BOUND TO PLEASE / Being an agent of chaos might do you some good

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterMessy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

By Tim Harford

Riverhead, 294pp

Chess is a game of anticipation and calculation. If you can anticipate what your opponent will do, you can calculate what you should do. That is, unless your opponent is world champion Magnus Carlsen.

According to “Messy,” a paean to disorganization by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, one key to Carlsen’s success is that his opponents can’t anticipate him. He peppers his games with unconventional moves to mix things up and keep his opponents off balance — especially as time is running out. This creates difficult situations in which even Carlsen’s own subsequent moves aren’t technically perfect. “Carlsen doesn’t need to play perfectly to win; he just needs to ensure that his opponent plays worse.”

The author likens Carlsen to German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who “believed that opportunities arose from confusion on the battlefield, and tried to generate more opportunities by creating more confusion.” He launched surprise attacks on the spur of the moment to create situations in which he could improvise his way to victory while the other side was still trying to figure out what was going on.

Harford ascribes similar techniques to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip use of Twitter during the Republican primaries, deemed a weakness by pundits at the time, knocked his carefully crafted opponents off their scripts. Ultimately, this helped Trump win.

The benefits of intentional entropy are not limited to competitive situations. Exposing yourself to challenges and shocks, Harford says, can help you be more creative than keeping your work and living conditions tidy and predictable.

He supports this idea with numerous examples from the world of music. Several involve producer Brian Eno, who evoked groundbreaking performances from the likes of Iggy Pop and David Bowie by forcing them to follow randomly selected “Oblique Strategies” during recording sessions. These ranged from the technically challenging (“Change instrument roles”) to the mystically open-ended (“Water”).

Even in everyday life, mixing things up can be beneficial. In 2014, a strike closed most of London’s Underground stations, “leaving commuters scrambling to find alternate routes using buses, aboveground trains or the stations that remained open.” Data from electronic commuter passes showed that one in 20 Londoners liked their alternate routes enough to continue using them when the strike was over, suggesting that a dose of chaos helped them find routes that were faster, cheaper or more enjoyable.

The theme of “Messy” could be boiled down to one piece of cliched advice: Don’t get stuck in a rut. But the book itself is not cliched. Its wide-ranging examples look at that single piece of wisdom from fascinating angles.

For instance, climbing randomly shaped trees brings children greater developmental rewards than climbing neatly constructed playground equipment.

For adults, making decisions in a diverse group where everyone has to defend their ideas is likelier to yield positive results — even though working with like-minded people tends to feel more productive.

“Messy” suggests fresh ways to look at many situations. One situation to watch is Carlsen’s defense of his title against Sergey Karjakin at the World Chess Championship happening through Nov. 30 in New York. Maybe he’ll win again. But chaos is unpredictable.

Where to Read

Sitting at your messy desk. Better yet, get away from your desk and climb a tree.

Maruzen price: ¥3190 (as of Nov. 23, 2016)Speech

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