Book Corner 2019.10

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Messy by Tim Harford

This book’s cover features blurbs by Brian Eno and Tyler Cowen.  Otherwise, I never would have thought this was a book I’d enjoy.  I fall on the ‘tidy’ end of the spectrum.  I didn’t want to read a book about how the most awesome, brilliant, and creative people in the world all have/had sloppy desks.  Not only is it not my world – it tends to be a boring kind of book.

But – despite the requisite chapters about sloppy desks and messy workplaces, this book isn’t about how you really should dis-organize your space so much as it’s about the sometimes (!) beneficial effects of disorder in general.  The first chapter on Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” sets the tone; to get people to be more creative and motivated in the studio, Eno created a deck of cards with suggestions of off-the-wall things to think about or do.  He’d periodically pick a card, and suddenly everyone was instructed to try to “Think like a gardener,” or all trade instruments.

There’s a chapter about a crazy military commander or two, who’d keep the enemy – and sometimes their own men – just bewildered enough to allow the most improbable victories to be snatched from the jaws of defeat.  There’s a chapter about the famous “Building 20” at MIT, an ugly pile of cinderblocks with an unorganized disarray of offices, which nevertheless was a hotbed of scientific discovery and invention in the 20th century.

So it isn’t about dividing people into messy vs. neat, so much as it’s about how helpful it can often be when things DON’T follow the expected path.  Harford encourages us to appreciate rather than rue the Oscar Madison that lives in all of us.  Some (!) disorder is good for you; it shakes you up; you function better; it’s real life.  The book flowed well (dare I say it was well organized?); I always looked forward to returning to it each day.  I’m a fan!

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