Book Review: A Perfect Mess

January 23, 2007

Remember those old commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? The ones where you’d see a person on one side of a wall walking with a jar of peanut butter while the guy coming around the corner had a chocolate bar? They’d collide and one would say angrily, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”, then the other: “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” They’d quickly realize, however, that this messy interaction was a happy accident that had spawned a wonderful new candy sensation.

Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, the authors of the new book A Perfect Mess, would probably approve of that commercial, because their book’s thesis is that a little mess can be a good thing, that too much orderliness can stifle inventiveness, waste time—even go against the laws of nature.

If you have a messy desk, the authors refute the claims of orderliness experts who say you’re losing hours every day hunting for things. In fact, they say that for most messy people, looks can be deceiving—there’s usually a method to the madness, even if that method is vague even to the person who’s learned to thrive within it. For example, your desk is a mess, but you might keep a small clear space immediately around you, with the most important things staying in your closer sphere and the less important being pushed to the far corners. What you need most stays close at hand, what you need only occasionally is further away, and you know that, at least subconsciously.

And, like the Reese’s Cup example above, that messy desk might bring together two disparate projects or papers that spark an idea of how they could be combined in a new, creative way. Or if you’re really messy, as in the case of Alexander Fleming, who came back from vacation one day to find that mold had invaded a petri dish left on his desk, it might lead to you discovering penicillin. Now that’d be cool. And it would never happen if everything was always lined up in color-coded file folders, now would it?

Of course neatniks might say that this book just throws around a few messy examples that prove the rule of order. Even a messy, disgusting squirrel finds a nut amid the clutter sometimes. And that’s a point you could argue, except A Perfect Mess doesn’t just look at messy people—it looks at how messiness, as in a lack of order, is often a stronger model for success.

There are countless examples of this. Look at war. From the guerilla-style American revolutionaries picking off the well-ordered redcoats to the decentralized cells of Al-Qaeda to the random insurgency that has often stonewalled the highly-trained and highly organized U.S. troops in Iraq, it’s clear that messiness has its advantages.

Look at business, especially today. More and more often we hear about businesses using open-source products and encouraging user participation in creating everything from Web sites to a company’s R&D. It’s messy, unpredictable, and requires giving up some control, but it’s also a way to generate new ideas that a business might never come up with in the traditional manner. (The authors also use Microsoft as an example of a messy company, getting their hands into everything, putting out products on the fly and refining them through successive iterations. This method may provoke criticism, but it’s hard to argue that it’s been unsuccessful.)

Even nature desires a certain messiness, and the book provides a number of examples. The one I found most interesting describes a species of turtle whose offspring’s sex is determined by the outside temperature. If the temperature didn’t fluctuate, all would be the same sex, effectively killing off the species.

These guys have dozens of other fun, messy stories you’ll enjoy, and overall the book is a winner. Know where it falters, though? When it attempts to categorize types of messiness, define the methods people use in dealing with mess, etc. Come on, guys, it’s a book about mess. Don’t mess it up by trying to neaten it.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world.



  1. Everyday at work I get “picked at” by my co-workers for having such a messy desk. I often remind them that I know where everything is and if one of them moves something, I WILL know it. I do fund raising for a high school, and things are, as I say often, “organizably messy.

    Thanks for writing the book, By the way would you like to donate one of your books to our annual auction?


    My e-mail address is:chegabbeau@yahoo.com

  2. Well, I’m not actually the author—I only reviewed it. But I appreciate the comment!

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