Editor's Choice

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

October 27, 2016


Tim Harford explains how embracing the mess, in our lives and ourselves, makes us more creative and productive as individuals, and helps us build more smart and resilient organizations and societies.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, October 2016, ISBN 9781594634796

Tim Harford opens his new book, Messy, with the story of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert in 1975, the recording of which has sold over 3.5 million copies, the most of any solo jazz album in history. Performed on a broken piano that Jarrett initially refused to play on, the concert turned out to be one of his most brilliant performances, and his most popular work.

Messy explains how embracing the mess, in our lives and ourselves, makes us more creative and productive as individuals, and helps us build more smart and resilient organizations and societies. That work is not always easy, fun, or comfortable, and it doesn’t always even look like work. Sometimes, solving a problem requires stepping away from it for a time, seeing it from another angle, or working on something else.

3M takes this to an extreme. Rather than focusing on expertise in one arena, its engineers rotate between departments every few years to make sure ideas cross-pollinate across the organization.


The policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? But for [3M], the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.


Sometimes “knowing what we’re doing” causes us to always do things in the same way, and we get stuck in a rut. Expertise can be an impediment to progress in that way, and getting out of our comfort zone and seeing things from a different perspective is the only way to spark new insights and provide new solutions.

One way to force ourselves and our teams to do that is to embrace diversity:


When deliberating with a group … we should be seeking out people who think differently, who have different experiences and training, and who look different. Those people may bring fresh and useful ideas to the table; even if they do not, they’ll bring out the best in us—even if only by making us feel awkward and forcing us to shape up. That messy, challenging process is one we should embrace.


It runs counter to our natural instincts to bring in people who will shake things up and rock the boat, but the best way to solve problems is through cognitive diversity, seeing things from multiple viewpoints and skill sets. A study on group dynamics done by psychologists Katerine Phillips, Katie Liljenquist, and Margaret Neale found that introducing a stranger into a group of friends solving a problem made them much more effective at finding the correct conclusion. The presence of someone outside their circle forced them to more clearly and carefully define and defend opinions that may not have been challenged otherwise. It might cause more disagreement, and be more uncomfortable, but that disagreement and discomfort will ultimately lead to more carefully considered and insightful decisions. 

Rather than team building exercises that focus on group cohesion, then, Harford suggests we remember the benefits of tension and make sure our teams are made up of dissimilar people. He also has something to say about the offices we inhabit.

Tidiness is often seem as indicative of productivity, clean lines and streamlined design equated with efficiency. Yet, even when it comes to the workplace, that may be backwards. Harford tells us of study by psychologists Alex Haslam and Craig Knight that found that workers in more modernt, lean, and tidy office environments devoid of mess are much more unproductive than those in a more cozy and comfortable—or enriched—ones. But the most productive workplaces are what they call empowered offices, in which those that work in the space are allowed to arrange it as they see fit:


The empowered office was a great success—people got 30 percent more done there than in the lean office, and about 15 percent more that than in the enriched office.


Much later in the book, discussing the different styles and patterns of how we work, and the difference between “filers” and “pilers,” he cautions against casting aspersion even when it becomes cluttered and messy. Albert Einstein almost certainly never said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” But there is some truth to the idea that a cluttered desk is indicative of a productive person:

That’s the thing about a messy desk or a messy office: it’s full of clues about recent patterns of working, and those clues can help us work effectively. […] A messy desk is full of such clues. A tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list. Both systems can work, so we should hesitate before judging other people based on their messy desks.


Just as scattered papers and a messy desk are often the sign of a healthy work life, in the chapter “Resilience,” he touches on the importance of dead logs and other messy things to health of forests, the importance of bacteria and microbes to human health, and the danger of removing them.


[O]ur microbiome is partially heritable, passed from mothers to daughters. It follows that if one generation thins out the messy diversity of their microbiome through antibiotics and antiseptics, the following generation will start from a less diverse foundation.


In fact, gut infections that are resilient to antibiotics are now routinely treated with fecal microbiota transplantation (which I’ll leave you to look up if you wish, but let’s just say that it’s messy).

My favorite chapter, though, is entitled “Improvisation.” In it, Harford reveals the creative histories of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (one of my favorite albums, and which took just nine hours to record), and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. That speech, initially titled “Normalcy, Never Again,” was meticulously, painstakingly crafted and rehearsed like most of King’s speeches, and it did not include the lines "I have a dream," though it was something he had been preaching in front of congregations at the time. But when he looked to the page at the end of the speech, where the lines written asked folks to return to their communities with “creative dissatisfaction,” he found it didn’t match the mood of the crowd. Instead, he implored them to “Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. ” It was around that moment, as he was searching for something to say next, that singer Mahalia Jackson yelled out “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” And so he did.

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