Ep 80: The Upside of Messy Teenagers

Episode Summary

Tim Harford, author of Messy and accomplished journalist, economist, and speaker, and I talk about how messiness can play a positive role in your teen’s (and maybe your) life. Turns out you can use messes, randomness, and disorganization to enhance your thoughts and actions, rather than bog you down.

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

You stick your head into your kid’s bedroom to see their desk littered with crumpled papers, gum wrappers, used dishes, worn books, pens, and chargers. Their bed is unmade, and some of the pillows are on the floor along with dirty or clean laundry. As far as you can tell, there’s no rhyme or reason whatsoever. It’s no wonder your teen has trouble concentrating! They live in a state of chaos. You call your child’s name, ready to lay down the law and make them clean their room. You want to run a tight ship, don’t you?

But what if this mess isn’t actually a bad sign? It’s very difficult to discern when somebody’s disorganization is an indicator of distraction versus a sign of productivity. Whenever a person is busy, it can be hard to stay tidy. Your work desk is probably the most cluttered when you have the most work to do. Your teen’s messy room might follow the same pattern! In some cases, mess could be a sign of creative potential. When this is the case, and when it’s time for you to step in and help your teen find their way?

This week I spoke with Tim Harford, accomplished journalist, speaker, and author, to get a better idea of how messiness and disorganization can play a positive role in your teen’s (and maybe your) life. His book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, takes a close look at how and when being untidy might actually be a positive thing!

For example, Harford points to great creative minds as diverse as Benjamin Franklin, David Bowie, Miles Davis, and Michael Crichton and points to one common denominator: mess. Often, the most high-achieving individuals are also the ones with the most pots on the burner. With so many projects bubbling away, it’s hard to keep everything in order. Enthusiasm and curiosity are two great traits for accomplishing goals, but they also make it very hard to keep things tidy, and they might make someone seem like they’re easily distracted. This is something you should keep in mind next time you see your teen leaving things half-finished. They might be taking a break from one project to begin another! If this is the case, it’s important for you to foster the right amount of encouragement and guidance without overstepping boundaries.

Harford cites multiple studies and field experts in our talk that provide awesome perspective on the concept of messiness. A parent of teenagers himself, Harford uses his research and expertise to give some great advice when it comes to applying the concept of messiness to family life. In our interview, he teaches me all about how to:

  • Turn accidents into positive experiences
  • Creating “empowered” spaces for teens to excel
  • Cultivating diverse friendships and perspectives
  • Making the most of quarantine situations with family

Raising a messy or distractible teen can be a challenge, but Harford’s wonderful advice is sure to help any parent come to, if not an appreciation for, then at least an understanding of how mess might transform a life. Thank you, Tim!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Empower Your Teen Using Their Bedroom:

In his interview with me, Tim Harford, author of Messy, discussed a brilliant study in which workers were placed in four different office spaces and then measured on their productivity. Turns out, the participants were most productive (and happy) when they were allowed to arrange their own work space. Workers who were allowed to arrange their workspace but then had that freedom enforceably revoked were the least productive group AND reported feeling the most upset and distracted during and after “working.” Tim admits that this study made him seriously reconsider how he was parenting his own teens. Rather than dictate how his teens rooms should look, Tim and his wife decided that decrees would make more sense. Decrees such as “vacuuming is happening on Thursdays so if you don’t want the things on your floor touched or moved by someone else, you’ll have to take care of that by Wednesday evening.” Similarly, Tim has a schedule for laundry, and if dirty clothes are not in the laundry room, they don’t get washed. It’s time to re-empower your teen in their own bedroom and take the stress off of you in the process. Schedule a day in your calendar to release your teen’s room back to them. You can still have rules like, no food in bedrooms,and similar decrees like Tim Harford has, but, this time, make it clear to your teen that their bedroom is officially theirs.

2. Get Messy:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So the book is called Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. And it says in here that it took you four years to write the book. So, I mean, it was clearly a ton of work.

Andy: There’s interviews with researchers and pop culture icons all over the world. You’ve clearly done your homework in order to put this thing together. So what was it that inspired you to write a book on mess and disorder?

Tim: It was a lot of work. It was a lot of fun as well. I just became increasingly interested in the things that are hard to pin down, hard to measure, hard to define. It seems to me that a lot of the most important things in life are that sort of thing.

Tim: And as an economist, I’m trained as an economist, my first book was The Undercover Economist, I write and broadcast about economics. You might think that mess is not an obvious topic for an economist to take on, but actually, I’ve found that even within my own field of economics, all the interesting stuff was the stuff that you couldn’t define, was the stuff that you couldn’t plan.

