Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

by: Tim Harford

Found this through Tim’s podcast, “Cautionary Tales”. I’ve enjoyed the podcast for a while and thought it might be interesting to read some of his other materials. It brought together many of the ideas that I’d seen other places and put them into a nice format with great stories to tie them all together. Really enjoyed it.

  • Distractibility can indeed seem like an “issue,” or even a curse. But that’s if we’re looking only at the hill-climbing part of the creative process. Distractible brains can also be seen as brains that have an innate tendency to make those useful random leaps.
  • the ADHD sufferers were more creative in the laboratory than non-sufferers, and were more likely to have major creative accomplishments outside the lab. The people who were most easily distracted were also the ones whose first album had been released, whose poetry had been published in The New Yorker, or whose play was showing off-Broadway.
  • There was something about the sheer disruptiveness of the setup that unlocked creative responses.
  • If you’re trying to improve your tennis game, you may do better working with a tennis coach, a nutritionist, and a general fitness trainer rather than three tennis coaches.
  • in 2006 the psychologist Samuel Sommers examined the decision-making processes of juries, some all-white and some racially mixed. (These were mock trials based on real cases.) Deliberating the case of a black defendant, the mixed juries did a better job of working through the information presented to them. This wasn’t just because the black jurors brought a fresh perspective to the deliberation room. It was also because white jurors were less lazy in their thinking when black jurors were present, citing more facts about the case and making fewer mistakes.19 People think harder when they fear their views may be challenged by outsiders.
  • they told the researchers they wanted to build new ties, or expand their social network.25 What they actually did was rather different. The scientists were able to track exactly where people went and whom people chatted with during the party, thanks to a digital tag that each attendee had been given to wear. The tags revealed that people were making a beeline for people they already knew and then staying close to them. When they did meet strangers, they did so because those strangers were friends of friends. As a result the new acquaintances tended to be from the same industry. (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.)
  • In principle, the modern world gives us more opportunities than ever to forge relationships with people who do not look, act, or think the same way that we do. Travel is cheaper, communication is free and instantaneous, and a host of tools exist to help us reach across previously unbridgeable social divides. But what do we do with these opportunities? We keep our social networks nice and tidy by seeking out people just like us.
  • Sommer repeatedly found that apparently trivial freedoms, such as the right to paint your own wall, help people define personal space, and make people happier and more productive.
  • Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.”
  • From the vantage point of a nice corner office, someone else’s messy desk is an eyesore. The clutter is visible, but the resulting sense of empowerment is not. For the senior manager, the lesson is simple: Resist the urge to tidy up. Leave the mess—and your workers—alone.
  • while your team should understand their broad goals, they shouldn’t waste time trying to coordinate with one another. Stirling was happy to split his forces and let them operate independently. So was Rommel. Perhaps surprisingly, so too was Jeff Bezos, who notoriously once told his management team to spend less time communicating.44 Bezos’s point was that small teams should get on with achieving things rather than constantly checking with one another. For much the same reason, John Boyd opposed “synchronization,” once a big idea in the U.S. military. Boyd argues that synchronization was for watches, not for people.
  • One cluster of headaches reflects the fact that targets tend to be simple, while the world is complicated. Anything specific enough to be quantifiable is probably too specific to reflect a messy situation. The Apgar score is an example of this: a newborn baby’s Apgar score is not the only thing that matters, but because it is easy to measure, it looms large.
  • Making the targets more complex can’t be the right answer. A complex measure is just as likely to be gamed, and a simple rule of thumb is often an accurate guide to what is happening.
  • The answer is neither the weighty rule book of Basel nor one simple rule of thumb. Instead, we should be defining many rules of thumb, and deliberately leaving it ambiguous as to which will be used in any given situation.
  • It is too early to tell whether this artificially created mess will prove a successful replacement for the original. Yet what is perfectly clear is that the attempt to map, quantify, and ultimately tidy the German forests not only transformed them but nearly killed them. It turns out that what you need to keep a forest alive cannot easily be quantified and mapped.
  • In nature, mess often indicates health—and not only in the forest.
  • team at the University of California at San Francisco found that Lactobacillus sakei—another of the bacteria we have cluttering up our bodies—appears to prevent sinusitis, presumably by outcompeting the more harmful bacteria that might inflame our sinuses. A dose of antibiotics can wipe out the lactobacillus, and—paradoxically—invite a painful infection.
  • The biggest disadvantage that the pilers suffered was that because their offices looked so messy, somebody else might sneak in and tidy everything up, a ruinous act of vandalism.
  • And all this e-mail filing takes time—around 10 percent of all e-mail time is spent organizing e-mail, according to researchers at Xerox PARC.
  • When the researchers followed up a year later, these trends had continued and were reflected in the students’ grades: the students with monthly plans were doing better than ever, the students with no plans were treading water, and the students with daily plans were sliding ever further down the scale of academic achievement.
  • The researchers were cautious: not many good studies have been conducted, and so it is hard to draw firm conclusions. But it is quite possible that a space where children clumsily wield saws and set fire to things is just as safe as a space carefully designed by experts.
  • Hammers and hoists and open fires and trees and all the rest can actually be dangerous, after all. But it turns out that children adjust for risk: if the ground is harder, the play equipment sharp-edged, the spaces and structures uneven, they will be more careful.
  • Grant Schofield, a professor of public health at Auckland University of Technology, has been running a research project in which schools opened up nearby unused land for primaryage children to roam free in during breaks. There were no more serious injuries than when the children played in their conventional playgrounds—indeed, there were fewer. And other results were dramatic: when they returned to the classroom from their feral wanderings, their behavior was better. They paid attention in class. Bullying fell to the extent that the school abolished a “time-out” room and halved the number of teachers on duty at playtime.
  • Jane Jacobs pointed out that only an arrogant man would try to anticipate all the uses to which a building might be put; the same thing is true of a playground.