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Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
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Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

“I will stand for messiness not because I think messiness is the answer to all life's problems, but because I think messiness has too few defenders. I want to convince you that there can sometimes be a certain magic in mess,” writes Tim Harford in one of Amazon’s 20 best nonfiction books of the year, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverhead Books, 2016). Harford explores the role of messiness—messy thinking, planning, execution, and experience—in big-picture shifts.

Some of Harford’s examples are exactly what you might expect, as he begins with a chapter examining the working style of musician Brian Eno, whose apparent non-sequitur-by-design approach removes creators from their accustomed mind-spaces and forces them to think about their work in new ways. We already know that artists embrace messiness, as their fields celebrate untidy work that defies categorization. The author also looks at landmark work by Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, and the messy moments that led to Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Davis’s Kind of Blue.

But this is just the beginning, as Harford takes us from places where the benefits of messiness are predictable to places where they are not as obvious: in the ways people work together, in the physical spaces where they do this work, in deviating from the script when we present our ideas, in competition, in incentivizing desired behavior, in our interactions with technology and automation, in resilience on personal and grand scales, and on how we experience our daily lives. Much of the evidence is counter-intuitive, as with the busy intersection where traffic has become safer (and drivers more careful) with the removal of traffic signs and lane dividers, or the playgrounds where children experience fewer injuries despite the presence of sharp objects and the lack of approved apparatus or padded flooring.

You know that coworker whose filing system seems to be stacks of paper on and around his desk? It turns out that he may be on to something, and that this incredible lack of tidiness may not merely be the reflection of a creative mind unencumbered by the stress of putting things where they belong. The guy who works this way often spends less time looking for relevant material and is more likely not to hang onto old, unneeded paperwork. The same seems to be true for that colleague who doesn’t spend any time organizing her emails. Not only does she save all that time putting emails in appropriate sub-folders, but when she needs a specific email from somewhere in her mailbox, she finds it in half the time it takes the organized person with each email in an assigned place.

Shifting between anecdote and research, Harford makes the case that by imposing too much order on the world, we make things not only less interesting but less vital: forests cleared of unwanted growth and planted only with trees for timber produce, over time, trees that are less healthy and yield less timber. Wiping out unhealthy bacteria creates deadly problems, the cure for which is sometimes the infusion of a healthy person’s feces into the body of a sick person. Children who play in a large, undeveloped field are safer, less in need of supervision, and less prone to distraction in the classroom immediately after, versus those who play on safe equipment.

This is big-idea stuff Harford is framing, and the inclination of the tidy person will probably be to resist it, while the inclination of the untidy person will be to embrace it. This conflict itself is representative of the messiness the author extols: it takes all kinds, and the more diverse our thinking, the better our organizations. Embracing messiness is not the only way to think about how our world works, but for most of us, it will be an unusual, fresh injection of a different way to view ourselves and our practices, an underrepresented voice in a giant chorus of voices advocating for order and neatness. Messiness is definitely worth considering, and Messy is an outstanding book worth a careful read.


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Book Review: Messy: The Power of Disorder To Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford - Executive Leadership Articles

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