On Sideways Thinking, Messiness & Librarianship: Context Book Review

Book I  Think Sideways: a game-changing playbook for disruptive thinking

This gem of a little book teaches people how to undo years of societal training. All those things we learned in school: color inside the lines; follow directions; do what the others do; don’t show our feelings; learn to conform. Kleinberg’s premise is that those things were great for certain types of work in the past. But we have moved toward a new way of being, and those rigid boundaries of self-control are in our way, now! Let’s disrupt the social order, throw off inhibitions, dream up what we want, and take actions toward those dreams.

Section One attempts to define sideways thinking. “Life is full of sideways thinkers who have disrupted life-as-usual. You know who they are. They are usually labeled the rebels, the mavericks, the pioneers. They are all of these things and more.” (Kleinberg, loc 242). Here, she also briefly dispels some mythologies about creativity, such as funky glasses are required; or, creativity is hard work; or, creativity is about making an object of beauty for the world to see. Then, in Section Two she outlines the basic steps toward becoming a sideways thinker, which include:

  • Write a Manifesto
  • Eternal Optimism
  • Keep Your Antennas Up
  • Jump on Two
  • Don’t Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
  • Obsess
  • Follow Frustration
  • Believe You Can Defy the Odds
  • There are No Rules
  • Learn in Motion
  • Dream Crazy
  • Go in the Opposite Direction
  • Seize Change
  • Lean In
  • Create New Rules
  • Get Emotional

Finally, in Section Three she discusses why sideways thinking is important. “We’ve shifted from an information age built on sequential logic and information to a conceptual age built on empathy and emotion. People are naturally emotional. We seek to connect on an emotional level; we make decisions based on emotion.”  (Kleinberg, loc 1549). Sideways thinking, in her mind, teaches us to rely less upon logic and more upon emotion, upon intuition, upon radical insight.

She also addresses the increasingly fluid barriers surrounding ideas and intellectual property rights. Hiding ideas behind a copyright is a thing of the past. “The world has changed and the future belongs to those who embrace sharing and collaboration, not to those who hoard and hide. The New Economy of Ideas is built on a premise of abundance, not scarcity. In the old days, people felt that there weren’t enough ideas to go around. That is what led to the hoarding of ideas.” (Kleinberg, loc 2681).

I would take this one step further, perhaps. In a capitalistic society, ideas = money; which is why ideas have been protected under copyright. People attempt to copyright common words and phrases, just so they can make money from that. Unfortunately, capitalism as we have always known it, is completely unsustainable. There is a strong movement away from such rigidity of ownership, and toward a more fluid sharing of ideas and information. Increasingly, we are seeing collaboration among scholars, among business colleagues, among global communities. Truly, it takes sideways thinking to see outside the lines society has drawn around us!


Book II  Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives

Harford lays out for us the theory that ‘messiness is good.’ “Often, we are so seduced by the blandishments of tidiness that we fail to appreciate the virtues of the messy – the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty.” (Harford, p 4). He then systematically documents demonstrated ways that messiness has powerful and positive impact on our lives, in increased creativity, in improved collaboration, in our work productivity, in our ability to improvise, in our ability to succeed, and in our increased resilience.

In case study after case study, from artists, to scientists, to engineers, to businesses, Harford provides evidence that it is in the messy outcomes of unplanned moments that we make our greatest creative leaps. He writes about Benjamin Franklin, who craved order all his life, never succeeding, but making discovery after discovery in his chaos. “A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it at first seems. There’s a natural tendency toward a very pragmatic system of organization based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile.” (Harford, p 236).  He writes about jazz great, Miles Davis, whose greatest recording he “kind of missed” what he was trying to do. And yet it is still acknowledged as his greatest work (Kind of Blue).

“Speed, economy, and flexibility: these three advantages should already be enough to convince us that the messy process of improvising has its advantages over tidy, scripted alternatives. But there’s something else that seems to happen during the process of improvisation, an almost magical creative spark that until recently has been elusive.” (Harford, p 98).

