Tim Harford is a senior columnist for the Financial Times, a bestselling author and a broadcaster. His long running column with the FT is entitled The Undercover Economist, and within it Tim shares economic ideas behind everyday experiences. Tim Harford is a believer that the power of economics can be used for good, and has made his case in all of his speaking performances, including at TED, PopTech and Sydney Opera House. Tim’s first book, The Undercover Economist sold more than an incredible 1.5 million copies worldwide, and he has followed up with many more great books; including his most recent book Messy. Tim Harford is also a presenter of radio and TV series for the BBC, including the popular podcasts More or Less and 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy; both of which were recently recognised by The Times of London as among the world’s best 10 podcasts. In 2014, Tim Harford was named Economics Commentator of the Year by the Comment Awards. Following that, Tim was also awarded the Rybczynski Prize, an award given each year by the Society of Business Economists for the best business-relevant economics writer. You may have also seen Tim Harford in his apparent on the Colbert Report, Newsnight, Marketplace, Planet Money, PM, Today, The One Show and many other popular radio and TV programs. Having such a well respected mind and writer on the site to talk books is an exciting prospect. Please enjoy my interview with Tim Harford…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I’m a writer.
I read in parallel – possibly a bad habit. At the moment I’m reading Success and Luck by Robert H. Frank, Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo, The Complacent Class by Tyler Cowen, and The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick. And hoping to scrounge an old copy of The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I don’t think I gave it much thought.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
Pretty much what my own children think of me – horribly uncool. Although I am now good friends with a writer and game designer that my 12-year old self revered, so he might admire that.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans is excellent – using design skills such as reframing and prototyping to think with a positive, open-minded and creative attitude to careers.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
No – I binge, and my life is quite varied with a combination of trips to London, travel further afield and working from home. Hard to get settled into a routine – and nor would I really want one.
E=mc2 by David Bodanis. It’s a brilliant combination of science and storytelling. I had the chance to discuss it with David himself – that discussion inspired me to write my first book, The Undercover Economist.
Which three books would you recommend for a complete novice who wants to learn about economics?
For a witty and spiky introduction to thinking like an economist, either Armchair Economist by Steven Landsburg or Hidden Order by David Friedman. The two books are both excellent but similar. Then for a dose of wisdom and economic history, The Truth About Markets by John Kay. Finally, for the joy of game theory, Thinking Strategically by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
I associate The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien with my father reading to me and my sister in a big armchair.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Hm – probably The Most Human Human by Brian Christian. Glorious, creative exploration both of AI and chatbots, and of what it means to have a good human conversation.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I read vastly more non-fiction but a great novel lives on inside you.
What’s the greatest book on economics ever written?
Do you think reading is important?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Probably Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, but it’s very much a how-to manual so arguably not strictly a book. I’d say The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova. Fascinating and very well written.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Paper. I gave up on e-books quite quickly. I find it much easier to read on paper.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. A clever and beautiful guide to mindfulness before anybody knew what mindfulness was.
If you could only teach the youth of today one thing about economics, what would it be and why?
That life has become incomparably better for most of the people on the planet over the past fifty years. It’s one of the most important facts about the world and it’s widely unappreciated. I understand that we need to focus on problems that haven’t yet been solved, but we should also pay attention to problems that have been solved.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I’m reading about forgery a lot right now. Next up, The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
The Undercover Economist is the closest I’ll get to an autobiography, and it isn’t very close. There are so many more interesting stories in the world – I wouldn’t want to limit my horizons to a story about me.
If you’d like to learn more about Tim Harford, you can find him on his website, Facebook and Twitter.
Image Credit: Fran Monks Photography