Tim Harford is The Undercover Economist, the man who takes on the mad world of economics and manages to make it understandable, engaging and even, shockingly, entertaining for the rest of us.
His first book under that guise was a massive best-seller, with over a million copies sold to date, spawning a series of further books and columns that have made Tim one of the most popular economic journalists around. 1.3 million people have viewed his talk at the TED conference, he’s fronted his own BBC TV series and currently presents Radio 4’s More or Less, where he can be heard taking apart the numbers and statistics that appear in the news.
Tim kindly took some time out from that schedule to reminisce about his days in the hallowed corridors of AGS.
Hi Tim. How do you remember your time at school?
That’s a long time ago! Dimly, I think is the most obvious answer. It was a remarkable education, of course, with some terrific teachers. All things considered, it wasn’t bad, given that it was a school…
I did a lot of public speaking at AGS, that’s a distinctive memory of my time there. I was confident rather than competent!
I enjoyed learning things, and was one of those people who really struggled whenever you had to drop a subject. I’d always think ‘well, this is interesting, why would I want to drop this?’ but of course you hit certain moments where you have to stop. I dropped history and biology when I was something like 12, which now seems ridiculous but if it wasn’t them it would have to have been something else.
Did you have any favourite teachers while you were at the school?
There were quite a lot… I think particularly Mr Peter Norman, who taught me English when I was 13, he was absolutely fantastic and a very, very inspiring teacher. Mr Ferris, Latin teacher, was brilliant, but fortunately he didn’t inspire me enough to keep going with Latin! Mrs Jacobs ran the public speaking team, which was very important to me.
There were not many teachers who you could think weren’t that good, and there were a lot of teachers who you just thought of as incredibly engaging people.
I think that for things to go well you need a lot of good fortune. One of the lucky things I’ve had over the years is a lot of good teachers and tutors who’ve inspired me and been willing to take the effort to guide me. That’s not something that everybody gets.
There was never a plan, and there still isn’t! No, I never particularly expected to be a writer and I never expected to study economics. I didn’t study economics at school and I didn’t really plan to study economics at university.
Opportunities came up and it seemed like a good idea to take them, and they can take you to strange places.
Your TED talk has had well over a million views. Did you ever imagine while you were involved in public speaking at the school that it would become such a big part of your career?
I often thought that I would like to do something with the public speaking, but I didn’t know what that could be. I thought for some time that I might become a public speaking coach; I didn’t want to be a barrister, and I certainly didn’t want to be a politician.
There was this thing at the forefront of my mind that I wanted to use this skill and that I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t sure what career path would lead to that so I sort of forgot it. I feel quite lucky that I’ve stumbled upon this career as a writer and journalist where speaking is really quite important; I never knew that when I started writing books, so that was a stroke of good luck.
What is it that you personally find interesting about the subject of economics?
Well, it’s endlessly challenging. Keynes famously listed the qualities of a master economist, with himself in mind, saying that he had to be able to communicate in prose and think in mathematics; got to talk to prime ministers and to the common man; to have a grasp of history but to be able to see into this future.
It’s a tremendous range of skills that you need to be the perfect economist and nobody can have it all, it’s too complex. For that reason it’s infinitely engaging because there’s always something new to learn about a very, very wide range of different subjects in economics. It’s terrific fun and there’s never been a more interesting time to be an economist.
At what point did you realise that you could make a career from writing about it?
After The Undercover Economist came out in about 2005 there was a period of about sixth months, during which it was selling well and the foreign rights were selling well… There was talk of a big advance for the second book, suddenly I was on TV and had a BBC Two series. That all took place in a very short period of time.
I’d had it in my mind that I was going to be a financial journalist who occasionally writes books, which I suppose I am, but I didn’t realise that the books would be such a big part of it. It all happened very quickly; after years and years trying to sell the book, it didn’t take long to realise that the book was a big success.
Why do you think the way you approach the subject has been so popular?
The method that underpins everything is to keep listening to good radio, good economic journalism and writing of other kinds and to constantly be asking yourself why is this working? Why is this so good to read? What do I admire about what this person is doing? And to keep trying to figure out what you can learn about that.
That general principal that you’ve got to keep getting better instead of staying still and getting stale means you have to keep consuming and enjoying excellent journalism from people who are trying to do similar things to you, and you can learn from them.
The financial crisis got people very interested in the economy for very serious reasons, as it became clear that this stuff is very important. I think there’s always an audience for clear, engaging, enjoyable explanations of how the world works, whether we’re talking about astronomy or evolutionary biology. I think economics is no different.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
I’ve been lucky enough that there’s been a lot. Publishing your first book is pretty great. In fact, just finishing the first book. At the time I wrote the book I had no publisher, no certainty at all that it would ever be published, and it took years for it to actually to be published, but I remember saying to my wife at that point that I felt it had been worth it. I’d had such fun writing the book and it was such a sense of achievement having done it.
What advice would you have for the boys at AGS now?
Work hard and be flexible. You’ve got to be ready to adapt and change what you’re doing, how you act, and what your goals are to respond to different opportunities, and to all the things that you’ll learn along the way.