Tim: The economy is terribly messy. And the more I looked at that, the more I spoke to people, the more I researched, the more examples I came up with. And, before long, I was talking about everything from tidying your bedroom, to jazz, to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s diary. I mean, it went everywhere, and yeah, it was great fun to write the book.

Andy: So, okay. A big thesis of the book is that sometimes being messy or kind of disorganized is not as bad as we might think. And there’s some situations where it might actually be helpful.

Andy: So a personal thing for you, that you’re a messy person? You’re trying to justify it with this book and say, “Hey, it’s not so bad?” Or it’s just something you found interesting in other people, or what?

Tim: Well, I should confess. I’m a pretty tidy person myself, so I’m just a massive hypocrite. But I was partly interested … I mean, the book is about a lot more than just physical mess. It’s about all kinds of improvisation and ambiguity and so on.

Tim: But, just specifically on the concept of physical untidiness, I was puzzled in my own life as to why my kitchen was so tidy, for example. And yet my desk would get so messy. And it would bother me and I would try to understand it and I would kind of blame myself.

Tim: Then eventually, I realized, it wasn’t so much that the messy desk was an amazing thing to be proud of. It was just that this is a sign that work is being done. And it’s just intrinsic to the process to getting work done, that there is going to be some mess, and we shouldn’t be constantly beating ourselves up about it. And we shouldn’t be beating each other up. We shouldn’t be beating our kids up about it either.

Tim: One of the stories that really struck me in the book was Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, where this amazing man, Ben Franklin, all the inventions, and his political achievements and the literature, and just, what a life. And in his autobiography, towards the end of his life, he’s reflecting on something he did.

Tim: When he was quite young, he had this thing he called a virtue journal and he would think about all the virtues he wanted to cultivate in himself. And he would systematically track whether he was succeeding.

Tim: He’s reflecting back on this decades later. And he says, “I think it was a great success. I managed to improve myself, in every respect, except one. And That was orderliness. I wanted to keep my desk tidy. I wanted to keep my appointments book tidy, my bookshelf tidy, and I was never able to do this.”

Tim: The idea that even Benjamin Franklin is beating himself up and go, “Oh, just think about what I could have achieved, if only I’d been tidier.” And I found that again and again, as I was conducting interviews to promote the book, I would have these conversations with very successful journalists, news anchors, people at the top of their profession.

Tim: And they would say, “Oh, wow. Your book really made me feel better about my messy desk.” I thought that was strange, that you need me to tell you, a very successful person, that you seem to have made it anyway, just that [crosstalk 00:04:35].

Andy: Seems like it’s working out for you, yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.

Tim: Exactly. And all of the people that I spoke to while researching the book was a psychologist called Steve Whittaker, who’s worked with a lot of the big technology companies, like Microsoft and IBM. And he also studied the physical space that people have. And he divided people into two groups, the filers and the pilers.

Tim: When he investigated what had happened after an office move, the pilers had coped just fine, because a lot of the stuff on their desk, they knew what it was. They knew whether it was important. They could throw a lot of it away, just put it in a wastepaper basket, throw it in the trash. And after the move, they had manageable archives, and they knew where stuff was.

Tim: Whereas the filers, who in principle, you would say, “Well, these were the people who are much more organized.” They really struggled with the move. They had massive archives. They couldn’t get rid of them. And they didn’t know where anything was.

Tim: Now that sounds weird. Why would that be? And Whittaker said, part of the problem is something he calls premature filing. If you’re constantly trying to get stuff out of your inbox, or you’re constantly trying to get stuff off your desk, you file it in categories. You don’t really know what it is. You don’t really know whether it’s important or how it links to everything else.

Tim: And so you create these folders that only ever have one e-mail in, or only ever have one document in, and have no connection to anything else. Whereas if you were willing to let the stuff accumulate a little bit on your desk, in your e-mail inbox, you start to have a better sense of what it is, and whether you can delete it, and if you need to file it, how it connects to other things.

Andy: That makes so much sense, but then you have to live in a constant state of messy desk, and then you’re constantly beating yourself up. So maybe then this book is the little fact that you needed to know to be able to tell yourself, “Hey, actually, this is okay. I’m not handicapping myself somehow by failing to clean this up faster.”

Tim: Yeah. I think we get fooled by it. There’s this, sort of a correlation that we think is causal, and we get it the wrong way round. So I find my desk starts to get really messy when I’m under stress. And I blame the stress on the mess.

