Sunday, October 9, 2016

Harford, Messy

Back in the days that some people thought such things were important, I was criticized for having a messy college dorm room. Although I have no recollection of the details of my sub-par housekeeping (which may well have involved an unmade bed), I suspect that my books, notebooks, and papers were strewn about, left wherever I last used them, some probably in the unmade bed. All I can say in my defense is that I graduated at the top of my class, despite (or perhaps because of) being messy. Since then, over time, I have become neater, and less accomplished.

Tim Harford wouldn’t go so far as to assert a definite causal link. But in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, 2016) he argues that “often we are so seduced by the blandishments of tidiness that we fail to appreciate the virtues of the messy—the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty.”

“Messy,” as you can see from the above list, is itself a messy notion. Harford exploits this quality to cover a range of topics that might not otherwise seem related. Here’s a very short sampling: distraction, collaboration, workplaces, improvisation, winning, financial engineering, setting targets, computerized disaster, stomach ulcers, online dating, and playgrounds.

Harford, best known for The Undercover Economist, knows how to make his points with compelling stories and quotations. For instance, Harford uses Jorge Luis Borges’s tale of the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge,” a fabled Chinese encyclopedia, to explain that “organizing things into categories is not as easy as it might at first seem.” “This Oriental tome, according to Borges, organizes animals into categories thus: (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.” Harford comments that although this looks like a joke, “most of these apparently absurd categories have practical merit. Sometimes we need to classify things according to who owns them; at other times we must describe their physical attributes, and different physical attributes will matter in different contexts. Sometimes we must be terribly specific—a cat is not a good substitute for a suckling pig if you are preparing a feast, and if we are to punish wrongdoing (whether breaking a vase or committing an armed robbery), we must identify the wrongdoer and no one else. But while each category is useful, in combination they are incoherent…. Our categories can map to practical real-world cases, or they can be neat and logical, but rarely both at once.”

The world is a messy place, and people and companies that enjoy outsize success are often messy as well. “The story of Amazon is a long series of crazy goals, brutal fights, and squandered billions—an utter mess.” The most creative people work on multiple projects. (Harford shares some tips on how to do this without becoming unduly stressed.)

Messy is a wonderful book that challenges the “good housekeeping” approach to life. It’s well worth a read.

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