Spontaneity, lack of planning, leaping, can lead to great result. Scientists and sociologists have been attempting to evaluate these results in a quantifiable way. What do we find when we look at the brains of people who are improvising?  Brains scans suggest that “improvisers are suppressing their conscious control and letting go…. Improvising musicians shut down their inner critic. Improvisers stop filtering their ideas quite so assiduously, and allow the mess of new ideas to flow out.”

The takeaway?  “Real creativity, excitement, and humanity lie in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones. And an appreciation of the virtues of mess in fulfilling our human potential is something we can encourage….”



Why These Two Books?

I must confess, I have two more books from the list already downloaded to my Kindle and added to my TBR list. But these two titles were of particular interest to me, because these titles validate my entire existence.

When I was 50 years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD. After testing, the doctor told me that, in fact, I am severely ADHD. As a person who has continually struggled to comply with rules, but failed to understand why rules are required; as a person who has struggled to do things “the normal way” or “the right way” and who has repeatedly failed; as a person who has learned to accept themselves as a failure, I was pleased to suddenly connect the flotilla of unconnected dots which are, under the umbrella term of ADHD, loosely considered to be “symptoms.”

Before my diagnosis, I felt that ADHD was a made-up disorder; that people could be taught to do things. Of course, they could! That I personally always failed in such attempts at learning seemed to me to be a personal failure. I was lazy [so untrue]. I was stubborn [probably true]. After diagnosis, I finally realized that even if I wanted to learn how to do any task “normally”, I would not be able to do it. My brain is different than 90% of the population, both in physiological configuration and in neurochemistry. Understanding this has changed my life.

Sideways Thinking is what I always do. I am practically incapable of seeing things through a so-called “normal” lens. Messy is an accurate description of the inside of my head. Thoughts, thousands of thoughts, are jumbled and piled, wiggling and squirming, demanding attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. There is never NOT chaos in my brain.


I cannot convey the depth of my gratitude and relief at no longer having to struggle to be what I am physically incapable of ever being!  And my gratitude and relief at understanding that those mundane ways of being “broken” were the cause of my flashes of insight; my wacky sense of humor; my creativity; my mad ability to solve a problem quickly; my skills at bringing people together while helping them laugh and embrace their own creative selves.

I disagree that ADH is a disorder. I certainly would not trade my messy life for the tidy world of a person who colors inside lines. I admire those folks. I have envied them. But I would not want to be that. I did not want to be that. I never actually wanted to “see straight.” I always enjoyed looking at the world sideways. Or upside down.

I was that kid who hung upside down from a tree reading a book. Who turned cameras at weird angles to take pictures; or, who took pictures from strange angles below or above the subject.

I was that kid who, tired of the conflict over a messy room, cleaned my room on the last day of school one summer, and slept in a sleeping bag on the floor so I would not have to make the bed each day. I was that kid with a secret room outdoors, where I had hidden my favorite books and journals, so my “messy junk” would not offend my tidy mother.

I was that kid who could never follow directions. But who could always tell when someone was feeling badly. When someone needed help.

And yes, I was that kid who failed. Who failed spectacularly! But, who failed with brilliant results! Who failed by producing something unique. Who believed that the result of my explorations was more important to me than the result of following directions toward someone else’s already drawn conclusions.

As a librarian, I have the opportunity to open our doors wide to people who are neurologically different. I have the ability to share a learning experience with people who were born thinking sideways and who do not fit the “normal” or “tidy” worldviews. I enjoy meeting people who are off-kilter, either by choice or by birth. These are the interesting people. The deep thinkers. The innovators.


Messiness, Sideways Thinking, & Librarianship

Finally, how can these books help us become better at our practice of librarianship?

Radical librarianship begins by letting go of what librarianship has traditionally been. And the traditional librarian has staunchly demanded order, perfection, tidiness, and silence. The traditional librarian valued collection over people. The traditional librarian “ssshhed” people’s feelings, and even their own feelings. The traditional librarian craved regularity, but people are irregular, always. The traditional librarian stood on a pillar of virtue, and judged everyone who failed to meet the standard. But everyone DOES fail to meet the standard.

