A Perfect Mess: Book Review

A Perfect Mess
Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
Little Brown & Co
Hardback First Edition, 2006, $25:99
US Kindle Edition, $9:99

A Perfect MessIs this you?

“You’re a hard worker but always struggle to get thing done in a timely manner. Sure, you plan ahead but life seems to get in the way and that list of ’20 Things To Do” is only down to “18 Things To Do” – and there’s a new list growing! Sometimes, you just put things off and let life slide but that only makes you feel guilty. You’re sure that if you could just organize your life better, you could be much more successful and do a lot more than you currently can achieve.”

The good news is that you are absolutely normal and feeling that your life is a total mess is part of the human experience! Far from being a procrastinating slacker surrounded by friends who appear to be nothing sort of well-oiled multi-tasking machines, you’re still managing to get things done and probably in a more organized way than you can imagine.

Eric Abrahamson is the Hughie E. Mills Professor of Business and the Faculty Leader, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, at the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University. David H. Freeman is a journalist  and book author who has written for Inc. Magazine, The Atlantic, Scientific American, The New York Times, Discover, and Technology Review.  Between them, they set out in A Perfect Mess to slap down the myth that you have to be efficient, organized, and single-minded in order to succeed in life and get things done. Instead, they argue that disorder and unpredictability are not only inevitable but forces for invention, action, and change.

The book is studded with little gems worthy of turning into posters for your office – if you can find time to do it. For example;

“…according to a survey conducted by professional staffing firm Ajilon Office, office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience.

On that basis, if you looked at my desk you’d assume I was smart, rich, and full of worldly wisdom after years of slobbiness. Or consider this other treasure;

Better to take advantage of the fact that procrastinators put off work by throwing themselves into less important task and find a way to thrive on accomplishing those less important tasks – at which point you might well discover you’re in great shape after all.

Chronic procrastinators such as myself can be cheered up by comments like these. They’re certainly cheaper than a bottle of bourbon, and definitely less damaging to the liver.

A messy desk

"I know where it is!"

Now of course, the authors are not preaching the gospel of anarchy, abdication, and Discordianism[1], but trying to make people aware that worshipping at the altar of Efficiency is dangerous and unrealistic, and that;

…it’s obvious that at a certain level, mess becomes dysfunctional. We’re not saying that messier is always better. Rather, we argue that there is an optimal level of mess for every aspect of every system.

They trace our current obsession with order and efficiency to the work of Fred W. Taylor at the beginning of the 20th century, who wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, a book that turned human beings into factory cogs by measuring every aspect of “time and motion” so that optimum efficiencies could be obtained. This book gave rise the world of measurement in management that is today manifest in the philosphy that people are “resources” to be “utilized” in order to achieve “optimal results” and “maximize margins.”

The economic application of Order and Discipline swiftly made its way into other spheres of life. Religions have always been there “to impose order on an otherwise vague conception of the world, and to mitigate, at least in perception, for the sometimes cruel randomness of life’s events,” so in a sense, this shift marked a secular version of this philosophy.

At the same time as Taylor was organizing the workplace, physicists were organizing the universe, looking for the ultimate answer to why the cosmos seemed so orderly, the Newtonian Clock, and what were the underlying rules that governed its behavior. Einstein, cited by Abrahamson and Freedman as the poster child for being unorganized, once famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe,” so strong was his conviction that the Laws of Physics were the ultimate arbiter of Order.

God plays dice with Einstein

"Hope He throws 'Snake Eyes!'"

But the social, political, and moral implications of this genuflection to discipline were to come to a head in 1939 with the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s quest for dominance of Europe by establish an early version of the conspiracy theorists’ New World Order[2]. The processes and procedures invented and implemented by the Nazis would probably be worthy of an ISO 9001 certification.

Post the Second World War, the notions of Order and Discipline took some beating. Physicists became more enamored of the view that God wasn’t actually too averse to playing craps now and again. Although Werner Heisenberg was promoting the notion of uncertainty[4] at the quantum level in the early 1920’s, the post-war period solidified the status of Quantum Physics as an established perspective rather than a fringe arena. And social experiments in the 1920’s had also shown that simply observing people made them work better (the Hawthorne Effect) so by the mid-1940’s, the tide was well and truly turning against dictatorial notions of order.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty formula

"I'm not sure what this is..."

