Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Perfect Mess

One of the most popular New Year's Resolutions is to "get organized." Indeed, January is the official "Get Organized Month." We promise ourselves that this year will be the one where we clean out the garage, the attic, our desks, and hence, our lives.

Now an interesting new book, A Perfect Mess, takes that pursuit of neatness-above-all to task. You can listen to an NPR interview with Dave Freedman, one of the authors, here.

The authors advance the theory that messiness has a correlation to creative giftedness. They did a survey that found that higher paid people, who have more responsibility, often do have more clutter in their desks and offices. The clutter reflects the desire to keep many slightly unrelated things together, since these seemingly unrelated things often can be linked together to come up with creative solutions (CEOs who are usually photographed in their spic-and-span offices, often have 2-3 administrative assistants who organize the clutter in the "public" office where the chief entertains visitors. In other words, they cheat to create an impression!). Out-of-sight, out-of-mind is a saying for a reason, and creative people don't like to really have things out-of-mind (they push them to the back, and to the bottom of the pile, to be retrieved later). Indeed, they usually know where most important papers are, even if the piles look bad to others.

Anyway, as I write this on my desk that's overflowing with papers -- an index card listing chunks of a novel I just wrote that needed particular revisions, stamps, business cards, page proofs of another article I just wrote on New Year's resolutions, news clippings on the Brown v. Board of Education school in Topeka, KS that might just be turned into a charter school, my running log, the press kit for Grindhopping -- I find this quite comforting. Which is precisely why this book will do well. Reviews have made this point. It's a very comforting thesis ("Actually, Mr. Boss, my mess is a sign of my genius!") The authors also belabor the point for 200 pages when they could have made it in 20.

But... I do believe that messiness can be one of the side effects of giftedness. Walk through a hall of academic offices, and you'll see people happily buried in piles of papers and manuscripts. Perhaps these people know that while a cluttered desk may be the sign of a cluttered mind, by that logic, an empty desk suggests something even worse.


Anonymous said...

Three whole rooms in my house are so cluttered that they are unusuable. I must be extremely gifted.

Quiltsrwarm said...

My husband is an academic (structural engineering prof) and his desk is piled with piles of stuff he's working on, no desktop in sight -- and rarely does anything get lost (well, maybe the phone, once in awhile)! He knows just where everything rests, so you can't call him disorganized. He's just messy. I thought a messy desk was a sign of genius -- that's what I've always heard... :)

I'd never considered that our desk messes had a higher creative purpose -- what an interesting thought!

Anonymous said...

Well, I've always been good at putting the pieces together in interesting ways - and I do like to keep things in view. But, I've reached the point where enough is enough! I have been following some of the advice for off and on, for a year or two now, and everyone around my house is delighted, including me!

Here's my take: There is an difference between Causation and Association. Creative Folks tend to also have the Clutter Issue, but that may just mean that Creativity and Clutter are caused by some other unknow factor (Briggs-Myer's "P" perhaps) rather than that Clutter actually helps one be creative. "P" for perciving is a preferance for Process over End Product, for keeping things open-ended - not a good recipie for sorting through clutter and judging that it can be safely discarded.

Now, ((wink)) if only someone could do a study on high intelligence and poor spelling!