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Embrace the Mess: The Upside of Disorder

“We often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach
when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess.”
— Tim Harford

***

The breadth and depth of products and services that promise to help us stay organized is almost overwhelming. Indeed, it would seem that to be messy is almost universally shunned, considered a sign of not being “put together,” while being tidy and neat is venerated to the nth degree.

Tim Harford has a different take. In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, he flips this notion around, showing us that there are situations in which disorder is beneficial, or at the very least that order has been oversold. (Tim previously introduced us to another counterintuitive thought with Adapt.)

***

One of the reasons why we put so much time and effort into being organized and tidy is because we make assumptions about what this will do for our productivity. If all our papers are neatly filed and email is neatly sorted, it will be easier to retrieve anything that’s important, right? Maybe not.

Harford cites a paper by Steve Whittaker and researchers at IBM called “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?” to illustrate the fallacy.

Whittaker and his colleagues got permission to install logging software on the computers of several hundred office workers, and tracked around 85,000 attempts to find e-mail by clicking through folders, or by using ad hoc methods—scrolling through the inbox, clicking on a header to sort by (for example) the sender, or using the search function. Whittaker found that clicking through a folder tree took almost a minute, while simply searching took just 17 seconds. People who relied on folders took longer to find what they were looking for, but their hunts for the right e-mail were no more or less successful. In other words, if you just dump all your e-mail into a folder called “archive,” you will find your e-mails more quickly than if you hide them in a tidy structure of folders.

Okay, so taking the time to organize your email may not be as useful as we thought. Computers, after all, are designed as tools to help us work better and faster, so it makes sense that the simple search function would outperform us. But physical filing and keeping our work space neat makes us more productive right?

Once again, maybe not.

Quite a bit of research has been done on people’s working environments and it would seem that those with big piles of paper and/or clutter on their desks may be just as effective (and sometimes more so) than those pedantic ‘fillers.’

This is not to argue that a big pile of paper is the best possible filing system. But despite appearances, it’s very far from being a random assortment. A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it at first seems. There’s a natural tendency toward a very pragmatic system of organization based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile.

David Kirsh, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego studies the differences between the working habits of the tidy types (he calls them ‘neats’) and the messy types (he calls them ‘scruffies’). Let’s look at what he found.

…how do people orient themselves after arriving at the office or finishing a phone call? Kirsh finds that “neats” orient themselves with to-do lists and calendars, while “scruffies” orient themselves using physical cues—the report that they were working on is lying on the desk, as is a letter that needs a reply, and receipts that must be submitted for expenses. A messy desk is full of such cues. A tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list. Both systems can work, so we should hesitate before judging other people based on their messy desks.

So if both systems work, are there times when it’s actually more advantageous to embrace messiness?

Here Harford hits upon an interesting hypothesis: Messiness may enhance certain types of creativity. In fact, creativity itself may systematically benefit from a certain amount of disorder.

When things are too neat and tidy, it’s easy for boredom to set in and creativity to suffer. We feel stifled.

A messy environment offers disruptions that seem to act as a catalyst for new ideas and creations. If you think about it, we try to avoid these same disruptions when we focus on being more “organized.” But, if you sometimes embrace a little mess, you may be opening yourself up to more creative serendipity:

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

Think about an “inefficiently” designed office plan that looks wasteful on the surface: What’s lost in efficiency (say, putting two departments that need to talk to each other in separated areas) can be more than made up for in serendipitous encounters.

Brian Eno, considered one of the most influential and innovative figures in music over the last five decades describes it like this:

The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

Eno created an amazing system for pushing people into ‘alertness.’ He came up with something he called “Oblique Strategies” cards. He would show up at the recording studio with a handful of cards and bring them out whenever it seemed that the group needed a nudge.

Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders.

Be the first not to do what has never not been done before
Emphasize the flaws
Only a part, not the whole
Twist the spine
Look at the order in which you do things
Change instrument roles

Can you imagine asking the guitarist of a group to sit behind the drums on a track? These were the type of suggestions that Eno is famous for and it seems to be serving him well; at age sixty-eight he has a new album coming out in January of 2017 and some variation of his cards have been available for purchase since first appearing for public consumption in 1975.

