Cover of book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

by: Tim Harford

Check out the book on Amazon | your public library.
On how messiness is important, human and that maybe tidiness is overrated. How messiness might improve creativity, productivity and success in business.
22 Highlights | 6 Notes
  • The modern world is full of opportunities to meet new people. We rarely take them!
  • (No wonder that two other researchers sociologists Howard Aldrich and Martha Martinez-Firestone, recently concluded that contrary to their reputation, most entrepreneurs aren't terribly creative. One reason: most entrepreneurs hang out with other people who are exactly like them.)
  • Instead we need to find the social equivalent of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies: people with whom or places or situations where we won't be able to avoid new kinds of interactions. Perhaps it is as simple as joining a new group, learning a skill, or engaging in a pastime with strangers. Perhaps it's taking an extended trip to a distant city, a place where everyone is a stranger. Or perhaps it is being a little braver at the next networking event.
  • The message of Muzafer Sherif's work is that when you give people an important enough problem to solve together, they can put aside their differences. A good problem contains the seeds of its own solution.
  • It was home to MIT's Tech Model Railroad club, a wellspring of hacker culture - hacks being skillful, innovative, and, yes, messy improvisations in pursuit of no other goal other than the sheer joy of it.
    Note: What is a hack?
  • And Building 20's true advantage wasn't so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building's inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there!”
    Note: A space of your own, to do as you like.
  • … was more of a tidy-minded person's idea of what a mess looks like!
    Note: beautiful phrase
  • The offices at Chiat / Day may have looked superficially different from the offices at Kyocera, but they were managed with the fundamentally the same tidy-minded aesthetic; this place should look the way the boss wants it to look. Google's offices, like Building 20 at MIT, had been managed very differently: It doesn't matter how this place looks.
  • Why is creativity something that happens only when the boss isn't looking?
  • “We all have this desire for formal order,” Proust had written in 1968. “The only problem is that it conflicts severely with the more organic kind of spatial order human interchange uses best.”
  • T George Harriss, a veteran journalist and editor of Psychology Today, put his finger on the problem back in 1977: “The office is a highly personal tool shop, often the home of the soul … this fact may sound simple, but it eludes most architects, office designers, and thousands of regulations writers in hundreds of giant corporations. They have a mania for uniformity, in space as in furniture, and a horror over how the messy side of human nature clutters up an office landscape that would otherwise be as tidy as a national cemetery.”
  • What they loved instead was control over the space in which they had to live or work.
  • Yet because of Amazon's decisiveness and its tolerance for creating and then navigating an almighty mess, it left schwerfällig competitors outmaneuvered and gasping to catch up.
  • There is nothing in Boyd's theory that says a strong force cannot act swiftly and confusingly, getting inside an enemy's OODA loop. Yet, it rarely seems to happen that way: few people are willing to take the messy path if a tidier approach of organizing, preparing and co-ordinating looks like it might deliver victory.
    Messy improvisation doesn't guarantee success. It does, however guarantee that there will be mistakes, recriminations, and stress along the way.
  • Stirling's audacious raid on his own headquarters demonstrates some of the principles of meesy tactics.
    First, get yourself into a position of opportunity. …
    Second, improvise your way around obstacles.

    Third: speed counts for a great deal.

    An unexpected corollary of this third principle is that while your team should understand their broad goals, they shouldn't waste time trying to co-ordinate with one another.
  • Boyd argues that synchronization was for watches, not for people: trying to synchronize activities wasted time and left everyone marching at the pace of the slowest.
  • The trouble is that when we start quantifying and measuring the world, we soon begin to change the world to fit the way we measure it.
  • In each case, trying to measure performance — and sometimes making it an explicit target — had surprising and unwelcome side effects.
  • We might rephrase it as: “Automation will routinely tidy up ordinary messes, but occasionally create an extraordinary mess.” It's an insight that applies far beyond aviation.
    Note: On Wiener's laws of aviation & human error
  • Perhaps he realized on some unconscious level, that disorderliness was no bar to success. Many of us was have yet to make the same realization, in areas that defines much of our daily lives: organizing our documents, tasks, and time, looking for love; socializing & raising our kids. Benjamin Franklin's mistake is a mistake from which we can all learn, every day of our lives.
    Note: On Benjamin Franklin's third virtue: “Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
  • The researchers had two theories.-First that the daily plans took too much time and effort

    Second, that the daily plans sapped the motivation of students once they realized they kept falling short of their own plans.

    … why students weren't able to follow their own daily plans. The answer is that daily plans can't adjust to unexpected events. Things come up: you catch a cold; you need to stay at home for a plumber; a friend calls to say he's visiting town unexpectedly. With a broad plan or no plan, it's easy to accommodate these obstacles and opportunities.
    Note: On why monthly plans are better than daily plans.
  • Jared Diamonds, author of The World Until Yesterday, makes much the same point about hunter-gatherer societies he studied in New Guinea, who “consider young children to be autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted, and who are allowed to play with dangerous objects such as sharp knives, hot pots, and fires.” Though plenty of these kids grow up with physical scars, argues Diamond, they are the opposite of being emotionally scarred. Their “emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy” set them apart from children brought up by cautious westerners.