Could the messy, limited, or disappointing situations we find ourselves in actually help us create our best work? Thought leader Tim Harford has some inspiring ideas on how we can embrace — even encourage — these moments of frustration and use them as our ticket to leaps of creative success!

I’d like to welcome you to this article with a cold hard truth: things are not always going to go the way you planned. You may mess up, find yourself with the wrong tools, be forced to slow down, work much harder, or mix up your routines. But in the end, you may surprise yourself. There can be an amazing wonder in these perceived “messes” that may reveal something entirely unexpected!

Leaning into or adding this dash of mess to a situation can bring out our most creative work. There’s a method to this madness, thankfully. So let’s get to it.

Image: a cluster of wooden signs pointing in many directions

Source: Pixabay

Embracing the Mess

“Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t helping you.” — Tim Harford

Tim Harford is an economist, journalist, and broadcaster who has quite a few thoughts on how we can find our creativity and bring out our best work. And you probably aren’t going to enjoy the main thing you have to do: create a mess.

Whatever you do, you’ve probably worked hard to get good at it. You’ve developed systems, have your routines down, know the result you’re looking for, and have maybe spent years of your life studying it. The last thing you want to do is change your course. But what do you do when you get stuck? Get frustrated? Throw the project away? Declare yourself a failure?

What Tim suggests is that we embrace these unfavorable situations and use them to mix things up. Because when we’re forced to think differently, new, and possibly better, results emerge as our creativity and ideas are given different routes.

In this segment of TED Radio Hour, Tim goes into a few astounding stories of how this all works. From an expected mess of a performance that turned into a record-breaking hit, an unlikely team outperforming others, and ugly fonts saving the day, it’s an engaging interview and talk that truly hits us all right in the reality.

Have a listen:

You can see Tim Harford’s full talk by clicking here! And even more of his work  — including his insightful blog — can be found over on his website.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was a part of their episode, Jumpstarting Creativity. You can listen to the whole episode (and others!) by clicking here.

“If you’re always starting in the same place, your skill, and your abilities, and your habits just become a cliche. If you want to go somewhere different, suddenly the skill will find a new way to express itself and you’ll reach new heights. What’s the best way to finish somewhere different? The best way to finish somewhere different is to start somewhere different.” — Tim Harford

A video as unique as the situation that created it.

While emailing back and forth with Kayhl Cooper, a creator we’ve featured recently, he sent along a piece of content from his library that we don’t normally share on the site: a music video.

There was something so unique about this piece that I couldn’t really put my finger on… until he added the backstory. It’s one that’s reminiscent of the story told at the beginning of Tim Harford’s TED Talk — where a perceived jumble of a mess ended up turning into a huge success.

The video was filmed during his brother, Bohdi’s, college graduation ceremony. Bohdi had just released his first album, and since Kayhl is a director who makes music videos for a living, Bohdi asked him to film one that weekend.

“I was just coming off a bunch of really intense shoots and wasn’t sure I would be able to rope one together for the three days I would be in town for his ceremony, ” Kayhl relayed. “On the phone one night, I was like, ‘you know what, I’ll just shoot it from the stands like I’m your nerdy uncle who’s trying to film a home video.'” And thus, in an unlikely timeframe, the plan was hatched.

With a borrowed Bluetooth headpiece, they put it all into action. But then another curveball was thrown at them.

Kayhl recalled how the camera he originally used to film at the graduation wasn’t working, so he had to leave the ceremony to retrieve another. “I went to go get my camera from the hotel and missed him actually getting his degree — my sister filmed that piece for the video on the other camera. I came back, and we filmed him singing along. It was pure luck of timing that everyone tossed their hats and he walked out at the end of the song.”

When they wrapped up filming, they didn’t think it was going to work as a piece. Kayhl remembers saying to his brother, “At the very least, we have some funny graduation footage”. But they went home, edited it, and realized they had something on their hands. Now, the video they didn’t think would come together has over a hundred thousand views on YouTube alone.

With all the disruptions, they were forced to think differently. And they wound up with a piece better than what they had ever imagined.

So without further ado, please enjoy the wonderfully unique result of the tale of these two brothers. (And pay attention to the message in this song. It’s a great one.)

Catchy, isn’t it? If you’d like to hear more great work from Bohdi, please visit his website by clicking here. (There are links to where you can stream his music as you scroll down the page!)

And if you’d like to see the rest of Kayhls wonderful creations, make sure you check out our other article featuring a  documentary of his, then pop over to his website, Vimeo, and Instagram for more!

Another layer to that video:

At the end of his story, Kayhl shared something that really hit me. By going through the process of creating this video, the relationship he had with his brother went through its own change.

“Before making this video, Bohdi and I didn’t really have a good relationship, but since then, we’ve collaborated on a ton of other work — we just performed live together at Waking Windows festival this past weekend, and we’ve been able to figure out who each other are and co-exist really well. So, this song and its self-belief mantra mean a lot to me and documented a pretty specific point of mine and Bohdi’s lives.”

How great is that!

Adding just a few dashes of mess

Wherever you go, whatever you do, you’re sure to find yourself facing new problems and experiencing new environments. The plans you had may fall through, the life you thought you’d lead may not happen. But just keep going.

Who knows, these “messes” you find yourself in may be exactly what’s needed to get you where you want to be. It may not always feel like it’s going well, and it’s sure going to be frustrating at times, but they’ll bring you to places you could have never gone without them.

Take a look at these following articles for more examples of people turning their perceived “messes” into success.

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And if you’re doing what you want to do, but feel a bit stuck, do what Tim Harford suggests and add a dash of mess.

Make yourself complete a writing prompt that makes you uncomfortable. Play an instrument you’ve never tried before. Put together flavors that you believe would never, ever taste great together. Take a look at what you normally do and create a disruption. It doesn’t have to be a big, massive, reality-altering change. Even waking up at a different time can do wonders.

You never know what it will happen when you shuffle up your routine. Because just that one small shuffle can leave room for something new to rise through the spaces it creates. 

Here’s a link to an online version of the Oblique Strategies that Tim Harford mentioned in his talk that may lead you in the right direction. (If you’d like to learn more about the original Oblique Strategies, take a look at this great article from Brain Pickings!)

Stay open to new possibilities!

  • Sam

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein 

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  1. NPR/TED Staff. “Tim Harford: How Can Chaos Lead To Creative Breakthroughs?” NPR, TED Radio Hour, 10 May 2019, Accessed 3 June 2019.
  2. Bohdi. “Bohdi – Amazing, Pt. 1 (Ft. Cactus?).” YouTube, 25 June 2017, Accessed 3 June 2019.

Sam has written and edited hundreds of articles since joining the EWC team in 2016. She writes about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the EWC office, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and taster of cheeses.