The one sentence summary

You will be more successful if you stop struggling so hard to plan or control your success.


  • Contrary to what tidy-minded people suggest, if you want to be creative and resilient, you need a little more disorder in your world.
  • There is much to be said for disorganisation, improvisation and confusion. Openness and adaptability are inherently messy.
  • The author covers 9 areas:
  1. Creativity: frustration and distraction help us solve problems in art, science and life.
  2. Collaboration: tidy teams have more fun but messy teamwork gets more done.
  3. Workplaces: it’s nobody else’s business whether you tidy your desk.
  4. Improvisation: there can be unexpected benefits when letting go of the script.
  5. Winning: mess can be used as a weapon in business, politics and war.
  6. Incentives: there are pitfalls to imposing tidy targets on a messy world.
  7. Automation: human messiness can protect us from computerised disaster.
  8. Resilience: believing that cleanliness is next to godliness is dangerous.
  9. Life: mess in our inbox, random conversations and children’s play are all to be valued.


  • Brian Eno uses Oblique Strategy cards to create random direction when recording tracks, such as emphasise the flaws, and only a part, not the whole.
  • Weak filters: people who get easily distracted are actually more creative, because they take in more stimuli.
  • Printing documents in challenging typefaces makes people read them more carefully.
  • Teams made up of friends have more fun but perform worse than mixed groups who have more conflict. Tension is beneficial.
  • The 5S system of management stands for sort, straighten, shine, standardise and sustain. But it doesn’t work as a way to organise offices because staff feel disempowered. Empowered offices are 30% more productive, and people flourish when they control their own space.
  • Filers and pilers: pilers win, because they keep less and regularly ditch material when there is too much on their desk. Filers have so much they often can’t find things.
  • The paradox of automation describes how humans become less and less competent when they rely too much on machines. When something goes wrong, such as in airplanes, it’s a disaster.
  • Automation bias places too much emphasis on the choice a machine has made, such as when people drive into a lake blindly following their GPS.
  • Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman invented the He removed all lights from a roundabout and let the drivers sort it out. They do, approaching with more caution and attention, thus reducing accidents.
  • Broken windows policing is now somewhat discredited – there isn’t really a correlation between keeping a neighbourhood neat and lower crime.


  • It is, as ever with this author, beautifully argued.