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Speed Review: Messy

The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

by Tim Harford

Speed Review: Messy
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Benjamin Franklin “was surely deluding himself,” writes Tim Harford in his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. Harford is referring to Franklin’s dismay over his uncontrollable messiness. Franklin had spent a lifetime trying to become a less messy person and had failed. Franklin was convinced that if he had only been less messy, he would have accomplished more, which leads to Harford’s conclusion about Franklin deluding himself.

“It is hard to believe that such a rich life could possibly have been made still richer by closer attention to filing papers and tidying up,” Harford writes. However, he continues, “His error is no surprise. We are a tidy-minded people, instinctively admiring order and in denial about the way mess tends to be the inevitable by-product of good things, and is sometimes a good thing in its own right.”

Amazon’s Mess

With Messy, Harford aims to rehabilitate messiness, exploring, through the stories of famous and not-so-famous people, the variety of ways that being messy can make you more successful.

For Harford, to be “tidy-minded” is not just a matter of being neat in the sense of maintaining an uncluttered desk or home. The “tidy-minded” view any kind of disorganization, lack of focus or lack of preparation as a weakness. Harford argues, instead, that the most creative and successful people are often those who are not afraid to be untidy.

One of those people is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. From the beginning of his online bookselling venture, Bezos plunged forward with little advance planning and a willingness to see what would happen and respond accordingly. “Bezos combined a grandiose vision with the sketchiest understanding of how that vision would be achieved,” Harford writes.

Just as the Amazon River, in Bezos’ words, “blows all other rivers away,” Amazon would be the retailer that blows all other retailers away, Harford writes. However, when Amazon opened for business, it was completely unprepared for the demand. “In the first week, Amazon sold $12,000 worth of books but shipped only $846,” he writes. “Right from the start, Bezos was behind and desperately scrambling to catch up.”

Bezos and Amazon have never stopped scrambling, including entering the toy market by sending out employees just before Christmas to buy up Costco and Toys “R” Us inventory in bulk and, as a result, continuously beat out bigger competitors who took more thoughtful and rational — less messy, one might say — approaches.

The truth is that the careful competitors were defeated because they were, according to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who also thrived on chaos, “ponderous.” Messiness, writes Harford, will beat ponderous any time.

Who Needs Focus?

Another version of messiness described in Harford’s book is lack of focus and consistency. Academic studies have shown, however, that people who have weak attentional filters are more creative (and achieve more) than people who are adept at blocking out distractions.

Some people have messy careers, jumping from project to project or among different fields of study or professions, for example. Such messiness can lead to prolific accomplishments, Harford writes. A study of the careers of scientists, for example, reveals that scientists who switch topics frequently have longer, more productive careers than scientists who stay focused on one research area.

Harford also explores “messy” collaborations, involving “bridging” collaborators who have weak ties to scores of partners, compared to “bonding” collaborators, who work only in tight-knit teams; the first generate “flashes of inspiration,” while the second enable long-term effort. Thus, the best collaboration, Harford writes, “allows a degree of messiness into a tidy team.”

With the support of academic research and a widely diverse and often fascinating set of case studies ranging from Martin Luther King to dying German forests, Harford has successfully written a compelling, inspiring defense of messiness.

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