice their own skills, learn to make wise and foolish choices, experience Panelas and generally all might make an almighty mess. We believe we're treating them with love, but we also may be limiting their scope to become fully human.
Srini: So as the person who was raised by two Indian parents who were not over protective, but they definitely had their boundaries in terms of what we could do and get away with. For example, my mother refused to buy me a skateboard as a kid, because she said that kids who skateboard break bones, now I'm an avid surfer and snowboarder.
Srini: And I got a skateboard when I was staying at my parent's house at 36 years old. And I said, that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, because you know what kids who skateboard may bake, break bones, adults who skateboard break bones and those bones don't heal.
Tim Harford: Yeah. It's w but as a parent, I understand you don't want anything to happen to your kids.
Tim Harford: Not physically, not psychologically. You want to be able to protect them. And of course, kids are. Kids are amazing imaginative learning machines here. All of this stuff is that's all true, but they're also let's be Frank. They can be pretty dumb and make lots of bad choices because they haven't learned.
Tim Harford: And it's so tempting as an adult to, to step in and prevent them from the consequences of their choices to keep them away from all risk. And I'm not saying I resist that temptation with my own children. But I try to resist it and give them that freedom to, to experiment and to fail. I think I'm probably way short of where I should be in terms of how much I let them screw up.
Tim Harford: But but I'm trying, because I think in the end that's w we know intellectually, we know that's where the growth comes from. That's where the learning comes from. But it's just so hard to let go.
Srini: Yeah. Wow. I feel like I could talk to you for two or three hours about all this stuff. I have one final question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative.
Srini: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Tim Harford: That's such a good question. Do I have a good answer?
Tim Harford: There is. I guess the whole, the nature of the answer is that there's no, the nature of the question is there is in fact no answer to it because everybody who is unique, unless stackable effectively means unique in a way that you can identify as opposed to unique in a way that you can't and anybody who is identifiably unique.
Tim Harford: Is going to be unique in their own particular way. So what makes a Phillip glass opera sounds so distinctively? Like a Philip Glass opera is not anything like no. What makes Gary Gygax co-creator of Dungeons and dragons distinctive as the creative Dungeons and dragons. There's no similarity whatsoever.
Tim Harford: And that is the point. So I guess my Zen answer is the question denies its own answer.
Srini: That has to be probably the most interesting answer I've heard to date in a thousand years.
Tim Harford: Interesting may not, maybe not insightful, but I'll settle for interesting. It is, to
Srini: me, I think it's a brilliant dancer personally. Like I, I love that answer. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, your wisdom and insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your books, your work, and everything else that you're up to?
Tim Harford: Thank you. I've really enjoyed the conversation as well. It's always fun. Just talking about yourself. My website is Tim halford.com. Not that not Tim Hartford, Tim halford.com. Just always got to spell it correctly. I'm on Twitter as Tim Halford but all Tim half.com there's links to all my books.
Tim Harford: My most recent book is the data detective there's links to my cautionary tales podcast. My financial times column, the whole thing.
Srini: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that.