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Get Messy to Unleash Your Creativity

If you think that living an orderly life — with everything in its proper place — leads to better outcomes, Tim Harford begs to differ. The award-winning journalist and economist says embracing a bit more chaos and unexpected connections could make for a much more interesting year ahead.

Tim’s latest book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, draws upon extensive research to explain why such valued human qualities as creativity and resilience actually thrive when subjected to disarray.

In this interview, he demonstrates the value of injecting a bit more messiness into your everyday routine, and reveals the importance of making new friends in 2017.

One of the most successful books in recent years, Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, implores us to declutter our lives. It sounds like you are recommending the polar opposite.

Actually, Kondo says that organizational systems don’t work, and I agree with her. The idea of putting everything in its correct place works great when you’re talking about something like your kitchen. But it doesn’t carry over into your work or even your e-mail inbox.

Why is that? In fact, many experts advise carefully organizing your e-mails.

You should manage your e-mail so it doesn’t get overwhelming. But that just requires making quick decisions and deleting what you don’t need. It doesn’t involve creating lots of folders. The issue is something called premature filing. Often you don’t know where e-mails truly belong or which folder is most appropriate. So what happens is you file the e-mail and then when you want to find it months down the line, you can’t. Or you wind up with duplicate folders. Research shows that people who let e-mails and documents accumulate actually throw away a lot more stuff, and they understand what they keep. Superficially, they seem like messier people, but they are often better organized and use information more appropriately.

You’ve just made all our readers with piles of paper on their desks feel much smarter.

There’s a very long history of people beating themselves up over this. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, was constantly trying to improve himself. He kept resolving to get organized, but never did. When he wrote his autobiography at the end of his life, he was still blaming himself for not being better at that. In reality, he had nothing to feel guilty about for being messy. I mean, look at all he accomplished!

How did you initially stumble across the effectiveness of messiness?

I started out by exploring why we as a society always try to organize everything into silos. The more I got interested in things like free play for children, the power of improvisation as a military weapon and creative tool, and so on, the book expanded in a very messy way.

You write that messiness is often a major inspiration for creativity. How so?

I start my book with the story of Keith Jarrett, an amazing jazz pianist. He created his greatest and most popular work after being forced to improvise on a very bad piano at a concert. Being thrust into messy situations like this often leads to better outcomes. Think of a time you were forced to take a different route because of traffic and determined there was a better way to get where you were going in the process. Messy situations force you to explore new possibilities. They induce a random shock that makes you pay attention. They force your brain to write down everything and create rich memories. You’re no longer stuck in your comfort zone and getting bored because everything’s so easy.

To that end, you encourage readers to stop hanging out with people who are just like themselves.

It’s well known among social scientists that we like to hire and be around similar people. But when you actively seek out those who are different, it’s very stimulating and helps you to more effectively solve problems. One of my favorite studies was conducted by psychologist Katherine Phillips. She asked several groups of four people to solve a murder mystery using various witness statements. What she found was that groups of friends were often unable to solve the problem. Adding in one stranger considerably increased the odds of correctly identifying the murderer. When she interviewed participants after the fact, she found that the group of all friends thought they had done a better job because they were less anxious. But feeling messy by inserting an outsider led to a better result.

You touched on the importance of improvising. Why is that so effective?

There are two types of improvisation I talk about: creativity and competition. In a creative situation, it’s about making mistakes, paying attention and getting stimulus from others in unpredictable ways. When you’re improvising, you’re very much in the moment and mindful of the person you’re talking to or working with. I was moved by the way Martin Luther King’s improvised style emerged over the years. As a young man, he meticulously prepared his speeches, and they were good. But it was only after he got swept up by the civil rights movement and began improvising under impossible pressure that his speeches became amazing. In fact, half of the “I Have a Dream” speech was improvised, and that’s the part we all remember. In terms of competition, Jeff Bezos of Amazon quite deliberately made moves that he felt the company wasn’t capable of delivering on since they were such a stretch. His strategy was to force Barnes & Noble to stretch even further trying to keep up, knowing it would struggle even more. Along the way, Amazon kept changing the game, testing new offers and incorporating additional items. It felt chaotic at Amazon, but it drove the competition crazy and enabled the company to come out a winner.

Indeed, you suggest that Donald Trump’s messy campaign is the reason he is now president.

Trump was a master at improvising and getting under the skin of his competitors. They squirmed under pressure, and he came out victorious.

Technology has taken over many of the things we do. You make an observation that the better automation becomes, the more painful and complicated any failures resulting from such overreliance are.

The reason is that when machines fail and humans are asked to take over, they are often out of practice and unable to properly course-correct. That’s what happened in the case of Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The pilots flew a perfectly good plane into the Atlantic Ocean, killing themselves and everybody on board. They were so overreliant on the autopilot system that when it shut down suddenly they made a lot of bad decisions and weren’t equipped to react appropriately. I argue that we should rethink the whole autopilot model. Consider the self-driving car, in which humans are supposed to take over in the event of a failure. Imagine you are behind the wheel, reading the paper and sipping your coffee, when the autopilot disengages. You look up and there’s a truck coming toward you. At that point, it’s probably too late. A better solution, in my view, is to have humans drive the car, supervised by the autopilot which then takes over only if there’s a problem.

If someone is naturally tidy, how should they go about inserting a bit more messiness into their lives?

I’d say there’s room for all of us to have a bit more random disruption and chaos in our lives. If you don’t want it on your desk or in your kitchen, find other places for it to go. Perhaps you can start by making a list of six interesting things to do over the weekend that are a bit edgy or unfamiliar. Then make a resolution to have lunch with someone unfamiliar every month. Turn off the autopilot in your life, and fly on manual a bit more. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens!