Saying Yes to Mess, Part 2
Freedman is the co-author, with Eric Abrahamson, of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder (Little, Brown & Company). The book is a meandering, engaging tour of the benefits of mess, and the systems and individuals reaping those benefits. One of them is California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose mess-for-success tips include never making a daily schedule.
As a corollary, the book’s authors examine the high cost of neatness — measured in shame, mostly, and family fights, as well as wasted dollars. They generally have a fine time tipping over orthodoxies and poking fun at clutter busters, and at the self-help tips they live or die by. They wonder: Why is it better to pack many activities into one day? By whose standards are procrastinators less effective than their well-scheduled peers? Why should children have to do chores to earn back their possessions if they leave them on the floor (a strategy that many professional organizers suggest to teach neatness)?
In their book, Freedman and Abrahamson describe the properties of mess in loving terms. Mess has resonance, they write, which means it can vibrate beyond its own confines and connect to the larger world. It was the scumminess of Alexander Fleming’s laboratory that led to his discovery of penicillin. It bloomed in a moldy petri dish he had forgotten on his desk.
Mess is robust and adaptable, like Schwarzenegger’s open calendar, as opposed to brittle, like a parent’s rigid schedule that doesn’t allow for a child’s wool-gathering or balkiness. Mess is complete, in that it embraces random elements. Mess tells a story. You can learn a lot about people from their detritus, whereas, neat — well, neat is a closed book. Neat has no narrative and no personality (as any cover of Real Simple demonstrates). Mess is also natural, as Freedman and Abrahamson point out, and can be a time-saver. “It takes effort to neaten up a system,” they write. “Things don’t generally neaten themselves.”
Indeed, the most valuable dividend of living with mess may be time. Freedman, who has three children and a hard-working spouse, is studying Mandarin in his spare time. Perusing a four-door, stainless-steel shoe cabinet at The Container Store, and imagining gussying up a shoe collection, he shakes his head. He says, “I don’t get the appeal of this, which may be a huge defect on my part, in terms of enjoying higher forms of entertainment.”
A never-ending obsession
The success of The Container Store notwithstanding, there is indeed something messy — and not in a good way — about so many organizing options. “When I think about the urge to organize, it reminds me of when Americans began to worry about their weight: They got fatter,” says Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and co-author, with Ira Matathia, of Next Now: Trends for the Future (Palgrave Macmillan). “I never gained weight until I went on a diet,” she says, adding that she has a room in which she hides a treadmill and, now, two bags of organizing supplies.
“I got sick of looking at them, so I bought plastic tubs, stuffed the bags in the tubs, and put the tubs in the room.” Right now, she says, “we are emotionally overloaded, so this is about getting better and better at living superficially.”
“Superficial is the new intimate,” Salzman says, gaining steam, “and these boxes, these organizing supplies, are the containers for our superficial selves. ‘I will be a neater mom, a hipper mom, a mom who gets more done.’ Do I sound cynical?”
In the semiotics of mess, desks may be the richest texts. Messy-desk research borrows from cognitive ergonomics, a field of study dealing with the relationships between work environments and productivity. Consider that desks, our work landscapes, are stand-ins for our brains. The piles we array on them are “cognitive artifacts,” or data cues, of our thoughts as we work.
This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.