ICE Book Review – Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

By Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives
By: Tim Harford

I don’t recall exactly what prompted me to pick up this book off my shelf and read it. I had a colleague once who told me that he believed that books would speak to us when we are ready. If that is true, I’m not sure what that says about my life right now…

Messy is a book about the messiness in our lives. The book begins with the wonderful introduction about Jazz Pianist Keith Jarrett and the Cologne concert. As the story is told, the piano provided to Mr. Jarrett was “unplayable.” It was out of tune, had several notes that didn’t work, and sticky pedals. As he played it during rehearsal, it was so bad that he attempted to refuse to perform the concert, only giving in to pity for the 17-year-old girl who was coordinating the concert. What emerged from that performance is nothing less than spectacular. His Köln Concert would go on to be the top selling solo jazz and solo piano album ever. If you take the time to listen to the album (and I highly recommend that you do), you can hear Jarrett slamming the keys down in order to generate enough volume while his left hand produces repetitive bass riffs. It is a masterpiece.

This story, and many more that follow in the subsequent chapters illustrates the power of embracing disorder as well as our almost innate instinct to avoid doing so. Humans love the idea of tidiness, order, systemization, and structure (medical educators are no exception), but sometimes this singular focus on keeping everything in order leads us to ignore the virtues that emerge from our interactions with disorder. 

The following chapters explore messiness through several lenses: 

In the chapter on creativity, we learn about Brian Eno and oblique strategy cards. We learn how a similar strategy can be applied to learning through the use of desirable difficulties introduced through the use of “ugly fonts.”

In the chapter on collaboration, the book covers the power of networks and how diverse networks tends to provide superior problem-solving ability. This is despite the fact that people often do not choose to work within diverse teams, instead choosing to work with friends and like-minded individuals. 

Fascinating examples of similar nature are peppered throughout the book in chapters on workplaces, improvisation, winning, incentives, automation, resilience, and life.

Messy represents a thought-provoking read and makes one reconsider the role of order and disorder in work and life. From introducing new contexts to problem solving through the use of oblique strategy cards to the role of OODA loops in debate, there is something that will likely make you put the book down and think deeply. And perhaps, you may finally come away with a new appreciation for that messy desk. 

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