‘Messy’ Proposes a Flexible Approach to Life

Maria Konnikova in The New York Times:

BookIn 1993, a few years after the success of his firm’s ad campaign that introduced the Apple Mac, the head of the Chiat/Day agency, Jay Chiat, decided that it was time to have a workplace that matched the verve of the agency’s advertising. In Los Angeles, he commissioned Frank Gehry to create a place that was “playful, zany and stylish”: no cubicles, no offices, no traditional desks. Space was filled with a four-story statue of a pair of binoculars and pods from old fairground rides where “people would sit together . . . and think creative thoughts.” In New York, Chiat tasked Gaetano Pesce with much the same vision, resulting in murals of red lips, chairs with springs for feet and a floor in front of a bathroom that would raise many an eyebrow in today’s trigger-warning culture (a picture of a man urinating). When Frank Duffy, an architect who is no stranger to innovation in office design himself (he is credited as a founder of Bürolandschaft, the office-landscaping movement), saw the project, he said, “Perhaps its gravest weakness is that it is a place where ‘play’ is enforced on everyone, all the time.”

That statement is at the heart of “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” the latest book from the economist-turned-journalist Tim Harford. At first, it seems an odd comment to include. After all, isn’t the Chiat/Day approach the quintessence of mess — disrupting the staid old office style, pivoting in a new creative direction, or any of those other business clichés? But it’s actually perfect. Because the mess Harford has in mind is less physical than psychical. It’s not that disruption is inherently good, or that we should strive actually to be messy — unconstrained by desks or real work spaces, free to roam and think, surrounded by playful towers of stuff in stubborn defiance of Kondo-ization. It’s that rigid rules are bad, whether they err on the side of too much mess or too little. Rigidity disempowers people. In telling us to be messy, Harford urges us to recapture our autonomy. A less catchy, but perhaps more accurate, title for the book would be “Control: The Power of Autonomy and Flexibility.”

More here.