Transparent Flies In The Ointment: Our Unhealthy Obsession With Tidiness

Messy: The Power Of Disorder To Transform Our Lives

Does better organisation increase creativity? Should your messy desk stay messy? Why do friendly teams perform worse than unfriendly teams? Are all appearances of perfection illusory? What is the greatest way to stultify creativity?

The dangers in keeping things too clean are by now well-documented. One of the greatest challenges we face in the next century is solving antibiotic resistance; fuelled by fear of dirt, bacteria and unwelcome invaders, and the desire for things to be clean, ‘healthy’ and smooth, we’ve overused these drugs so much (for conditions they’re really not necessary, such as a cough) that they’re no longer effective as they once were. Our immune systems are weaker; the threats are stronger, having immunised themselves to our ammunition; and we’re running out of options. Creating new antibiotics isn’t exactly easy.

But less documented is the dangers in being too organised. I’m not particularly a fan of plans; conflicting interests mean we’ve never really got on all that well. Some people couldn’t do without them, others desperately need one but can’t be bothered. Perhaps I’m one of the latter types. Though I suspect not, and let me explain why. First, planning necessarily narrows down your life, and in doing so minimises risk taking, decreases the chances of spotting new opportunities, and impedes on your happiness. Second, unexecuted plans are apt to induce feelings of guilt and self-pity. And third, planning doesn’t actually get anything done. It’s the combination of the last two that I have a problem with. Big, detailed, perfectly crafted masterplans are often burdens at best. Planning, especially in great detail, instills the illusion of productivity. Being also relatively easy (at least in comparison to doing anything), it makes total sense that entrepreneurs plan and plan and plan. Most planning is disguised procrastination.

You could tidy your garage, but it might hinder your creativity.

Messiness is the theme of Tim Harford’s appropriately named book, Messy. One of my favourite passages is from the last few pages, about founding father Ben Franklin:

‘Mann’s point is not only that we are too often too busy to get organised, but [that] if we focused on practical action, we wouldn’t need to get organised. Of course, some situation call for a sophisticated reference system (a library, for example), and some for careful checklists (a building site, an operating room). But most of us don’t work in a library or an operating room, and our faith in organisation is often misplaced. Many of us share Franklin’s belief that if only we could get ourselves organised with some rational system, our lives would be better, more productive and more admirable — but the truth is that Franklin was too busy inventing bifocals, catching lighting, publishing newspapers and signing the Declaration of Independence ever to get around to tidying up his life. If he had been working in a deli, you can bet he wouldn’t have been organising sandwich orders. He would have been making sandwiches.’


Tidiness doesn’t provide inspiration, prove theorems, write books, improve creativity or satisfy curiosity. It’s highly probable that if Franklin had been more organised, his productivity would have suffered, and maybe America wouldn’t be what it is today…

From the get-go, Harford ruthlessly tears apart the idea that pretty, methodical organisation is something to proud of. Harford’s combination of hard data, examples from many different fields, and prosaic commentary meant I couldn’t easily put this book down. The examples he cites include:

— The untold chaos inside Amazon, especially in the early days (including this brilliant remark from Tim Maly: ‘Amazon isn’t a store, not really. Not in any sense that we can regularly think about stores. It’s a strange pulsing network of potential goods, global supply chains, and alien associative algorithms with the skin of a sore stretched over it so we don’t lost our minds.’ )
— Trump, and how he used the tidy-minded, messy-fearing mindset of his opponents to win
— Silicon chips and the NP-Hard-Problem1
— How president of Pixar Ed Catmull dealt with a mysterious decline in internal meeting creativity (hint: turns out a new, luxurious meeting table isn’t always a good idea)
— Martin Luther King’s forced transition from an ultra-prepared robot to master improvisor, and how it probably made him
— Perfectly constructed school playgrounds that oppress playfulness, and actually endanger kids
— Authoritarian managers obsessed with tidy desks, and the detrimental effects it had on employee productivity
— Why a good conversation is ‘a constant stream of is a constant stream of unexpected responses’
— The fruits of the ‘habit of yes’ game, played often in improvisation classes

and many more that you’ll be familiar with.

Our dependency on technology is less talked about than it should be. How many people can read maps or follow signs? How many people know how to research a topic without the help of the internet (something that actually has hidden value)? What proportion of web developers can actually code? How many people go insane if they don’t have the distraction provided by smartphones and social media? What if you’re a pilot, and your self-driving Boeing 747 suddenly starts to malfunction, and it’s been so long since you had full control over a place that you’ve forgotten some critical details, and even when you do remember them, they’re not so simple of this highly technical AI aeroplane? Harford calls this ‘the automation paradox’, meaning the stupefaction caused by technology that does things for us, such as satnavs, self-driving cars and aeroplanes with full autopilot. He kicks of chapter seven with the heart-breaking story of flight 447, in which a combination of human stupidity, poor training and super technology (a self-driving plane) led to the tragic death of everyone on board.

