How Messy Helps


This article is the first in a series on improvisation.

When I first saw Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, I was skeptical. I don’t like messy, I like order.

I want a clean, neat desk when I work. I want a teaching space free of clutter when I teach. I believe that neatness helps to clear up my thinking. I was once told by a personality researcher that my brain “likes to organize chaos”!

I regard orderliness is a professional practice, and for good reason. We’ve all seen classes where chaos severely impeded learning, where lack of planning resulted in poor time management, and where teaching systems are so dysfunctional that no substantive learning takes place.

I also happen to live in a small house, where any dirty dish or sock left out is an unpleasant experience for the rest of the family. So from a personal as well as a professional standpoint, I want to un-messy things whenever I see them.

But something made me pick this book up off the shelf, and I’m glad I did. By the second chapter I felt my attitude shifting. When unexpected things happen, sometimes a flash of inspiration comes as a result. This creative disorder can even be planned.

David Bowie  by Patrice Murciano

David Bowie by Patrice Murciano

Messy begins with stories about musicians working with a mess. Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett once had to play a concert on a broken piano, and the sonority he came up with was completely original. David Bowie intentionally messed up his own creative process, finding sounds that nobody had ever heard before.

Producer Brian Eno made artists such as U2 and Phil Collins switch instruments and play in ways that were uncomfortable, so to put them deliberately in an unfamiliar place. We are all the beneficiaries of their music that came from such a process.

We need help to navigate the tension between order and messiness

Music is a good example because it is a precision-oriented practice. We repeat certain movements over and over to get them just right. We want to be exact with pitch, rhythm, articulation, and following a host of written cues in the music.

This exactness requires focus and “executive function” to control what we are doing. We strive to help our students mature into this kind of disciplined, ordered playing. After all, you don’t see symphony orchestras wildly running about on stage. It is all very proper and orderly.

What kind of life and energy are we sacrificing by over-controlling the output we expect from students?

And yet. We should ask, where is the creativity in all this propreity, exactitude and order? How do we capture a feeling of discovery, expression, and passion? These things are often sacrificed at the altar of tidiness. How can we balance the need for sequential, organized rehearsal with open-ended, untidy exploration of sound and color? What kind of life and energy are we sacrificing by over-controlling the output we expect from students?

We can also let messiness happen outside of teaching. Messy presents studies on e-mail use that show how organizing e-mail into folders does not help you find things more quickly. Or on project management: trying to make sure people are always “in sync” (i.e., over-collaboration or over-reporting to serve a tidy organizational chart) often prevents effective action. On goal setting: establishment of a single target is often an oversimplified numerical distortion that corrupts results as much as it helps. These errors are made out of a desire for tidiness, and Messy proposes ways to do them differently and more effectively.

Messy suggests that we have a deep insecurity about messiness, evolved out of a need for safety and security. Therefore we are prone to over-tidying our spaces, our projects, our relationships, and our lives. This often prevents us from living fully, having truly wonder-filled moments, and for teachers, helping students reach their full potential.

The takeaway is that letting things be a little less tidy will actually help us take action and move forward.

If you are in a rut, wondering what the next step might be, you will want to pick up this book. It may help you to ask, What new worlds could you discover, if you opened the door and allowed a little more messiness?


Want to explore this topic further with other teachers? Learn more about the next Teacher Mastermind online forum here.

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