David Bowie, a travelling mathematician, the famous Building 20 at MIT, and the most human human are all at home in this exploration of creativity, adaptability, and resilience.


As New Year’s has only come and gone very recently, the lists that everyone makes with the best of intentions to improve themselves and daily life are still fresh. Everyone vows to lose the Christmas weight, the five kilograms from last year, to read more, become more active, eat better, quit all the bad habits, drink less (caffeinated beverages and alcohol), and get more organized. Well, Tim Harford, the author of Messy, would like to talk you out of that last one. And if Benjamin Franklin were alive, he would probably tell you about how unsuccessful he was at being organized.

Tim Harford is the author of several really amazing books, The Undercover Economist, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Adapt, and The Logic of Life. He also writes a regular column for the Financial Times and is a radio commentator on BBC Radio 4 and hosts the program More or Less.

The Wizard, the mathematician, and the dilapidated building

Creativity seems elusive and transient; a trait that is possessed by a few mad geniuses who are elevated above the rest. Harford shares the in-depth experiences of some of the most widely recognized creative thinkers from across various industries. From the production of David Bowie’s Lodger album, to the immense and generous intellect of mathematician Paul Erdős, and the stories from the intellectual giants in MIT’s legendary Building 20, through honest analysis of their experiences Harford provides his readers with valuable insights into the creative process.

Cover art – Lodger by David Bowie, EMI Records

Harford sets a bleak scene for his readers, Bowie had come to the end of his creative rope. His marriage was failing and he was experiencing legal troubles. He was a mess. Enter the wizard with some weird advice. That is not Brian Eno’s nickname, but Hatford informs his readers that he “once dressed like a wizard”. Eno created a deck of cards that he referred to as “oblique strategies”. He would draw a card and people acted on the instructions. The twist here is that the directions were apropos of nothing, “twist the spine”, “water”, and “change instrument roles” are just a few examples.

Paul Erdős was a mathematician best known as “the most prolific collaborator in the history of science”. The picture Harford paints for his readers is of an itinerate, amphetamine addicted genius with a vast number of acquaintances. He did not own a home – preferring instead to stay as an incredibly demanding houseguest with other mathematicians. However, “he made connections no one else could” and this often meant breakthroughs across the disciplines of mathematics as he shared information across fields.

 Not Building 20 - just the main campus building for MIT
Not Building 20 – just the main campus building for MIT

MIT’s Building 20 was a complete disaster at the time of its destruction. It had housed everything from offices to a radiation lab to anechoic chambers. Noam Chomsky, Bose, hacker culture, and arcade games were all borne in this building. Administrators did not care about the building, it was always meant to be demolished, one project even removed several floors to ensure that their project would fit inside. That was the world’s first marketable atomic clock.

Amongst the various stories of disorganization, adverse conditions, and absolute chaos that are the crucibles of creativity and innovation are stories of people. Actual people, like the man who won the Loebner Prize for the “Most Human Human” at the annual Turing Test in 2009. It is an astounding story of robots, interrupted conversations, and hacking OkCupid. You will have to read it to find out the rest.

Lessons Learned

© Jazmin Quaynor (Unsplash.com)
© Jazmin Quaynor (Unsplash.com)

What Hartford ultimately concludes is that we need to be open to possibility, no matter how messy. “We’ve seen, again and again, that creativity, excitement, and humanity lie in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones”, and that includes how much you get accomplished with respect to email, whether or not you actually use documents, or whether your room is just fine (and not a complete pig sty – like your mother was always fond of saying).

Harford manages to blend hard scientific research and solid historical fact with an amusing flair. The book itself is roughly broken into broad themes with stories that intertwine and interrupt each other, much like the course of a conversation. Harford will convince you to embrace the inherent “messiness” of life and cross that resolution off your New Year’s list.

Jennifer Cornick

Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes). Photo Credit: Aneta Pawlik