I am an unabashed Tim Harford fan. That is why I was so excited when he agreed to do a Q&A with me about his newly published book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. You can read Tim in the FT and is the author of the Undercover Economist books, a successful TED speaker and radio host, to boot.
His prior book, Adapt: Why Success and Failure Always Start With Failure, is a great read. In the book he makes the case for “adaptive trial and error” and is a helpful counterweight to Silicon Valley’s penchant for ‘failure porn.’ Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives is a successful follow-up and will make anybody think about the relationship between unexpected events and success differently.
In addition to the Q&A with Tim below you can hear him on Slate Money with Felix Salmon and with FT Alphachat with Cardiff Garcia. An excerpt from the book was also recently published on Time. Without any further ado below you can see my questions in bold. Tim’s answers follow.
AR: Adam Grant, author of the excellent Originals, in his blurb makes the comparison between the phenomena that is Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and your book. Is it possible to hold these two ideas, radical simplicity and messy, in our minds simultaneously?
TH: Certainly they’re not as contradictory as they seem. Marie Kondo’s book warns people that organisational systems are a “trap” – they don’t really help us get on top of all our stuff. I agree with that. And I’m generally a fan of Marie Kondo if we’re talking about tidying up a sitting room or a kitchen: she preaches a minimalist gospel and it works for me.
But then what about your email inbox or your office desk? That’s a different kind of problem altogether: we’re dealing with a constant inflow of new information. The final chapter of Messy argues that most of us cannot organise our way out of this problem with clever folder structures. If we try, we’ll fall prey to what the psychologist Steve Whittaker calls “premature filing” – we tidy our stuff away into neatly-labelled folders but we don’t really know what we’ve got, or what it means. It’s often better to let it accumulate on your desk or in an email folder labelled “action”. And the nice thing about piles of paper on a desk is that they organise themselves, with less-used stuff sinking slowly to the bottom. It looks messy but it’s actually quite efficient.
AR: Messy in many ways seems like the logical follow-up to Adapt. For example adaptive organizations have to be comfortable with some measure of ‘mess’ in order to find and exploit certain opportunities. Did you have Adapt in mind when you were writing Messy?
TH: Not explicitly, but I agree that the books are in sympathy with each other. One of the things I enjoyed about writing Adapt was the challenge of weaving rigorous ideas together with stories that made you keep turning the page to find out what happened next. I wanted to take that narrative style forward with Messy and perhaps do it better. It was a lot of fun trying.
AR: The story you tell about Amazon in the book is at both exhilarating and frightening. For a company that is in the top 5 in market capitalization it was alarmingly close to going under at its outset. Is Amazon the poster child for the power of messy in business?
TH: Perhaps. The founder, Jeff Bezos, sailed to close to bankruptcy that with a little less luck we might be telling a very different story. But what struck me about Bezos’s approach was that he was very calculating in his embrace of chaos: he understood that if he moved slowly and carefully he would be crushed by Barnes and Noble – or if not them, Wal Mart. So he moved very fast and as a result made a lot of mistakes and caused a tremendous amount of stress for his employees. The results speak for themselves – he took a calculated risk that the mess would pay off.
AR: The investment world, at least in the US, is distressingly homogenous. I have argued in the blog for greater diversity in investment teams. How could investors use ‘oblique strategies’ to make better investment decisions?
TH: Okay – now that’s a question I’ve never been asked!
The Oblique Strategies are cards developed by the composer and producer Brian Eno (and his friend, the late Peter Schmidt) to deliberately provoke and disrupt people facing a creative block. They were used to great effect in his work with David Bowie and I can say from personal experience they’re amazing at getting you to see a problem from a different angle. You can buy them online, or just see a few by visiting various websites or downloading an app. Give it a try and see if it doesn’t suggest some new questions.
AR: In the financial market where we are awash in data, investors have a tendency to overfit the data when model-making. In Messy you tell the story of Nobel-prize winner Harry Markowitz and the surprising robustness of a 1/N asset allocation model. In the investment world is this a function of sophistication selling over simplicity or something else altogether?
TH: So the story about Markowitz is that he won the Nobel prize for this sophisticated optimal portfolio theory, yet when he allocated his own retirement savings it was “half equities, half bonds” – a laughably simple rule of thumb. The curious thing about that story is that when a group of financial economists tested the simple rule of thumb (allocate your portfolio evenly across N asset classes and forget about it) they found it actually outperformed more sophisticated approaches that were based on unrealistic data requirements. If you have 500 years of data then use the Nobel-worthy optimal allocation method; if you don’t, maybe a crude rule of thumb works just fine.
AR: In the US, politicians especially, seem to fetishize the manufacturing sector. In the book you argue for ‘diversified economies.’ Is it simply human nature to long for the recent past or is there something else at work here?
TH: This is an idea most famously advanced by the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs in books such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities – but it’s been justified by much more recent statistical work, for example MIT’s Atlas of Economic Complexity. The basic idea is that a more diversified economy is more innovative and more resilient. You can get rich based on a narrow focus (for instance, mostly finance, or mostly oil) but you’re always vulnerable to a change in the economic winds.
AR: Self-driving cars seem to be coming, per Elon Musk, sooner than anyone would have thought possible. In Messy you discuss the challenges of auto-pilot in planes. Are there any lessons from air travel that can be applied to the messy world of automated autos?
The concern I have is that autopilots are de-skilling pilots themselves. This is a risk wherever we hand over decisions to a computer – algorithms for making job-hire decisions, for instance, or relying on Google Maps to navigate a city for us. I don’t want to sound like a Luddite here: of course it is easier to get around now we have Google Maps and planes are much safer than they used to be. However, I think we need to give serious thought to how humans and computers work together. In the case of Chess, the computers have improved our skills – but it’s not at all clear that Google maps have improved our navigational skills. One problem may be who does what: at the moment we ask human pilots to babysit the computer. We might do much better to flip that so that the computer (who does not get tired) babysits the humans (who get to practice their skills).
AR: Has your experience on radio and in podcasting helped you in writing books? I would suspect that having to hone a broadcast script would be valuable when trying to relate anecdotes within the framework of a book narrative.
The books came first. But I am always trying to explore new ways to tell a compelling story in a way that conveys an important and rigorous idea. The next experiment, after “Messy” is “Fifty Things That Shaped The World Economy” – a free podcast from the BBC World Service and, next year, a book. Enjoy!
* I received a copy of Messy from the publisher Riverhead Books. You can read more about Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives and Tim at his site TimHarford.com.