Now we have an opportunity to look at our organizations sideways, and encourage others to do so as well. Now we have an opportunity to allow a little messiness to enter our walls, with the goal in mind of finding those flashes of collaborative creativity, community celebration, and joy.

Isn’t that worth a little mess, a little noise?





7 Thoughts.

  1. Hi Faith,

    Thanks for reviewing these two books and linking them so well to librarianship and your own creative process. I have now added them both to my very long and ever growing “to read” list. 🙂

    I love messy, disruptive thinking. When I am in the depths of writing or designing something, my office space usually looks chaotic. My engineer husband peeks in to check on me, brings me coffee, but then retreats quickly and shuts the door because he just can’t stand to witness what I call my “thinking explosion.” I tidy it all up after each project is done so I can mess up a clean slate the next time. 🙂

  2. Faith, I really enjoyed reading your post; it was lively, energetic, passionate and informative (and definitely not messy!). I really liked your comic of the two stick figures and the very “messy” brain (I can very much relate!).
    I have a mixed response to the arguments of the books you’ve shared. I find this is a common problem for me trying to move between the logical and the emotional; the passionate and the rational; the messy and the neat; the sideways and the straight ahead (pick your dichotomy). I teach writing, which has been and continues to be defined in very “tidy” terms. While I might rebel at the limitations that formal composition imposes, I also realize that it is really hard to understand “mess”. . . When I was an undergrad, over 30 years ago, I would argue with teachers that my writing was “creative”, not messy. But now, I’ve come to realize it might have been creative but it was also really messy. It’s taken me a long time to “reign it in” (and I still struggle). But I do think there is a place for tidiness and a place for mess. And, at this point in history, I’m very reluctant to embrace emotion and intuition (I think we need facts and reason badly!). So, I struggle with how do we appreciate, enjoy, practice and understand (with our critical faculties engaged) passionate and “sideways” thinking and “mess” without embracing a relativism that encourages specious arguments and policies? I wish I found it easier to locate that middle place?

    • @mvasudeva03 Hi, Mary.

      “I struggle with how do we appreciate, enjoy, practice and understand (with our critical faculties engaged) passionate and “sideways” thinking and “mess” without embracing a relativism that encourages specious arguments and policies? I wish I found it easier to locate that middle place?”

      My sensibility is that we need to find a pathway which begins with sideways thinking and passion, and which then seeks out data and facts. The caution, of course, is that we do not seek out only those facts which support our passionate ideas, and “overlook” those facts which disprove our current theory. Should facts disprove our theory, this is a brilliant failure! This is where we have opportunity to look and think sideways again, paw through the messiness again, and revise our thinking, again. I do not think this process ever stops. Sideways thinking allows us to explore research territory outside the boundaries of established policy or established knowledge; we begin to look at established facts in new ways. Not alternative facts, mind you. But instead moving facts around like puzzle pieces until we can see a new way forward where all the pieces fit.

      Furthermore, shouldn’t allow our sideways perception and our enthusiasm for our research to infuse our writing, bringing the threads of fact and passion together in one place? I am somewhat overruled in this thinking by academics who wish to be taken “seriously.” I have a problem with academic tone sounding forced and artificial. In my work experience, stakeholders don’t want to hear a boring summary of the facts; they want a short, clear message, trusting that our message is supported by fact. Heartful story-telling is a necessary skillset for any non-profit director.

      Great comments for further thinking! Thanks, Mary.

  3. This title caught my attention, especially the “messy” and “sideways” part!
    Sometimes I am all over the place, so I really appreciate this author’s slant.
    “Radical librarianship begins by letting go of what librarianship has traditionally been”. Yes, we definitely need more of that.

  4. Thanks so much for the review of both of these books. I felt like you review was a two for one because I learned about two books I hadn’t heard about and now want to read. I think the Thinking Sideways concept sounds really interesting and challenging to put into practice. I’ve just ordered “Messy” and can’t wait to get into it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. @flane As a color inside the lines person, I really enjoyed reading this and getting inside your head. It also means I know I should read this book and get uncomfortable 😀
    I have a sign in my office that says “Great things never came from comfort zones” that reminds me to get uncomfortable because it means I’m learning. Thanks for the wonderful read! ~C

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