“...people respond to unexpected stimuli and constraints all the time. We just don’t call it randomness. A good conversation is a constant stream of unexpected responses. A new collaboration forces fresh perspectives and demands attention.”
Tim Harford is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. Looking at familiar situations in unfamiliar ways, The Undercover Economist, his first book, is a fresh explanation of the fundamental principles of the modern economy.
In Messy, Tim Harford explores how the human qualities that we value—creativity, collaboration, resilience—can benefit from disorder and confusion as soon as we decide to embrace the constraint instead of resisting it.
The author defines nine chapters, each one addresses a specific topic in which “a little bit of mess” can sometimes lead to better outcomes. He made it very concrete through numerous examples in which he identifies what the mess could be and how it could help in our everyday life. The examples are interspersed with research from neuroscience, psychology and social science.
Nevertheless the book is more than a collection of examples and asserts a powerful but counterintuitive idea that our “messy” parts ca contribute to our success.
The Big Idea
Messy Situations Provide Fertile Creative Soils
"Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist or engineer in unpromising territory - a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop."
Some of the greatest discoveries were borne out of messy circumstances. Penicillin, post-it notes and microwaves are all examples of disruptive circumstances leading to great results.
Forever enshrined in scientific legend, the discovery of penicillin is really just a case of dirty dishes. When Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming returned from vacation, he found a strange fungus on a culture he had left in his lab, a fungus that had killed off all surrounding bacteria in the culture. Modern medicine was never the same.
In the opening story of the book, Keith Jarrett first refused to play on the piano that was put to his disposal at the Cologne Opera House, but eventually produced the performance of a lifetime. The shortcomings of the piano actually helped him.
Luck favors the brave, and we can create environments that encourage this way of thinking, by creating the right conditions for the new ideas to find their way. Creativity can be boosted by getting away from the everyday and disrupting our routines.
Imagine you take the same route each day to get to work with the London Underground, and one day you are forced to change because of a two-day strike that closes 171 of the Tube’s 270 stations. You have no choice but to try alternative routes using buses, overground trains and the stations that remained open.
This happened in 2014 and some researchers could observe that when the strike was over, not everybody returned to their habitual route. One in twenty of the commuters who had switched then stayed with the route that they had used during the strike. It was faster, cheaper or preferable in some other way to their old routine. All they needed was an unexpected shock to force them to seek out something better.
Understanding the benefits of such an experience, why not decide to try a new route even without a strike next time?
Embrace your Messiness
"We are tidy-minded people, instinctively admiring order and in denial about the way mess tends to be the inevitable by-product of good things, and is sometimes a good thing in its own right."
Benjamin Franklin aspired to thirteen virtues among which we find frugality, industry, sincerity, and cleanliness. He tracked his progress throughout his life with a daily reflection in a specific notebook. Despite his brilliant career and many accomplishments, he never mastered virtue of order, which he defined with the statement: ”Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” This gave him great frustration, and strangers who came to see him were amazed that tremendously important documents were scattered carelessly on the table and floor.
Franklin himself was convinced that if he could fix this deficiency in his character and become less messy, he would become a more admirable, successful, and productive person. One of the most determined men to ever live could not find success with something that looks like a very simple task.
Why did he fail in this regard?
Perhaps he realized, on some unconscious level, that disorderliness was not an impediment to success, and could even be a contribution to all the other great things he created, discovered, and accomplished within his life.
Furthermore, despite appearances, a big pile of paper is very far from being a random mess. My messy workspace might be difficult for another person to deal with, but it is a reflection of my journey, my work, and my creative process. That’s not a failure.
Use Mess to Win by Dictating the Rhythm
"In a competitive situation, you win by beating your opponent. Sometimes the opponent is relevant only as a benchmark; a 100m sprinter can tune out his rivals and focus on the finishing line. But many competitors - a chess player, a boxer, a military commander, a business leader, a politician - cannot ignore the opposition. And one way to win is to encourage your opponent to lose."
Mess is not only an advantage, it is also a weapon. In the chapter about “Winning”, Tim Harford tells three stories: the story of Lieutenant Erwin Rommel of the German army during First World War, the story of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and the story of Donald Trump, the next President of the United States of America. These three people mastered the use of mess in a deliberate way to build their path to victory.
The idea is based on a simple mechanism. It is about creating a chaotic situation that nobody understands and taking the opportunity to improvise a way through the mess before the opponent. This tactic works as much as the opponent shows an over-elaboration of details, rigidity of mind, and reluctance to change positions as swiftly and readily as the situation demands.
The three leaders mentioned above had an action plan, but they were able to adapt quickly and part of their tactics was about agility and “breaking” the rules of the game.
Rommel did it by privileging speed over safety, expecting opponents to be destabilized by this choice. Bezos did it by launching new businesses before being able to deliver—Barnes and Noble had the following attitude to e-reading: “when the market is here, we’ll be there”—an attitude that allowed Bezos and Amazon to take the advantage. Trump used inflammatory comments to create buzz and set traps to his opponents. Once they fell into it, he mocked his rivals on Twitter. His opponents were destabilized and were not able to offer a proper reaction. It can be a risky strategy, but the payoffs can be proportionate.
As a person who struggles with order (building many paper piles), and who works with companies to help them become more creative and better innovators, I enjoyed reading this book very much. Harford makes his arguments through stories and examples which appeal to me. Through all these examples, Messy shows that what seems random can also be part of a deliberate plan. Planning randomness and mess can be a competitive advantage in multiple situations, and it is up to us to expand the field of application and put a little bit of mess in our lives.
What routine can you disrupt today? What kind of good mess can you create?