Saturday, November 9, 2013

what is an empty desk

He knows exactly where that self-pasting scrapbook is.

So. Having gotten into a "thing" with a certain somebody about the kids' untidiness, I decided to sit down and find out once and for all if being messy was such a terrible thing. Of course, I don't really have time to do much research or a thesis on this, but I did want to look further into that famous image of Einstein coolly reading at his horrendously cluttered, untidy desk.

See, the children's messiness doesn't bother/stress/completely traumatise and spoil my whole day as much as it does.. certain people.. because I myself am unarguably, immutably UNTIDY. I've spent most of my life, from childhood up, trying my best to change, but I've finally come to accept, over 40 years later, that I can't. I am what I am. On any given day, my desk is covered with papers, drawings, notes, reading material, torn scraps and sundry piles of what may most easily be described as "things".

My mother used to take it almost as a personal affront that I didn't keep my room tidy, and it wasn't till I was nearly an adult that I one day told her I wasn't deliberately trying to make her mad; I just really couldn't help it -- I honestly didn't register how cluttered my desk or room was. The disorder was really in the outermost periphery of my mind, if it were there at all; simply put, I was entirely focused on whatever it was I was working on at the time and all that "stuff" was just white noise -- mere elevator music.

The fact was, the mess didn't bother me because it didn't negatively affect me. As any untidy person will tell you, I pretty much always knew where my things were, despite and amidst all that chaos. It was when my mother came in and tidied up, apparently unable to bear the sheer stress of seeing my stuff like that, that I would lose things. Then would begin the usual routine of, "Mo-o-om!! Where did you put my fill-in-the-blank??", followed by the nebulous, indeterminate description of the article I was in search of.

And now, almost 45 years later, my own children are being subject to the same routine. Not by me, of course. I'm the one who gets "scolded" on their behalf. And I go off and scold them, largely because I don't like having my peace being affected by such things, and all the while understanding in my heart why they must have alllllllll these things out, or why they do this this this and this and then rush off and do something else and leave them all there.

Don't get me wrong now -- as with most things, I believe balance is key; extreme hoarding, chaos and dirtiness are unacceptable and even worrying. I do expect some degree of tidiness; one oughtn't to leave Lego pieces right in the middle of the passageway for me to trip over, for instance. Clothes should be hung, borrowed items returned, and so forth. And things which even they agree is junk should be thrown out -- by them, not someone else. But is messiness so bad as to actually warrant anger? stress? conflict?

Some time ago I'd read an MIT research paper entitled Is it better to be messy or neat? An etiology of messiness. "Messiness is often associated with artistic, creative and scientific or mathematical genius, spontaneity, but also with carelessness, eccentricity, madness and unreliability. Neatness is associated with preparedness, confidence, attention to self-presentation, efficiency, and stability, but also with hierarchy, rigidity and mundanity.

"Famous examples of each personality type abound. In the messy camp, Albert Einstein, Francis Bacon, Alexander Fleming, and Alan Turing were all notoriously messy geniuses whose unkempt appearances matched their chaotic laboratories and studios...

"Why are people messy? The simplest theory is that messy individuals perceive the cost of tidying to be less than the potential benefits... A second theory is more attentional: that messy people are perpetually distracted with things that are 'more interesting' or important than tidying up. This is a subconscious choice that happens instinctively, as things grab their attention: 'as soon as we have finished with the coffee cup, it is invisible to us. We simply don’t see it. It’s like that stage of a baby’s development at which, if something leaves its grasp, it ceases to exist' [Abrahamson]" (read in its entirety here)


Interestingly, German researchers have found that a messy desk can actually lead people toward clearer, more organised thinking. They found that people actually thought more clearly when all around was chaos, as they sought to simplify the tasks at hand.

In an article for Digital Journal, the author writes, "If you understand the term 'controlled chaos', it may mean you're smarter than the rest of us. It's Monday morning and your boss walks in, eyeballs your desk and says, 'How can you find anything in this place?' If you're like me, you simply can't find anything if your world is completely clean. When we have people over, I clean the house, only to realize I will never find certain things again. To me, a clean house is disorderly, and a disorderly house is comfortable...

"Einstein once asked, 'If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?'... Of course, Einstein's long gone, but apparently I'm not alone because Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman have co-authored a book called A Perfect Mess: The hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place...

"The book [illustrates] that those of us who aren't completely neat are more creative... The fact is, says the book, messy people generally have a personality trait that leaves them open to new experiences. We are less rule-bound. Things don't have to be exactly so to make us feel productive" (extract from the article by Lisa Angotti; read in its entirety here).