We all won’t be able to embrace a card from Eno’s deck. Some people do well in tidy environments/situations and some do well in messy ones — it’s probably contingent on what you’re trying to achieve. (We wouldn’t go so far as recommending a CEO be disorganized.)

Reading through the book it would seem that the key is, like most things, to give it a try. A little “intentional messiness” could go a long way towards helping you climb out of a rut. And, if you are the tidy type through and through, it’s important not to try and force that on others — you just might be taking away a good thing.

If you like the ideas in Messy, check out Harford’s other book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, or check out another important book on things that gain from disorder, Antifragile.

For the Bookworm on your List: 2016 Edition

Naughty or nice, at the beginning of December, we always post an assortment of book lists so you can pick something up to read over the holidays or find just the right book for the bookworm on your list. While some of our own favorites will come out over the next month or so, this will get you started on your holidays.

As a voracious reader you can check out a list of all the books I’ve read in 2016. If you’re still hungry for my recommendations see all the books I’ve read since 2014. The members of our learning community created a great list this summer and have been passing great recommendations on our slack channel. (Joining our learning community might be the best present you can give yourself.)

There are books that will improve your general knowledge of the world. If those are not for you, try these five noteable non-fiction books or books for doing new things. We has a curated list of timeless books published way back in the spring.

Here are some book recommendations from famous CEOs like Mark Zuckerburg, Don Graham, and Bill Gates. Amazon’s editors also selected their top 100 picks for the year. And the New York Times picked the 10 best books.

If that doesn’t satisfy your curiosity you can refer to our 2015, 2014, and 2013 recommendations.

Batesian Mimicry: Why Copycats are Successful

One of our first interview guests for The Knowledge Project was the former NFL executive Michael Lombardi. In our interview, we discussed topics ranging from the nature of leadership to decision making in a football context. Mike is one of the wisest thinkers associated with the game.

We heard Mike on an NFL podcast recently, and in a brief clip you can listen to here, Mike makes a fascinating comment on differentiating between a Mimic and the Real Thing:

“There’s two kinds of snakes you comes across. There’s the Texas Coral Snake, and the Mexican Milk Snake, and they both look exactly alike. The Texas Coral Snake is dangerous, it’s venomous, it can kill you in a minute. The Mexican Milk Snake can’t do anything to you; it’s an impostor.”

Mike got the idea from the my friend and CEO of Glenair, Peter Kaufman. Following Mike’s lead, we chose to dig in a little further.

***

Turns out there are a host of Coral Snake Mimics, all designed to look exactly as fierce as the true bad guys. Besides the Mexican Milk Snake, there is the Scarlet King Snake, the Florida Scarlet Snake, and the California Mountain Kingsnake. (At least.)

For an example, here are the Texas Coral Snake on the left and the Mexican Milk Snake on the right. Pretty damn close!

220px-lampropeltis_triangulum_annulata

According to Wikipedia, the Texas Coral Snake’s venom is a “powerful neurotoxin, causing neuromuscular dysfunction“, and terrifyingly describes its bite as coming from “a pair of hollow, small, fixed fangs in the front of its upper jaw, through which the venom is injected and encouraged via a chewing motion. Due to this method of venom delivery, a coral snake must bite and hold on for a brief time to deliver a significant amount of venom…

The Milk Snake, on the other hand, is described as a pretty ideal pet, “The Mexican Milk Snake adapts well to captive care, and its smaller size and striking colorations can make it an attractive choice for a pet snake. They are normally docile, and not typically apt to bite or expel musk.

So, how is it that these two look alike? It’s due to a phenomenon called Batesian Mimicry.

In the 1850’s, the naturalist Henry Walter Bates found a certain set of butterflies who were clearly not of the same species but whose wings looked almost the same to the naked eye. After thinking it over, Bates eventually figured out what was going on: While the butterflies which were toxic to potential predators (the “models”) were able to operate freely and relatively unmolested, there had also developed a “mimic” population of butterflies which wasn’t toxic at all, yet still went untouched!