Tim: I think, “Oh, this mess is making me stressed,” but actually what’s making me stressed is I’m super, super busy. And I don’t have time to tell you my desk. And the fact that the desk has got messy is actually the symptom, it’s not the cause.

Tim: So yeah, we need to see what’s really stressing us. And often, we realize it’s not actually the mess at all.

Andy: Can you talk about distractibility? There’s a study in here. You talk about researchers, including Shelley Carson, of Harvard, testing people’s ability to filter out unwanted stimulus.

Andy: For example, having a conversation in a busy restaurant and filtering out the other conversations going on around you. And some students had weak filters, but others had stronger filters, and were better able to like to another things out.

Tim: It was such an interesting study, because you would think that distractibility was a disadvantage.

Andy: Yeah, that’s bad. You don’t want that.

Tim: And I’m sure it is, in some circumstances. And yet, what Shelley Carson found was, the people who found it difficult to filter things out, who would be distracted by the TV screen in the corner of the bar, or be distracted by the conversation over at the next table, those students were substantially more likely to have already, despite being young, racked up some significant creative achievement, for example, to have created artwork that was exhibited at a public exhibition, or to have published a novel, or to have released an album.

Tim: So, I mean, these are real creative achievements. This is not putting people in the laboratory, and asking if they can think of cool uses for a paper clip or something like that, like how researchers sometimes measure creativity.

Tim: Now, and we should point out, these are already people … Shelley Carson is at Harvard, but she’s a professor at Harvard. So she is studying her undergraduate students at Harvard.

Tim: So they’re already high achievers. So we shouldn’t say, we shouldn’t pretend this is a complete universal, but what she’s saying is, of the people who’ve made it to Harvard, the ones who don’t seem to be able to focus, and don’t seem to be able to filter, they’re the ones who were racking up the serious creative achievements.

Tim: One of the people that I interviewed for the book was Brian Eno. Brian Eno, amazing musician, a producer, worked with everybody from Coldplay to U2, to I think, most famously, David Bowie. And one of the many interesting things that I discovered about Brian Eno was that he finds it completely impossible to focus, if there’s music playing in the background.

Andy: Ahh.

Tim: Just privy to have these conversations. And that, I thought, “This is the sound of kind of connections being made. Yeah, this is a person who’s paying attention to every detail, whether it’s a detail he should be paying attention to or not.” No wonder he produces these amazing creative projects.

Tim: And then, one of the albums he worked on with David Bowie, the working title for the album was Planned Accidents. Everything they were trying to do was about creating random stuff, and seeing whether something interesting happened, that they could then get hold of, and turn into music.

Andy: And it strikes me, that it’s similar to this phenomenon you write about a little bit later, called network of enterprises, having a bunch of different projects all the time that are all in different stages, sort of.

Tim: Yeah.

Andy: That all kind of can inform each other.

Tim: I’m not a hypocrite about this one, because as I may have mentioned, while I was writing Messy, I stopped writing Messy, and I wrote an entire different book in the middle of the process of writing Messy. And then I went back and finished writing Messy. So this is the way this is what I’m talking about. And I thought, “Oh, well, that’s not great, is it Tim?”

Tim: Then I realized, real high achievers, people I could really admire, and only dream about achieving 1% of what they’ve achieved, they do the same thing. So we’re talking about people like the amazing choreographer, Twyla Tharp, Charles Darwin, the creator of the theory of evolution, Albert Einstein, and Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park, and all of these other absolutely remarkable creative achievements.

Tim: I mean, Michael Crichton, so he trained as a doctor and he said he wrote books about programming and the history of art. And then he directed a film. He directed the original Westworld movie in the 1970s. And then he starts writing novels.

Tim: And by the mid-1990s, I think it was 1994, he had created the world’s most successful TV show, which was ER, and the world’s most read book, and the world’s most successful movie, which I think may have been Twister.

Tim: Then the next year, he did it again, most successful TV show, and the most successful novel, and the most successful movie, twice in two years. I mean, it’s scarcely believable that anyone really could do that. And they’re different projects. It’s not like JK Rowling, where it’s Harry Potter, Harry Potter, and Harry Potter.

Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim: I don’t want to dismiss that achievement, but it was-

Andy: JK?

Tim: Hey, look, they were all different projects. And so, all of these people are maintaining what one creativity researcher, who specialized, actually, in the study of Darwin, one creativity researcher called this network of enterprises.

Andy: Ah hah.

Tim: And the network of enterprises is, now you got a project, and that’s on the front burner, and then you’ve got another project on the back burner. And then you, there’s another burner behind you. And there’s a project there, and there’s a project in the microwave. And you’ve got a project in a thermos flask as well.