But back to the book itself. The authors suggest that there are six key benefits of a messy system:

Flexibility: Messy systems adapt and change more quickly, more dramatically, in a wider variety of ways, and with less effort.
Completeness: Messy systems can comfortably tolerate an exhaustive array of diverse entities.
Resonance: Mess tends to help a system fall into harmony with its environment and with otherwise elusive sources of information and change, deriving useful influence from them.
Invention: Mess randomly juxtaposes and alters a system’s elements and rotates them to the fore where they’re more easily noticed, leading to new solutions.
Efficiency: Messy systems often accomplish goals with a modest consumption of resources and can sometimes shift some of the burden of work to the outside world.
Robustness: Because mess tends to loosely weave together disparate elements, messy systems are more resistant to destruction, failure, and imitation.

These they contrast with the seven highly over-rated habits of time management:

  1. Being focused.
  2. Packing more in.
  3. Keeping a list.
  4. Sticking to a schedule.
  5. Making kids “get with the program.”
  6. Longer-term planning.
  7. Getting it done now.

After spending some time considering the benefits of messy homes, messy organizations, messy leadership, and messy politics, they take a look at messy thinking.  They say that;

Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and sometimes when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we’re really holding back our minds from doing what they do best. No matter how messy the world is, we humans seem determined not to see it that way. We enlist all sorts of schemes to avoid having to accept disorder and randomness, but when viewed logically these appear to be glitches in our software.

This related back to the previous Dudes post on Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, and more specifically to the concept of patternicity i.e. we impose patterns of order onto a world where there is no order. They also talk about the confirmation bias as being a strategy for dealing with mess – effectively by ignoring it! If an idea looks as if it’s about to make your nicely constructed belief system collapse, shut it out.

The book concludes with a look at pathological mess i.e. if you’re living in a house where every room is filled with “stuff” and you can’t actually move, then that’s a wee bit on the peculiar side. Compulsive hoarding is a problem, not a “strategy for life.”

Compulsive hoarding mess

"But I might need it one day...!"

This is an entertaining book for those of use who feel guilty that we haven’t mowed the lawn for three weeks, having redecorated the bathroom for three years, and haven’t written that book for 30 years. If you go through Amazon, you can – as I did – pick up a “like new” hardcover for 1 cent with $3.99 for shipping.

And the big question for me is: If I am so messy and disorganized, how the hell did I find the time to write this article? Beats me!

[1] Discordianism is named after the Greek goddess, Eris (/’ɪərɪs/) who was the goddess of trouble and strife and discord. The sister of Ares (/’eɪriz/), god of War, she would follow him to the battlefield and wallow in the pain and suffering of the wounded and dying after a fight. There’s probably more than a phonetic reason why English Cockney’s use the phrase “trouble and strife” for “wife.”

[2] Conspiracy theorists are masters of seeing patterns where none exists. They suffer severely from an over-reliance on the Confirmation Bias, and can read meaning into anything in such as way as to confirm their strange beliefs. Mind you, if a conspiracy is true, then of course everything that confirms it is bound to be right! The conspiracy of the “New World Order” states that there is a secret organization intent of taking over the running of the whole world. Ultimately individual stated will submit to this world government and we’ll all be enslaved vassals who must bend to the whims of our new masters. But as long as we still have “American Idol,” “Say Yes to the Dress,” and “Cake Boss,” most folks will not notice the difference.

[3] The International Organization for Standardization  (ISO) is a non-governmental organization that develops and publishes international standards i.e. a list of rules and regulations to which companies and corporations should adhere. I say “should” because ISO is voluntary in the sense that there is no legal obligation for a company to comply with any of the standards. However, it can also be “involuntary” in the sense that some government departments require private companies to be ISO certified in order to bid for government work. The more cynical may see this as a way for government to weasel out of allowing a free market by allowing a non-elected body to control the behavior of private enterprise.

[4] Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle basically says that when you measure the behavior of a sub-atomic particle, you cannot track its position and momentum simultaneous. That is, you can know where it is but not how fast it’s going, or you can know how fast it’s moving but not where it is. This gives rise to a famous joke told and understood only by Physicists: Werner Heisenberg gets stopped on the autobahn by the police and the office says,”Excuse me sir, do you know how fast you were going?” and Heisenberg answers, “No, but I know where I am.”


One response to “A Perfect Mess: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Time Management for Dummies, DOPES, and Dudes: Part 1 – The Kit | The Speech Dudes

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