I just got done reading Messy – The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, and I must say, there are a few things in there that were really fantastic takeaways for me.
Now, I’m not messy. I’m actually pretty neat, but humanely, in a relatable way, not totally over the top. I don’t think anyway.
I read this book for a couple of reasons. First, we’re here, month four of staying at home, and books that haven’t been read are getting hard to come by around here.
The library being closed has been a huge problem in this house. I don’t even know where this particular book came from, but I had just finished reading Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes and wasn’t ready to dive into yet another travel tale.
All read about travel and no actual travel makes me not happy.
Second, I have two kids. One is tidy and very likely to be found in her room re-reading Mari Kondo books. The other. Well…
Let’s just say that you better watch where you step when you go to kiss her goodnight.
Understanding the Messy Kid
The floor of the messy kid’s room is likely to have some of the usual suspects for a 10 year old, dirty clothes and clean clothes in some semblance of a system that only she understands, stuffed animals, remnants of the latest art project.
But there are also likely to be some more menacing things underfoot.
After all, this budding scientist who chose to study Benjamin Franklin in school generally has a few experiments going on as well – so watch out for the open exacto knife, the hot glue gun (hopefully unplugged), the metal detector, and those invisible microscope slides.
It is a disaster area, but at the same time, she’s super particular about having it touched. You see, she’s also the kid in the house who knows where everything is. If you need to find your wallet or keys, just ask her, and the same is true in her room.
It’s a complex spatial organizer that she has filed in her brain.
So, Messy was sitting there on the coffee table and I thought it might give me some insight into how she thought. It did that, but it also ended up clarifying a few things on my end as well.
MIT – Building 20
I had never heard of MIT’s Building 20, but if you went to MIT anytime after WWII you may have been part of the utter chaos that ensued there.
It has its own Wikipedia page here.
In 1943, in the grip of World War II and needing space for research into technologies that would change the world, MIT threw together plans for a 200,000 square foot research facility in an afternoon.
Construction would seemingly take about as along and was compared to watching a timelapse video in real life by those who witnessed it.
The sprawling, inefficient design that resulted was known for being utterly confusing to navigate, uncomfortable to work in, and actually dangerous (a literal fire trap).
It was a giant temporary building, only allowed to exist under the condition that it would be demolished within six months of the war ending.
However, the flood of GI’s returning home (GI Bill in hand) and pursuing degrees would act as a stay of execution for Building 20, which wouldn’t actually be demolished until 1998.
The Lunatics Are Running The Asylum
In the meantime, for 50 years Building 20 would become legendary for its output and creative energy. It was messy and improvisational. Inhabitants thought nothing of just tapping into electrical or other infrastructure if they needed it for their research.
Forget sending in a request or getting a permit, if you needed extra power just jam a screwdriver through the wall and splice right in. After all, since the building was so hastily designed, the utilities ran along the outside of the walls instead of being neatly tucked away.
Need more space? Just rip down a wall, or in the case of Jerrold Zacharias who was leading a team to develop the atomic clock, take out a couple of floors.
Nobody cared what they did in there, the lunatics were running the asylum and the hacker culture that is so celebrated now was established back then.
Additionally, in the long labyrinth of hallways and poorly organized numbering system, people were constantly lost and running into people they had never met. Impromptu interactions and discussions were the norm and unlike todays ‘elevator pitch’ these conversations had time to play out, become deeper, as they wandered the sprawling building.
Some of the things that came out of Building 20 were radar and Spacewar, the video game, and Amar Bose wanted better acoustics, and email, and solar research, and a piano repair shop, and those famous pictures of a rifle bullet exploding an apple, and there was even a homeless botanist haunting the halls. The ROTC offices were right next door to Noam Chomsky’s anti-establishment linguistic department.
Today we talk about inspiring creativity, creating opportunities for interaction and collaboration and build an open space work area with a slide and a ping pong table.
Building 20 was replaced by a $300 million Frank Ghery symbol of chaos and creativity where you probably can’t even tack something to a door.
But what is really needed is a messy workshop.
Creativity And Multiple Projects
At the beginning of the book, Harford dives into creatives and the need to have multiple projects going on. He discusses how progress is made incrementally, but also in large leaps which sometimes come from out of left field.
The ability to make large leaps often leads to solving intractable problems by drawing on diverse experiences and bodies of knowledge and applying them to complex situations in ways that perhaps were unseen by the people working too closely to that problem.
We often call this ‘getting another set of eyes on it’. And we all know the feeling. Sometimes the solution was staring us in the face, but we just couldn’t see it. Other times, someone from an unrelated department or industry even brought in the ‘well, in my world we had to do this…’.
When I read this, it helped me understand the upside of having diverse projects happening all at once. Something I always am battling is focus.
Sure there is sometimes the need to focus to make progress, but bringing skills from one project to the next is often exactly where the progress comes from, and it’s more likely to be of the ‘big leap’ variety.
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