Tim: And they’re all kind of, you’re keeping them all hot, you’re working on, not all of them, you move in between one and another. I was trying to think about why this was.

Tim: I actually have a TED Talk on this particular concept of, I started calling it slow motion multitasking. And this is not like, “Oh, you’re on Instagram, and you’re also watching Netflix at the same time.” It’s not that.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Tim: You’ve got these serious projects going in parallel. So, a few things that seem to be happening, one is that you get an idea in one field, and it carries over to another field. This is, cross-fertilization.

Tim: A second thing is simply that you get stuck sometimes. And if you’re stuck, that can be a really, really hard place to be. But if you’re stuck and you’ve got another great project, well, that’s fine, because you just procrastinate by doing something else, awesome.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Tim: There’s at least, different things going on, but it seems to be very, very widespread. It’s not uncommon in highly creative artists and scientists.

Tim: There’s one study of scientists like Nobel Prize winning scientists, the top people, which found that they were way more likely to have serious hobbies than other scientists who were less successful. [crosstalk 00:14:38] They would exhibit photography, for example, at a semi-professional level, or they would give paid concert performances, where people were paying for tickets to go and see them play the piano, or something, as well as being a Nobel Prize winning physicist.

Andy: Wow.

Tim: It was just extraordinary.

Andy: Because I feel that’s relevant, because parents, a lot of times are worried when it’s like, “I got this kid, who’s just a dabbler, who just doesn’t seem to want to just focus, and is all over the place, and not really just sinking into one thing.”

Andy: I guess part of me is like, “Oh, well, so again, maybe so that’s good, then. Just back off. But then, the other part of me is what you were talking about with, “Well, these are studying kids at Harvard, and you’re talking about Nobel Prize people winning Nobel Prizes.

Andy: How do you tell when that’s a good thing, and hey, “I should let my kid experiment with all these different things that they have going on, versus when it’s a problem, and they’re not headed towards the high achieving, big breakthroughs route, but more down towards the dabbling, and not really getting anything done in any one area?”

Tim: It’s hard, isn’t it? I mean, I’m a parent of three kids and it’s very frustrating when you watch them making the mistakes you see yourself making, and you don’t know … Just, I can guarantee everyone listening to this podcast, your children are not going to win Nobel Prizes, my children are not going to win Nobel Prizes, because statistically speaking, nobody’s children win Nobel Prizes. That just doesn’t happen.

Tim: I mean, obviously there are about three or four exceptions every year, but for regular kids, my instinct is that if they are interested in what they’re doing, and they’ve got a lot of different interests, and they don’t seem to be able to settle down, but they’re doing something that seems to have some value, rather than just constantly Snapchatting, or playing on the Xbox.

Andy: Yeah, right, right.

Tim: And that’s okay too, right? I mean, let’s not pathologize. I have one daughter who just seems to be interested in absolutely everything she watches. There’s these little TED ed talks, and she knits, and she’s in the Cub Scouts, and she seems to be trying to do some kind of programming thing. And she’s always doing craft in her room, and she announces that she’s working on a novel, but none of us can read it.

Tim: It’s just this outburst of creativity in all kinds of different ways. And I mean, I haven’t seen her finish that much, but I don’t worry about that, because I think, “Well, I’d be delighted if she was focused on any of this.” So the fact that she’s doing 10 things, but any of them would be worth doing, well, I think doing the 10 things that are worth doing is even more worth doing.

Tim: I’m very pleased to see that. And in any case, I mean, what could I do about, if I didn’t like it? What am I going to do about it? You can’t control someone else’s creative life. I think she’s probably going to be fine.

Andy: There’s a great statistic, study in here, where you’re looking at the differences between different kinds of colleges. You’re talking about this fact, that it can be helpful to collaborate and have friendships with people who are really different from us.

Andy: And so, at certain colleges, you’re more likely to make those kinds of friends and have those kinds of partnerships and collaborations. Whereas at other colleges, you’re not. So how does that work? And which are the good kind, and which are the not good kind?

Tim: It was really interesting, because this study was quite counter-intuitive. What it found was that the colleges that were more diverse, that were larger, had a bigger spread of backgrounds, the students who went to those colleges ended up in narrower cliques. They ended up hanging out with people who were much more like themselves. And you think, “Well, how could that be?”

Tim: And the smaller colleges, which, on the surface, were less diverse, were just fewer people, for a start, so just a few less of everything. That there was more diversity in the groups that the individual students had, their friendship groups.

