When Making a Mess Leads to Success.

Tim Harford’s latest book, Messy, is a whirlwind trip through the history of untidiness – an apt guide to thinking about success in chaotic times.

Published: August 2017
Video/Photos: Fran Monks

On 6 June 1966,  Robert F Kennedy gave a speech at the University of Cape Town, today remembered as his “Ripple of Hope” speech. In one of its best-remembered passages he said: “There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.”


Those words would be as true if they had been spoken last year, on the speech’s 50th anniversary, as they were when originally said. We too live in interesting times. Little in the world at the moment is predictable. It’s an era of disruption. The logic of current events is impossible to discern; the usual rules no longer apply. Any attempt to make sense of the future seems doomed – prediction is a mug’s game.


But in his latest book, Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, columnist and author Tim Harford makes a very strong case for the last part of Kennedy’s statement: messiness and creative energy do seem to go hand in hand.


Tim harnesses his particular way of using ideas in economics – under the moniker The Undercover Economist – to find exciting, counterintuitive insights into the modern world, and applies it to the problem of how messiness and creativity seem to complement one another. Through anecdotes and analysis across wide-ranging fields, he digs out incredible examples of success in chaotic situations to find a precedent for how to succeed in times as interesting as ours.

How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world

Tim Harford’s latest book, Messy, explores how messiness and creative energy seem to go hand in hand.

Little in the world at the moment is predictable. It’s an era of disruption. The usual rules no longer apply.


He turns much of what we think about success arising from the benefits of being neat, structured, organised and prepared on its head. And he draws his examples and insights from fields as far-ranging as musical composition to managing your emails. He veers from military tactics to politics, the designs of children’s playgrounds to office architecture.


Over and over again, he uncovers a remarkable fact: some of the most spectacular feats of human creativity and achievement have risen out of chaotic situations where people had to think and react quickly, and work against what is comfortable, without a plan or a guarantee of safety, and often at great risk. (This is perhaps what makes it so difficult!)


A few random examples: the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarret’s most famous performance, The Köln Concert, almost didn’t happen because he’d been provided with a substandard piano for the performance. The tinny high notes and the lack of volume forced him to compensate in the way he played. The instrument didn’t give him the range and sound he wanted, but the ways in which he managed to play around its challenges actually helped him create one of the 20th century’s most loved pieces of jazz improvisation. As Tim writes: “He produced the performance of a lifetime, but the shortcoming of the piano actually helped him.”


So often, the amazing achievement arises because of something imperfect and unpredictable, not despite it.


US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, in another instance, proved that deliberately causing confusion in air battle by rapidly changing tactics helped inferior aircraft triumph over superior equipment every time. During the Second World War, Panzer Commander Erwin Rommel used a similar tactic in North Africa, and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos did the same when pioneering e-commerce without a real plan, but rather a sense that something interesting had to arise from the disruption that the technology was causing.



Not having a plan, remaining agile and flexible, and being willing to abandon what seemed like good ideas resulted in success. Once again, in all these situations the stakes were high and the tactics (or lack thereof) seemed to arise out of desperation rather than choice, but unexpected David-versus-Goliath-like triumph is the thread that runs through the examples Tim analyses.



A last example to free us from the tyranny of our inboxes: this time when it comes to the altogether more banal strategies we use to sort our emails. The systems of meticulous filers prove more confusing and time-consuming than the seemingly chaotic “pilers”. Emails, it seems, sort themselves simply according to what we respond to – the irrelevant or less pressing ones simply shuffle their way to the bottom of the list, while those that require repeated attention are always brought to the top. So a bit of benign neglect can amount to operational efficiency.


Tim’s examples are unfailingly fascinating and entertaining. And while the frustrating answer for anyone hoping to extrapolate a formula for success is that there is no formula, or only through abandoning the formula can you ever truly create, the inspirational examples and people he dredges from the pages of history are certainly a source of encouragement. Not only is Messy about how the ideas that “break new ground” arise, but it is itself a ground-breaking, counterintuitive bit of thinking. Just what is needed in interesting times like ours.


Read about how the Memphis Group teamed up with BMW to create the truly unique BMW i8 and i9 and find out how the BMW Group is embracing this disruptive energy to create the next step in the transport industry: self-driving cars.


Some of the most spectacular feats of human creativity and achievement have arisen out of chaotic situations where people had to think and react quickly, and work against what is comfortable.

Watch Tim Harford’s TED talk on how messy problems can inspire creativity