In fact, biologists eventually figured out that the more toxic and dangerous the “model” was and the more frequently they appeared in the local population, the easier it was for its “mimics” to get by! Predators simply wouldn’t take the risk of mixing up the two. If there aren’t as many “models” around or they aren’t that dangerous, the mimics have a harder time.

This is a wonderful model, and in the practical world we live in, a similar phenomenon abounds: Copycats or “pretenders to the throne” are often very effective, very convincing “mimics” of the true champions. They dress the part, they talk the talk, and they know what buttons to push. But in the end, they are merely chauffeurs.

We see a very Batesian effect at work: The more impressive the “model,” the more effective its mimics can be in convincing people they too are impressive, and in all the same ways. But for every Warren Buffett (just one by our count), there has been many “future” Warren Buffett’s. For every Steve Jobs, there have been many “next” Steve Jobs’.

In fact, sometimes even just appearances can be quite convincing: now-disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes was very fond of wearing a very Steve Jobsian black turtleneck outfit.

It seems almost a law of nature that success will be copied, sometimes in a very disgraceful way. (Charlie Munger thinks that the fundamental algorithm of life is “Repeat what works.”)

Because they can be very convincing,  we must be wise enough to watch out for Batesian mimicry — even in ourselves.

This brings up an interesting, at times paradoxical, question: Who can best tell the difference between a Coral Snake and its Mimics? The Coral Snake itself.

The real thing knows a fake. Charlie Munger once commented on this in relation to the field of money management:

“It’s very hard to tell the difference between a good money manager and someone who just has the patter down. If you aren’t a good money manager yourself, rather than trying to pick one, you’re probably better off with a low cost index fund. ‘It takes one to know one’.”

***

An insight this good is only possible through continued study across the largest and most relevant fields of study. Peter got this idea by studying biology, a field full of incredible insight but, strangely underappreciated by most “non-biologists”. It’s not just ideas about predators and prey, but niches, competition, co-evolutionary arms races and a whole host of others which give us massive insight into the human world.

Peter realized that studying across fields like biology and physics is something like buying an index fund: It works because you captures all the important companies traded on the public exchange, not just a select few. That means you capture the massive winners, which tend to greatly outweigh the failures.

Studying across all of the important fields gives you the same advantage, except it’s even better: If an index fund buys a new position, it must sell something to do so; consequently, the “big winners” can only impact your portfolio in a limited way. But if you come to understand a new Great Idea, you don’t have to give up the ones you already know! This is a great advantage.

And so it’s worth taking the time to work on learning all the big ideas you can find, not just the ones you want to learn. In that search, you’ll find a host of big winners you didn’t even know existed.

If you liked this post, you’ll probably also love:

The Need for Biological Thinking to Solve Complex Problems — How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.

The Founder Principle: A Wonderful Idea from Biology — In his brilliant The Song of the Dodo, David Quammen gives us not only the stories of many brilliant biological naturalists including Mayr, but we also get a deep dive into the core concepts of evolution and extinction, including the Founder Effect.

Biology Enables. Culture Forbids. — From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural.

Samuel Arbesman on Complex Adaptive Systems and the Difference between Biological and Physics Based Thinking

Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) is a complexity scientist whose work focuses on the nature of scientific and technological change. Sam’s also written two books that I love, The Half-Life of Facts and Overcomplicated.

In this episode, Sam talks about:

  • Our relationship with technology
  • Whether art or science is more fundamental to humanity
  • How he defines success for himself
  • The difference between physics thinking and biological thinking
  • Why its better to learn things that change slowly
  • And much, much more!

******

Listen

***

Show Notes

A complete transcript is availale for members of the learning community.

Books mentioned:

The Probability Distribution of the Future

The best colloquial definition of risk may be the following:

“Risk means more things can happen than will happen.”

We found it through the inimitable Howard Marks, but it’s a quote from Elroy Dimson of the London Business School. Doesn’t that capture it pretty well?

Another way to state it is: If there were only one thing that could happen, how much risk would there be, except in an extremely banal sense? You’d know the exact probability distribution of the future. If I told you there was a 100% probability that you’d get hit by a car today if you walked down the street, you simply wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t call walking down the street a “risky gamble” right? There’s no gamble at all.

