“Imperfections can make us more creative.”
Keith Jarrett, the famous jazz pianist, had been handed a terrible mess. He showed up to play a late-night concert and the instrument was unplayable. It was too quiet. It was out of tune. The pedals were sticking. At first, he refused to play. But, in the end, he felt too guilty not to perform for the audience. Because he had to adjust to these unfortunate circumstances, Jarrett found a new way to play. This adaptation became his most popular solo piano work, the most popular solo jazz work in history. And it was only recorded because Keith Jarret thought it was going to be a disaster and wanted documentary evidence of what a musical catastrophe sounds like. Instead, he got proof that certain types of obstacles can improve our performance and make us more creative and innovative in what we do.
“The ugly font, the awkward stranger, the random move…these disruptions help us solve problems, they help us become more creative.”
Economist and journalist Tim Harford is a big fan of messiness – and his book defends, explains and supports the numerous situations in which it’s best to be surrounded by clutter and chaos because they help boost creativity, production, innovation and even quality of life. This runs contrary to the belief system that tells us messiness is the outward expression of laziness and inner chaos. But the author tells convincing stories about David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Michael Crichton, MIT, Martin Luther King Jr and Jeff Bezos – each messy in their own way.
Still, the most powerful section of the book isn’t in the many examples of success through all walks of life, but in the explanation that mess – the autonomy that comes from discarding inflexible rules and neat labels – is important even if one doesn’t actually like or desire it. The most powerful mess is the one that forces you out of your routine despite your certainty that the current routine works well.
Our minds love to stick to what they know. Rules are easier to follow then finding exceptions to the rules. But rules often lead to Groupthink: “Given a larger social map to explore, we pick the tidiest corner we can find,” Harford writes. That’s the powerful message of Messy: We need to challenge our dearly held beliefs and get out of the comfort that tidiness provides. It’s time to get messy.