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'Imperfections Can Make Us More Creative,' Author Tim Harford Argues


So do me a favor, wherever you happen to be right now - your office, your car, your kitchen - take a peek around. Is it messy? No judgment because there's a good reason not to tidy up. It could be a sign of your creativity. Indeed, a boost to your creativity. Those are some of the ideas in Tim Harford's latest book, "Messy: The Power Of Disorder To Transform Our Lives." And Tim Harford joins us now from the BBC studios in Oxford. Tim Harford, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TIM HARFORD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So your book opens with a story that I had not heard before about the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett and the concert that almost didn't happen but gave us his most popular work, one of the most popular pieces in piano jazz. Actually, let me just play a little bit of it.


MARTIN: So the story - as I said, it's really fascinating. I had never heard this before, that he - could you just give me the short version? He shows up to play a late-night concert and the instrument is terrible, and you take it from there.

HARFORD: It's unplayable. There's been a mix-up. It's too quiet. It's out of tune. The pedals are sticking. And initially, he just refuses to play. But in the end, he's guilt-tripped into it. And because of all the adjustments he has to make in playing this piano, he finds a new way to play. And it is the most popular solo piano work, the most popular solo jazz work in history. But it was only recorded because Keith Jarrett thought it would be a disaster and he wanted documentary evidence of what a musical catastrophe sounds like. So it's a brilliant example that having to cope with all kinds of problems and imperfections can make us more creative.

MARTIN: What does messiness do for you that tidiness does not?

HARFORD: So one of the things is it is just helping you explore different avenues. Psychologically, having some kind of obstacles, some kind of difficulty seems to provoke overcompensation.

MARTIN: You've got a chapter that I think will be of great interest to many Americans right now. It's called "Winning." And you compare Donald Trump's tactics in the - at least in the primary campaign to (laughter) Rommel's tactics during World War II.

HARFORD: Yeah, I'm trying to - I tried to weave it all together so you had the - our equivalent of the Navy SEALs, this great German tank commander, Donald Trump. They're all doing the same kind of thing. They are creating chaotic situations that they are best placed to exploit. So they are happy making a mess even if it causes them a lot of problems because they think they can solve the problems more quickly than their opponents. Trump would come up with some attention-grabbing statement. He was fascinating to the media, still is fascinating to the media because every time he opened his mouth it would be something different.

And his rivals, particularly Jeb Bush, famously Marco Rubio when he started repeating himself in the debate, they would be struggling to figure out how to respond. And they would go away and triangulate and have their focus groups. They'd figure out a response. They'd come back with their response. But Donald Trump was already on to the next thing. And that, I think, won him the primary campaign. And who knows? It may also win him the general election, although I realize he's not the favorite at the moment.

MARTIN: Well, it says that you - that he seems to have unwittingly, or maybe intentionally - you know, how would we know? - adopted a well-known military tactic coined by a retired U.S. Air Force colonel named John Boyd who continues to be a cult figure among military thinkers. You say that he's in his OODA loop, which stands for observe, orient, decide, act. And could you just describe that a little bit? I mean, I realize this might be sort of tedious for some who are in the military. But you're saying that there's actually a strategy in there?

HARFORD: There is a chaos-creating strategy. So yes, this OODA loop. I don't think it will be tedious to people in the military because John Boyd seems to be a fascinating figure. So Boyd was an Air Force pilot, brilliant strategist, and he figured out that American pilots in the Korean War were winning despite the fact that they had, in many ways, slower planes because they had excellent visibility and maneuverability and they could confuse their opponents. They knew what was going on and they could change tactics faster than their opponents could change tactics.

And that was really all you needed. That was all the advantage you needed if you knew how to exploit it. And I've spoken to people in campaigning non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace, and they study John Boyd. They can outwit these big multinational companies because they make decisions really quickly. And by the time this big oil company has figured out how to respond, they've made another move and another move and another move.

And you can just drive your opponent crazy by dragging him or her into the mess with you if you can navigate the mess better than he or she can. I don't suggest that this sort of strategy always works in every case. After all, some of the other examples I gave - Erwin Rommel, great German tank commander - in the end, he got pinned down. And in the end, he lost. But he had the entire armed forces of the United Kingdom on the back foot for a year despite very, very unpromising situations. So he was able to prevail for a very long time.

MARTIN: Well, you also point out that this messiness can cause a lot of wreckage. I mean, is it your contention that the benefits of messiness often outweigh the costs?

HARFORD: My contention in the book as a whole is definitely the benefits of messiness often outweigh the costs, and they're systematically underrated. But in that particular chapter, when we're talking about - well, frankly, we're talking about Hitler's favorite general. So I am not saying, and this is great. I'm just saying it worked. It worked for these people very effectively.

MARTIN: How did you get on this yourself? Are you messy by nature?

HARFORD: No, this book is self-medication. I'm actually a very tidy person. And I originally got into it because I was interested in why do we in professional life - in academia, for example - organize ourselves into categories? So the physicists don't talk to the biologists and the economists don't talk to the anthropologists and the Republicans don't talk to the Democrats. And we don't - we organize ourselves into silos and tribes of people like us.

And that was the starting point, but it just branched out into everything from the public speaking style of Martin Luther King to the jazz of Miles Davis. So that's - you know, that's where it sprawled into in a messy way. But it has helped me come to terms with the fact that sometimes my own desk is untidy. And it's particularly - I think it's changed the way I parent because I always used to try and make my children tidy up their bedrooms and try to schedule what they did, you know, constantly trying to stimulate them and keep them busy.

And I've pulled back from that. And I've really noticed a difference, that they can take responsibility for their own bedrooms. And if they're messy, that's no big deal. And also, to some extent, they can take responsibility for their own time. And that's what it's like to grow up and learn to be a grownup in a messy world.

MARTIN: But what about grownups in a messy world? I mean, it does seem, though, that the workplace really promotes silos. It promotes, you know, teams. You have to have your spot, your cubicle. You know, you are responsible for this. You know, that's even one of those expressions. People will say, stay in your lane. You know, stay in your lane. How do you promote the kind of creative disorder that you think would be ideal without freaking everybody out and just kind of having everything sort of grind to a halt while people kind of sort themselves out, you know?

HARFORD: Well, in the office, I think the most straightforward piece of advice is that managers have to stop telling people to clean their desks because have a look at some really successful people, very productive people, very professional people. They're often pretty messy because they're dealing with a messy flow of information.

MARTIN: Tim Harford. His latest book is called "Messy: The Power Of Disorder To Change Our Lives." Thank you so much for joining us.

HARFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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