But the truth is that in practical reality, there aren’t many 100% situations to bank on. Way more things can happen than will happen. That introduces great uncertainty into the future, no matter what type of future you’re looking at: An investment, your career, your relationships, anything.

How do we deal with this in a pragmatic way? The investor Howard Marks starts it this way:

Key point number one in this memo is that the future should be viewed not as a fixed outcome that’s destined to happen and capable of being predicted, but as a range of possibilities and, hopefully on the basis of insight into their respective likelihoods, as a probability distribution.

This is the most sensible way to think about the future: A probability distribution where more things can happen than will happen. Knowing that we live in a world of great non-linearity and with the potential for unknowable and barely understandable Black Swan events, we should never become too confident that we know what’s in store, but we can also appreciate that some things are a lot more likely than others. Learning to adjust probabilities on the fly as we get new information is called Bayesian updating.

But.

Although the future is certainly a probability distribution, Marks makes another excellent point in the wonderful memo above: In reality, only one thing will happen. So you must make the decision: Are you comfortable if that one thing happens, whatever it might be? Even if it only has a 1% probability of occurring? Echoing the first lesson of biology, Warren Buffett stated that “In order to win, you must first survive.” You have to live long enough to play out your hand.

Which leads to an important second point: Uncertainty about the future does not necessarily equate with risk, because risk has another component: Consequences. The world is a place where “bad outcomes” are only “bad” if you know their (rough) magnitude. So in order to think about the future and about risk, we must learn to quantify.

It’s like the old saying (usually before something terrible happens): What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s say you propose to undertake a six month project that will cost your company $10 million, and you know there’s a reasonable probability that it won’t work. Is that risky?

It depends on the consequences of losing $10 million, and the probability of that outcome. It’s that simple! (Simple, of course, does not mean easy.) A company with $10 billion in the bank might consider that a very low-risk bet even if it only had a 10% chance of succeeding.

In contrast, a company with only $10 million in the bank might consider it a high-risk bet even if it only had a 10% of failing. Maybe five $2 million projects with uncorrelated outcomes would make more sense to the latter company.

In the real world, risk = probability of failure x consequences. That concept, however, can be looked at through many lenses. Risk of what? Losing money? Losing my job? Losing face? Those things need to be thought through. When we observe others being “too risk averse,” we might want to think about which risks they’re truly avoiding. Sometimes risk is not only financial. 

***

Let’s cover one more under-appreciated but seemingly obvious aspect of risk, also pointed out by Marks: Knowing the outcome does not teach you about the risk of the decision.

This is an incredibly important concept:

If you make an investment in 2012, you’ll know in 2014 whether you lost money (and how much), but you won’t know whether it was a risky investment – that is, what the probability of loss was at the time you made it.

To continue the analogy, it may rain tomorrow, or it may not, but nothing that happens tomorrow will tell you what the probability of rain was as of today. And the risk of rain is a very good analogue (although I’m sure not perfect) for the risk of loss.

How many times do we see this simple dictum violated? Knowing that something worked out, we argue that it wasn’t that risky after all. But what if, in reality, we were simply fortunate? This is the Fooled by Randomness effect.

The way to think about it is the following: The worst thing that can happen to a young gambler is that he wins the first time he goes to the casinoHe might convince himself he can beat the system.

The truth is that most times we don’t know the probability distribution at all. Because the world is not a predictable casino game — an error Nassim Taleb calls the Ludic Fallacy — the best we can do is guess.

With intelligent estimations, we can work to get the rough order of magnitude right, understand the consequences if we’re wrong, and always be sure to never fool ourselves after the fact.

If you’re into this stuff, check out Howard Marks’ memos to his clients, or check out his excellent book, The Most Important Thing. Nate Silver also has an interesting similar idea about the difference between risk and uncertainty. And lastly, another guy that understands risk pretty well is Jason Zweig, who we’ve interviewed on our podcast before.

***

If you liked this article you’ll love:

Nassim Taleb on the Notion of Alternative Histories — “The quality of a decision cannot be solely judged based on its outcome.”

