Forget everything in life being neat and going to plan. Economist Tim Harford argues how embracing a messy life can make us (and our kids) more creative, resilient and relaxed.
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We live in a tidy age. It’s an age of algorithms and systems, rules and regulations. An age where everything has its right place and there’s always someone to tell you what to do and how best to do it. Organisation has become a de facto religion, both at large and in the home. If we can just control the chaos of the world and put everything in the correct box, then perhaps we’ll finally be free to live our best lives.
But Tim Harford, a senior economist with the Financial Times, thinks we’re going about it all wrong. Rather than tidiness freeing us to be our best selves, and think our best thoughts, Harford argues that embracing the chaos of life could actually be a spur to better problem-solving and straight-up better living. “We act as if there’s something shameful about improvisation, disorganisation and piles of paper,” he tells me. “No one has to apologise for having a tidy desk, but what if that tidy desk is making you less effective? I just thought messiness needed to have someone speaking up in its defence.”
One of Harford’s favourite examples of messiness in action involves the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. Back in January 1975, Jarrett was due to perform at the Cologne Opera in front of 1,400 people—a performance that was also being recorded for posterity. Yet when he arrived at the venue, he discovered that the piano they’d secured for him was tiny and out of tune, and possessed a number of keys that simply wouldn’t play. After much cajoling, Jarrett agreed to go through with the concert, but “only because he wanted a record of a musical catastrophe”.
The resulting performance is widely regarded as the greatest work of improvised jazz piano ever recorded. Faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Jarrett was forced to adapt and change his technique on the fly, inadvertently producing an hour of music the likes of which had never been heard before. The Köln Concert has gone on to sell more than 3.5 million copies, and changed the face of jazz piano. As Harford explains it, “Again and again, you see this pattern where an obstacle, a problem, some kind of handicap becomes the spur to new discovery.”
The more Harford looked into it, the more he realised that messiness in all its forms was consistently linked with innovation, creativity and resilience. It isn’t the messiness itself that produces these positive effects, but rather the way that unexpected situations press us to be more present, to react in the moment and to discover new solutions. “Unfamiliarity forces us to try new things,” Harford says, “but it also forces us into this higher state of awareness.”
To prove his point, Harford tells me a story about Martin Luther King Jr. Long a fastidiously prepared speaker, King found himself so swept up by the pace of the civil rights movement that he could no longer write speeches fast enough to keep up with current events. So, he was forced to start making them up on the spot. “The thing about improvisation is that you’re really paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s very easy for us, if we have a tidy, predictable situation, to settle into autopilot. But when King was giving these improvised speeches he was very alert to what was happening in his audience and so was able to respond to what was working and what wasn’t.” King’s oratorical evolution reached its apex on 28 August 1963, in front of 250,000 people, when he ditched the end of a speech called ‘Normalcy, Never Again’ and instead started speaking from the heart: “I have a dream …”
Messiness isn’t only for geniuses and civil rights heroes. Back in 2014, there was a massive strike on the London Underground rail network. Two-thirds of the city’s stations were shut down and tens of thousands of people had to find different ways of getting to work. But when the strike was over, the number of people riding the Tube each day decreased significantly. The reason: some of those affected had, in their inconvenience, discovered an even better way of making the commute.
At the heart of Harford’s ideas is a plea for simplicity: basically, worry less, accept more. “There’s a deep anxiety these days about us having too much stuff,” he tells me, “but there’s also this separate issue where we feel like the world has become too complicated for us to understand.” In this, Harford and Marie Kondo—author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and Harford’s most obvious point of comparison—have much in common. “I’m actually a huge fan of hers,” says Harford. “We both start with the basic premise that organisational systems do not work.” Whereas Kondo focussed her pitch to the cluttered household, Harford is interested in how these organisational systems limit us everywhere, from the office to the home to the playground, and how we can open ourselves up to chaos by being a little less rigid in our planning. “A little bit of randomness, a few interruptions here and there—if we’re alert to it, if we’re open to it—can help us solve everyday problems.”
Some of the most striking conclusions from Harford’s research come with regard to parenting. Harford, a parent himself, spends almost ten minutes talking uninterrupted when I broach the subject with him. “It started when I read about this study into whether people work better in a busy, decorated office, or a spartan, minimalist one. What they discovered was that it didn’t actually matter. What mattered was whether people had control over their own spaces.” In the study, the worst results came when people were given control but then had it taken away: they were unhappy, less productive and more frequently ill. “I read that and thought, Gosh, this is me telling my kids to clean up their room.” Now, rather than badgering them, he accepts that their rooms are their responsibility. If they want a tidy space, they can make it happen. “Their rooms look about the same as they did before, but all of us are happier.” (The common spaces are a different story, of course—there the kids do have to lift their own weight.)
In general, Harford thinks we can afford to embrace the chaos of having children a little more. “As a parent, you often find yourself in this situation where you’re trying to get something done, but your child is nagging you, or trying to engage your attention,” he says. “The temptation is usually just to deny them, to tell them you’re busy, but as we all know that never works because you spend even more time arguing the point.” Instead, he suggests you take a leaf out of the improviser’s playbook and respond with “Yes, and”—that is, accept the basic premise of what your child offers and then build on it. Rather than having an interaction based on conflict, you can create something together—a game, a conversation, a revelation—and probably escape in the same amount of time. “Whether they’re a two-year-old or a sixteen-year-old, you have a chance to make a connection there, and, as any parent will tell you, that’s not always the easiest thing.”
Play is another area where our instincts can lead us astray. If our kids want to play, we’ll take them to a playground and watch them like a hawk, alert to any possible risk. Yet studies have shown that children who run loose in the “neighbourhood wasteland”, as Harford puts it, have more fun, learn more skills and, counterintuitively, have fewer accidents. The same goes for team sports. “You think: sports good, organised sports better. But that’s not necessarily true.” If kids are playing a proper game of soccer—coach, umpires, uniforms, the works—they’re learning a lot about playing soccer, but perhaps not much else. However, if they’re playing a game in their backyard with other kids from the neighbourhood, they might learn less about being a good soccer player but they’ll learn a whole bunch more about other people. As Harford explains, “In this situation, all of the kids together are playing and defining the game. It requires creativity, teamwork and play. But we value this less than doing drills with the local squad, because it seems messy and insubstantial, like it doesn’t count. But of course it counts.”
More than anything, though, Harford just wants us to cut ourselves a break. “We’re always trying to tidy our lives up, to build plans for ourselves, but often the times of real joy and inspiration come from the unexpected moments when our plans collapse.” He goes on: “It’s all about identifying those times when we’re trying to impose a tidy solution on a fundamentally messy world, and when we should just throw it all out the window and embrace the chaos instead.”
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