We’re led to believe that there’s little that’s worse than mess – how unsightly it is, a signal of someone’s laziness, their lack of application: a tidy desk is a tidy mind, and all that. Not for nothing is cleanliness next to godliness.
But what if we’ve got this the wrong way round? What if, especially in a world that privileges creative thinking, it’s actually the case that we get better insights, better ideas and develop more resilience by allowing a little mess into our ways of working and being?
That’s the contention that economist Tim Harford explores in his latest book. Ranging widely across music, maths, politics, finance and technology, he unpicks the notion that being tidy is always best. As he acknowledges, the latter belief is something that appears to be hard-wired into us. But, he argues, this means we can miss out: “we are so seduced by the blandishments of tidiness that we fail to appreciate the virtues of the messy.”
He then goes on to show how letting a little bit of mess in, embracing what we might think of as negative factors initially, frustration, distraction, improvisation – thinking differently, effectively – can lead to unexpected, and unexpectedly positive results.
By trusting his talent when improvising he found he was able to achieve heights that he could not of done if he had stuck slavishly to his script.
Particularly intriguing is his case study on Martin Luther King, and how he developed into one of the world’s best orators. Yes, King spent many hours in his study, crafting, polishing and learning his sermons. But Harford argues that it was only when he was forced to short circuit this preparatory process that he truly found his voice as an inspirational speaker. By trusting his talent when improvising he found he was able to achieve heights that he could not of done if he had stuck slavishly to his script. He was brave to trust a messier way of working, and he was rewarded.
Harford is also good on the downsides of not trusting to a little mess. He is particularly excoriating on the role of incentives and targets as a method of controlling complex systems, a means of trying to impose tidiness on a messy world almost inevitably derailed by unexpected consequences. As he points out, “The trouble is that when we start quantifying and measuring everything, we soon begin to change the world to fit the way we measure it.”
As you’d expect from one of the UK’s most high-profile economic communicators, the book is elegantly and accessibly written, with its knowledge and learning worn lightly. And you’ll come away from it less scared of mess, indeed more willing to embrace it as a positive force in your life and work.