An award-winning economist celebrates the myriad advantages of clutter and disarray.
Economist and journalist Harford (The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, 2014, etc.) is an unabashed supporter of messiness, and his book, a cleareyed defense, explains and supports the many situations in which surrounding oneself with clutter and chaos can actually boost creativity, production, innovation, and even quality of life. It’s a tough sell—messiness has an inherent negative connotation attached to it, along with the stigma of laziness—but the author gets to work quickly, citing the careers of music icons David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Brian Eno, who all benefited from their “strange chaotic working process” (which involved drawing random, gnomic instructional cards) to produce several critically acclaimed studio albums in the late 1970s. Commercially successful novelist Michael Crichton has also been well-served by “project-juggling behavior,” as have certain workplace departmental team collaborations which, Harford writes, have found success with a “willingness to allow a degree of messiness into a tidy team.” This is especially evident in MIT’s hurriedly, haphazardly designed Building 20 and Steve Jobs’ serendipity-inspired office layouts at Pixar Studios. The whirling dervish of spontaneity also historically benefited Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous, extemporaneous 1963 speech. Harford also examines Jeff Bezos’ slyly effective scramble to prevent Amazon from buckling beneath the dot-com bust and Donald Trump’s slapdash presidential bid. The author believes that there are dangers in rigidly overorganized, structured systems, as in the example of an out-of-practice airplane pilot whose overreliance on autopilot navigation proved disastrous. From diversified neighborhood communities and school playgrounds to messy desks and algorithmic dating websites, Harford presents the strategies of disorganization as unique and enlightening and convincingly offers reinforced encouragement to those who may find themselves “tempted by tidiness” to instead “embrace some mess instead.”
Though not all readers will find this unconventional perspective on disorder particularly sage, Harford’s exploration is entertaining and, despite the topic, well-constructed.