The Four Types of Relationships — As Seneca said, “Time discovers truth.”

Book Recommendations by the Legendary Washington Post CEO Don Graham

“My goal in reading a book is to entertain myself and perhaps to learn.
You won’t read much unless what you read is enjoyable for you.”
— Don Graham

***

In 1973, Warren Buffett famously began investing in the stock of the newly public Washington Post. Watergate was on, the stock market was crashing, and the Post, led by Katherine Graham, was a wonderful company selling at a cheap price.

Over time, Mrs. Graham would pass the CEO mantle to her son, Don Graham. With Buffett’s board level influence, Graham would become one of the most successful and admired CEO’s in the media business, financially and editorially.

While other papers were busy buying up news or television properties one after another, mostly financed with debt, Buffett encouraged Graham to stick to his knitting. And so when media properties (including the Post) began to rapidly lose their value in the 1990’s and 2000’s thanks to the Internet, the Post survived intact. (Helped along by the shrewd purchase of Kaplan Inc.)

The Grahams’ reign running the Post was so successful that it was later profiled in The Outsiders, a book by Columbia’s William Thorndike which showed how a group of “unconventional” CEOs generated way above average shareholder returns through smart capital allocation and decentralized operating management.

Graham, now the CEO of Graham Holdings and the lead independent director of Facebook, seems woefully understudied as an operator and a human being. But we do have one window into the man: His book recommendations.

Graham actively answers questions on Quora, mostly about books, so we went through and collected some of his thoughts.

The long time head of a major media organization is someone who must, by the nature of their work, be broadly educated and broadly wise. And his interest in books shows it: Graham is clearly a fan of the classics and of biography and history. (Not altogether surprising for a man who was part of the Pulitzer Prize board for many years.)

Among his answers are his favourite fiction and non-fiction books and the book that will stay with him forever. (One obvious choice would be his mother’s wonderful memoir.)

***

First, his response to a 14-year old asking which books he should read, to which Graham gave a wonderful answer:

I would—for a lifetime—think first about “what will I enjoy reading,” and only second about “what is good for me.” If you like novels, I’d read novels. If you like biographies, I’d read biographies. If you like science fiction, mysteries, or science books, I’d read those. But read the best, and keep asking what that is.

***

What is that one book that will stay with you forever?

The Plays of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare (“They are incomparable.”)

What is Your Favorite Non-Fiction book?

The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell (Also his answer to: What is the most instructive biography you’ve ever read?)

The Civil War by Shelby Foote (“The greatest work of American history.”)

What is your Favorite Fiction book?

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Which book are you currently reading?

Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore

What was the last book you read? 

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo (“I would not only recommend it; I’d say it is my favorite contemporary American novel.”)

Who was the most peace-oriented US President?

Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas (“If the subject of your question is of great interest to you, I strongly recommend reading it.

Can you suggest a book about a survivor of an extreme experience?

The Man Who Stayed Behind by Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett (“As a discharged GI in China with leftist sympathies, he hitchhiked across China to Yenan, lived in the caves with Mao Zedong and the whole leadership, and became Mao’s translator, among other things.”)

What are the best literary nonfiction books about the Gilded Age?

The Robber Barons by Matthew Josephson (“The classic history of this aspect of the age.”)

Jim Fisk by W.A. Swanberg and The Murder of Jim Fisk by H. W. Brands (“Both excellent.”)

What are some books that were well-written and popular for awhile but are now largely forgotten?

Second Readings by Jonathan Yardley

A Literary Education and Other Essays by Joseph Epstein

What books should the privileged read in order to gain perspective and empathy for the underprivileged?

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katharine Boo (“It is a great, great book.”)

What are the best books written about the Supreme Court?

John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith

The Supreme Court by William Rehnquist

What are some good books to help one understand communism?

The Great Terror by Robert Conquest. (“Almost unbearable in its chapter-by-chapter description of life under Stalin’s rule.”)

Gulag by Anne Applebaum

What book would you recommend for becoming a “gentleman”?

Letters to His Son on Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman by Lord Chesterfield

Which U.S. President was the best writer?

Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865 by Abraham Lincoln (“There’s only one choice.”)