BOOK REVIEW: Messy by Tim Harford

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our LivesMessy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The book’s premise is simple: being neat and tidy isn’t the great virtue you’ve been led to believe, and being messy isn’t inherently a vice. Over nine chapters, Harford explores the various dimensions in which our impulse to toward tidiness can get in our way, and for which a little messiness might be the cure. Each chapter uses a central story or two as exemplars, with other stories and anecdotes providing support.

The book’s introduction sets up the idea by describing a famous concert in Köln (Cologne) by Kieth Jarrett in which the pianist reluctantly agreed to play the concert on a sub-par piano, and (it’s argued because of the limitations of that instrument) went on to produce the best-selling solo jazz album. This tale sets up chapter one, which focuses on creativity, nicely. Creativity may be explicitly the topic of chapter one, but it’s a concept that cuts across the entirety of the book. Tidiness – it is argued — is antagonistic to creativity. In the first chapter, Harford describes how David Bowie partnered up with Brian Eno, and how Eno’s “oblique strategies” – while they annoyed the musicians to no end by throwing monkey wrenches into the act of making music – were highly successful in producing a unique sound.

Chapter two discusses collaboration, which always makes a mess. Central to this chapter is a discussion of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and the famous Erdős number that virtually all scholars are familiar with — at least those in who work in math, science, engineering, and other disciplines with a quantitative bent. It’s sort of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation for those who make mathematics. The number describes how far removed one is from having a paper penned with this notoriously prolific mathematician (co-authored, one removed co-author, etc.,) and everyone publishing quantitative / mathematical scholarship desired a low number. The point made by Harford wasn’t just that collaboration in general is messy, but that working with Erdős, specifically, was, and it required collaborators to adjust to his peculiar, professorial ways.

Chapter three explores how tidy workplaces sometimes hinder productivity. The central case is MIT’s Building 20, which was popped up in record time to meet a wartime demand. The building housed a disproportionate amount of world-class science and engineering, and it’s argued that this was in part because its poor design put random people together on long walks to exits or toilets, and in part because – since it was a hideous monstrosity of a building – no one cared if its labs and offices were a mess or not.

Chapter four delves into the value of mess in improvisation. Of course, Jazz is revisited in this chapter, but the lead story is Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech and how it came out of being forced by circumstance to abandon his usual process of extensive preparation and editing. Chapter five describes messy tactics as winning strategies. Erwin Rommel’s success by disruption and chaos creation is at the heart of this chapter as is the development of Britain’s SAS which sometimes beat Rommel at his own game by using a similar approach using smaller, more agile, and more elite forces. There is also an extensive discussion of how Amazon went from humble beginnings to being the 800 pound gorilla of online shopping.

The sixth chapter investigates the role of incentives. For an economist, this is a fascinating topic as the key to understanding economic behavior is usually to follow the incentives. Of course, unintended consequences often go hand in hand with attempts to produce / manipulate incentives. Much of this chapter describes how attempts to tie up loose ends through regulation have ended up generating worse outcomes than could ever have been anticipated.

The next chapter (ch. 7) is about automation, which could be seen as an attempt to clean up messy activities. Harford discusses the situation with self-driving cars, which it’s hoped will help to make highways safer. However, the case he concentrates on is that of flight Air France 447, which went down in part because its inexperienced pilot at the helm couldn’t cope when the fly-by-wire system designed to anticipate and smooth the pilot’s inputs into the controls suddenly went off-line. In other words, the junior pilot wasn’t used to flying messy.

Chapter 8 is about resilience, and here the author challenges the age-old economic notion that specialization always results in greater productivity. Harford suggests that diversity and intermixing of activities and people – rather than specialization and homogenization – often results in a better outcome. The final chapter takes a wider view at how being messy can help one in life. The author spends a great deal of space to the question of how on-line dating services do such a poor job – spoiler alert – they try to make the messy process of finding a soul mate neat and tidy.

The book has citations and end-notes. In the Kindle edition, these notes are hyperlinked for ease of use. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it to offer many fascinating cases. I will say, as I was reading these well-researched and interestingly described cases, I sometimes had to think hard (maybe do some mental gymnastics) to make the connection between the case at hand and the book’s central theme – leaving me to wonder if I was missing something or whether there wasn’t some shoe-horning of interesting anecdotes into the book to produce a work that was more about being interesting than about proving a particular point. That said, I would recommend the book, particularly for anyone interested in increasing their creativity, productivity, or both.

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