The urge to be tidy seems to be rooted deep in the human psyche. Many of us feel threatened by anything that is vague, unplanned, scattered around or hard to describe. We find comfort in having a script to rely on, a system to follow, in being able to categorise and file away. We all benefit from tidy organisation - up to a point.
A large library needs a reference system. Global trade needs the shipping container. Scientific collaboration needs measurement units. But the forces of tidiness have marched too far.
Corporate middle managers and government bureaucrats have long tended to insist that everything must have a label, a number and a logical place in a logical system. Now that they are armed with computers and serial numbers, there is little to hold this tidy-mindedness in check. It's even spilling into our personal lives, as we corral our children into sanitised play areas or entrust our quest for love to the soulless algorithms of dating websites.
Order is imposed when chaos would be more productive. Or if not chaos, then...messiness. The trouble with tidiness is that in excess, it becomes rigid, fragile and sterile.
In Messy, Tim Harford reveals how qualities we value more than ever - responsiveness, resilience and creativity - simply cannot be disentangled from the messy soil that produces them. This, then, is an audiobook about the benefits of being messy: messy in our private lives; messy in the office, with piles of paper on the desk and unread spreadsheets; messy in the recording studio, in the laboratory or in preparing for an important presentation; and messy in our approaches to business, politics and economics, leaving things vague, diverse and uncomfortably made up on the spot.
It's time to rediscover the benefits of a little mess.
©2016 Tim Harford (P)2016 Little Brown
"Tim Harford is turning into Malcolm Gladwell :("
The basic idea of Messay can be expressed in a couple of sentences (the publisher's synopsis pretty much nails it). I'd love to say that the rest of the book offers an analysis of the various nuances of that basic idea, and a survey of the available evidence about how and when "messiness" helps or hinders different kinds of human activity or project. That would be both interesting and informative.
Instead, the bulk of the book is a series of rich and colourful cherry-picked illustrations that tick the "interesting" box, for sure, but just aren't informative. There's very little discussion of actual research; and for every example Harford gives where embracing messiness has paid dividends, it's easy to think of examples where it's been a really bad idea.
To give just one example, there's a lengthy discussion of how Rommel's embrace of messiness allowed him to win engagements in the first and second World Wars, but no discussion at all of whether military researchers or historians consider overall that a "messy" strategy is more likely to succeed than a "tidy" one. I mean, from the little I've read, I'd say Churchill was at the "tidy" end of the spectrum and he did okay. So what should we take from the Rommel example, other than the pointless observation that sometimes messiness helps and sometimes it doesn't?
Harford puts a lot of (admittedly very well-written and entertaining) words into tearing apart the flimsy straw man that a tidy, linear, planned process is always the best way forward, especially if you're trying to achieve something creative. That shouldn't take a whole book. For me, Messy crosses the line from "entertaining and educational" to "merely entertaining". It's very much in the Malcolm Gladwell mould, which is very disappointing after the rigour of The Undercover Economist. Adapt was already a bit Gladwellian road but I hoped it was a blip. Seems not!
There is an interesting discussion upfront of how algorithms do a better job of optimising if they include random explorations in their early stages. I enjoyed that explanation a lot. But, for me, it was pretty much all downhill from there.
The narrator, though, is just wonderful. Lively and accurate. If he'd been less enjoyable to listen to, I don't think I've have finished the book.
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