The book starts with an investigation into legendary music producer Brian Eno’s unconventional methods for inspiring creativity. One of which includes the use of a pack of cards which had written on them totally random words, such as ‘Emphasise the flaws’, ‘Twist the spine’ and ‘Look at the order in which you do things’. He would dish these out to his artists and instruct them to somehow use them.

‘The cards drove the musicians crazy. (This annoyance cannot have come as a surprise to Eno. During work on an earlier Eno album, Another Green World<, the cards reduced Phil Collins, the superstar drummer from Genesis, to hurling beer cans across the studio in frustration.) Faces with Eno’s random chord experiment, Carlos Alomar complained that ‘this experiment is stupid’; the violinist Simon House commented that the session often ‘sounded terrible. […] Carlos did have a problem, simply because he’s very gifted and professional … he can’t bring himself to play stuff that sounds like crap.’

Yet the strange chaotic working process produced two of the decade’s most critically acclaimed albums, Low and ‘Heroes’, along with Iggy Pop’s most respected work, The Idiot and Lust for Life, which Bowie co-wrote and which benefited from the same messy approach. Low was arguably the bravest reinvention in pop history — imagine Taylor Swift releasing an album full of long, pensive instruments and you get a sense of the shock. It’s hard to argue with such results, and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies now have a cult following in creative circles.

The Berlin trilogy of albums ends with Bowie’s Lodger, a record with a revealing working title. It was originally called Planned Accidents.’

Dangerous, messy, lacking purpose: the perfect ingredients for a proper playground.

Reading this book I was reminded of my time as a cook working in one of the busiest restaurants in Birmingham (UK), Jamie’s Italian. Working in a kitchen is hard, hard work — something I would find out on the first day, and fully realise the value of only years later. When I joined the kitchen was barely holding it together – the head chef had gone and not been replaced, there were probably 15 more chefs than necessary, there were power wars left right and center, the manager was off on paternity leave, and although an extremely busy eatery year round, it was Christmas. Roles were undefined, nobody was paid properly, half of the people didn’t give a shit about anybody else; it was madness. And yet despite this madness, customers were relatively happy, we had fun, and were extremely productive.

And it actually got worse: a couple of months later saw the introduction of a new head chef, who turfed out half of the staff, told everyone how wrong they were doing things, and effectively made the madness worse. Or so we thought. The year that followed, whilst extremely tough, saw promotions, the rise of an highly competent team, an extreme level of productivity and lots of happy customers, and rightfully concluded with many accolades. Never did the internal issues vanish; no, people were still moaning, tensions still played themselves out, things were still imperfect. But productivity didn’t suffer, it maximised.

And then something strange happened. People started getting bored, the tensions intensified and suddenly it seemed we were back to square one, but this time it felt different, like that it couldn’t be fixed. There’s many opinions on why this happened, and perhaps they all have merit, but a strong one would be that things just got too smooth. Learning had grind to a halt, promised promotions were still not being delivered, things were boring at best. Hence I left, and most of the team followed, including many of the best cooks.

This experience perfectly illustrates the fundamental value in messiness, mistakes and imperfection, and the invisible dangers in their opposites. That extremely productive year I experienced happened precisely because of the struggles, lack of friendliness, and collective problem solving. Once these disappeared — when things got too tidy — well, it was the beginning of the end.

The reality of life is that it is messy. Our relationships, health, the plans we make, our work life, dinner, your hair this morning — every nook and cran of life contains its imperfections. It is precisely the existence of these imperfections that make life interesting and meaningful; that is, that make life worth living. Though totally eradicating imperfection is simply not possible, our efforts can and do sometimes result in progress. However if in our striving we’re not mindful of the invisible dangers, we may actually make things worse.2 A single fly in the ointment renders it unusable.

  1. Essentially, problems where there exists an unknowable amount of possible solutions, for instance the component layout of motherboards.
  2. Consider the counterintuitive finding that enforcing equality actually results in greater inequality. Another great example from Harford is the problems caused by the introduction of ‘surgeon report cards’. By allowing patients to see how well their doctors were doing, the less competent in the workforce would have greater incentive to get better — or so the reasoning went. It led to such horror as surgeons with fantastic reputation not wanting to operate on risky patients. In other words, it caused more problems than it set out to solve.

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