Tim: When you think about it a little bit more, you realize it’s not quite as surprising as it might seem. So if you live in a small community, any small community, there’s a limit to how much you can pick and choose your friends. There aren’t that many people around, so you got to try and be friends with everybody.

Andy: Right.

Tim: There’ll be different ages, there’ll be different backgrounds, different political persuasions, different life experiences. It’s just, that’s who you’ve got.

Tim: Whereas if you live in a big city, you can get on a Facebook, or you can get on a chat group, and find exactly the people who not only like to play board games, but like to play exactly the kind of board game that you like to play, with the exact, with the second edition rules that you really favor. And you could just zoom in on people who who fit what you want, absolutely precisely.

Tim: And because we tend to be attracted to people who are like us, who have interests like us, I mean, even people who look like us, if you have a much broader choice, you use that choice to self-select.

Tim: It’s really the same thing that’s going on when we browse information sources on the Internet. And it used to be that you would you’d get a newspaper. Maybe if you were lucky, you’d live in a town that had two local newspapers, and you’d choose one. And that was it.

Tim: And there were three news networks on the television, you pick one. And in a way, that’s quite narrow. In another way, you’d get you just get exposure to what everyone was reading. Yeah, this here would show you a broad range of news stories and opinion.

Tim: Whereas now, you can, in principle, you could read the news from India. They have English language news in India. You could read the Chinese news from Hong Kong, or from Singapore. You could consult specialist publications in any field you like from all over the world.

Tim: You could use Google translates to check out the news from Peru, if you don’t speak Spanish. I’m willing to bet you don’t do any of these things. I don’t do any of these things.

Andy: No.

Tim: And I’m a journalist. It’s my job to stay abreast of the news. So what we’re doing with this infinite amount of choice is, we’re like, “Well, I will follow exactly who I want to follow. And I will read exactly what I want to read.”

Tim: Paradoxically, we’ve made it much easier to really narrow our horizons, because we have more choice. And that study of college students is basically finding the same thing, a big college with lots and lots of choice. We use that choice to surround ourself with a group of friends who’s just like us.

Andy: Interesting. So smaller colleges, you’re actually more likely to make more diverse friend groups.

Tim: That’s what the study found. And I think you can see the logic of how it plays out.

Andy: That makes a lot of sense, but wow, that’s not what I would have guessed.

Tim: No, it’s not. I mean, I think about my own situation, when I went to college. I studied at Oxford university. And the way the Oxford system is arranged is, the university is split into colleges.

Tim: There were about 30 colleges. So the colleges are quite small. And within each college, you’d spit into particular subject groups, but physically, the colleges are divided, not into floors, but into staircases.

Tim: It’s very Harry Potter, really, you’ve got this spiral staircase, basically this goes, going up and up, and then, off three or four floors, you got the rooms. So it might be 10 or 12 people on your staircase, each with their own room.

Tim: You want to go and see someone at a different staircase, you have to go all the way down the stairs, and then go outside, and walk across the beautiful picturesque quadrangle, and then go into another staircase, and you climb back up. And so, there’s an encouragement to figure out how to get on with the people who were right there, because-

Andy: Get to know the people around you.

Tim: There it is. And I’m still friends with the people who were just right there with me. And they were a really diverse bunch of people.

Tim: There were some evangelical Christians, there was a Muslim, there were a couple of militant atheists, people who were quite left-wing. There were people who were quite right wing.

Tim: We all just got on really, really well, because we kind of had to, because there we were. And I didn’t recognize what a blessing it was at the time, to have that variety of experience.

Tim: Yeah, you couldn’t, I think, have designed a better way to get people to meet people who were a little bit different to themselves. Of course, there we were, we were all students. We were all the same age, we were all studying at Oxford University. Of course, there were similarities, thoughts.

Andy: Sure.

Tim: There was less opportunities to really seek out people who saw the world exactly the way we did.

Andy: Yeah, right. That’s so interesting. And yeah, certainly, social media is making that easier and easier nowadays.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, and it makes it easier to find people who are very different, as well, if you want to.

About Tim Harford

Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of  Messy, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, and the million-selling The Undercover Economist. Tim is a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, the iTunes-topping series Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, and the new podcast Cautionary Tales. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House. He is an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford and an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.

Tim has appeared on The Colbert Report, Planet Money, and Today, among others. His writing has been published by leading magazines and newspapers including Esquire, Forbes, Wired, New York Magazine, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Tim was made an OBE for services to improving economic understanding in the New Year honours of 2019. He lives in Oxford with his wife and three children.

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