Untidy Habits

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

-- Attributed to Albert Einstein

I did not grow up on a farm, so I had no real idea what a pigsty was, although I could guess. I knew it somehow described the condition of the room I shared with my younger brother. My mother would invariably invoke the term immediately before ordering us to straighten it up. This was the source of enormous frustration to me, because it interrupted whatever fun we were having in making the mess.

As I grew older, my teachers joined the battle against disorder. I can’t recall now whether any of them explicitly invoked the “messy desk, messy mind” mantra. But all clearly subscribed to this theory. They believed messy minds were antithetical to correct spelling and the mastery of multiplication tables. Despite my suspicions, teachers could not actually read minds, so their main method of appraising mental disarray was to take stock of our immediate surroundings. Mine betrayed the most abject intellectual disorder, even though I did my best to camouflage it by getting good grades.

Desks in school were small, so opportunities for true self-expression were relatively limited. The workplace afforded much greater leeway to indulge in untidiness, particularly later on when I had a private office with lots of flat surfaces to bury in piles of paper. I began my career in the era before desktop computers and e-mail, so the only way to demonstrate you were hard at work was to push paper. I confess I always suspected people with chronically clean desks didn’t have enough to do.

So far as I have been able to determine, there is nothing in Scripture declaring that messiness is an abomination unto the Lord. Granted, desks didn’t exist in biblical times, and paper was still an expensive luxury, so it wasn’t likely to pile up. Many people wrongly assume the Bible says something about cleanliness being next to godliness. But the actual source of that sentiment is a sermon by John Wesley in 1778, and he was referring to personal hygiene, not keeping your desk clean.

The early church developed lists of cardinal virtues and vices, neither of which mentioned messiness or its opposite. You could conceivably attribute messiness to sloth, one of seven deadly sins. However, as noted above, you could just as easily argue that a tidy desk was a sign of not having enough to do, which might be the result of slothfulness.

It was left to a young Ben Franklin to include orderliness among the 13 virtues he practiced in a life-long attempt to improve his moral character. “Let all your things have their places,” Franklin wrote sternly, “let each part of your business have its time.” However, although he reported significant progress in practicing the other 12 virtues, his attempts to tidy up his life were unavailing. He frankly acknowledged he was a man of “untidy habits,” as Sherlock Holmes might later have expressed it. Yet while one can easily imagine Franklin including “messy desk, messy mind” as one of the pithy aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanac, the thought clearly did not apply in his case. He is still regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds of the 18th century.

I grew up in the 1950s, when the virtues of neatness still went unquestioned. Increasingly, however, messiness has come to be regarded as a mark of creative genius rather than as a sign of a disheveled mind. Proponents point to such disheveled geniuses as Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, code-breaker Alan Turing and Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. “My untidy habits drive me to follow the slash-and-burn (or Mad Hatter) principle,” evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once declared. “Work on a virgin table until the mess becomes unbearable, then move on to a clean table in a clean room — or, on a beautiful summer day like this, one of the five tables dotted around the garden. Trash that table and move on again.”

Although there are a handful of studies purporting to demonstrate a link between messiness and creativity, the evidence is admittedly thin. While it might be tempting to think of oneself as a creative genius, Sherlock Holmes may have been closer to the mark when he attributed signs of messiness simply to untidy habits. Still, I take some comfort in the example of Thomas Edison, who held more than 1,000 patents at the time of his death. “To invent,” he said, “you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

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