kottke.org posts about Worldly Philosopher

The power of failureJun 27 2013

Malcolm Gladwell on economist Albert Hirschman, who embraced the roles of adversity, anxiety, and failure in creativity and success.

"The Principle of the Hiding Hand," one of Hirschman's many memorable essays, drew on an account of the Troy-Greenfield "folly," and then presented an even more elaborate series of paradoxes. Hirschman had studied the enormous Karnaphuli Paper Mills, in what was then East Pakistan. The mill was built to exploit the vast bamboo forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. But not long after the mill came online the bamboo unexpectedly flowered and then died, a phenomenon now known to recur every fifty years or so. Dead bamboo was useless for pulping; it fell apart as it was floated down the river. Because of ignorance and bad planning, a new, multimillion-dollar industrial plant was suddenly without the raw material it needed to function.

But what impressed Hirschman was the response to the crisis. The mill's operators quickly found ways to bring in bamboo from villages throughout East Pakistan, building a new supply chain using the country's many waterways. They started a research program to find faster-growing species of bamboo to replace the dead forests, and planted an experimental tract. They found other kinds of lumber that worked just as well. The result was that the plant was blessed with a far more diversified base of raw materials than had ever been imagined. If bad planning hadn't led to the crisis at the Karnaphuli plant, the mill's operators would never have been forced to be creative. And the plant would not have been nearly as valuable as it became.

"We may be dealing here with a general principle of action," Hirschman wrote, "Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be."

Gladwell's piece is based on Jeremy Adelman's recent biography of Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher.

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