Indeed, in an interview, author David Freedman -- who also writes on science, business and technology for publications like The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Science, and Wired -- said, "In some ways you give up a lot when you have a neat, pristine place -- there are real advantages to messiness and what works best is really having a balance between the two.

"Neat and very organized people tend to be extremely judgmental and it's not just that they want to keep themselves neat and ordered, they have a lot of trouble with other people's messiness -- and they're constantly trying to get messy people to clean up. And we as a society have bought into this notion and the thinking is always, 'Well, there's something wrong with the messy person' and they have to change themselves to become neat.

"The thing that's the big problem is when a naturally messy person, for whom everything is working fine feels, for whatever reason, obligated to try to be neat and more ordered. That's the real problematic situation and that in fact is the situation most of us find ourselves in. Trying to get a messy person to permanently change is fruitless and will only cause tension. And studies back that idea up that you can't really change your level of messiness in any permanent way".

I agree with that last at any rate. It's not that I'm being dismissive and saying kids will be kids (though they will be) and so their untidiness is perfectly acceptable, but I am saying that perhaps there should be a bit of "battle-choosing" (I'm avoiding the phrase "don't sweat the small stuff" because I know clutter can take on decidedly massive proportions in a neat person's mind). Many adults -- the super-tidy ones especially -- take their kids' messiness as a kind of personal insult, rebellion, a display of perversity or disrespect -- they get positively offended.

I say, think of kids "holistically" -- their untidiness is just one aspect of them; it does not necessarily reflect the quality of their upbringing, nor is it necessarily bad. Insolence, defiance, delinquency and disobedience are far bigger problems, I think, and values and morals of much greater concern -- children should live on their parents' (reasonable, fair, kind) terms while they are dependent on them. But to a great extent I accept my children as they are -- to paraphrase author Joan Ryan, they are exactly the people they are supposed to be. I'm glad and thankful my kids are loving, respectful, thoughtful and obedient, so I'll celebrate their boundless creativity, their fleet-footed inventiveness, and their wonderful ability to multitask.

What's your desk like?

13 comments:

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I think some people make WAY too big of a deal out of kid's untidiness. My goodness I was the most untidy kid imaginable. Kids will be kids!

Jo said...

I'm inspired by this post on untidiness. I can be a neat yet untidy person. I'm mostly untidy and then when I cannot stand the mess anymore, I start to pack up and then I realise I couldn't find my stuff. You know the saying 乱中有序? I guess some people really operate in this manner. When I was a teacher, I couldn't stand untidiness in my students' work and the most untidy student actually became a lot neater after much drumming and drilling. I hope that as your kids grow up, they would slowly learn to see how neatness is a virtue and how it is good for them.

Magic Love Crow said...

I don't think having a messy desk is bad, I don't like it when things aren't "clean". You can be messy and clean ;o) LOL! When there is dust bunnies hanging around or food, then I personally think that's not good. I think I am half and half on my desk ;o) I like to be pretty clean with my painting ;o) Hugs ;o)

Sulky Kitten said...

I don't have kids, Jan but I think a little messiness is fine.Your two are so cute I don't think I'd mind if they wrecked the house! To whoever is complaining about any mess,show them some pics of the recent devastation in the Philippines and remind them what a real mess looks like.x

AntiquityTravelers said...

I should take a pic of my bead table ... let's just say there is much creativity under construction there! and I do know where everything is :)

My Garden Diaries said...

Beautifully written! And how accurate is Einstein's quote about a messy desk. I sympathized with you as a child after working in the classroom for many years. Several of those years I was an art teacher so there was always a sense of chaos in my work environment. Which I might add that I did not mind because the beauty that came from it was amazing! Bravo to you for understanding and knowing the difference!

Creatively yours Fi said...

Thankyou SOOOOO much! It so describes me....I Love your post and will have to share it :)) "Cheers to abundant creativeness and the wonderful mess that surrounds it!" xX

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

"I am what I am" That pretty much explains it. I don't think there is a right or wrong style. Whatever floats your boat, as the expression goes. This isn't something worth worrying about.

Audrey said...

I don't think my desk would ever qualify as "neat"....and I find neat desks incredibly boring and uninspirational. If anyone ever commented about my desk, I'd say, "It's organized chaos"....to me it wasn't messy because I knew where everything was. Interesting topic, I think!!!

The Dainty Dolls House said...

A messy desk wouldn't bother me really. But, if my whole house is a mess, then I need to get it cleaned. I don't like things just tossed everywhere, because then I can't find anything. But, organised chaos as I call it just fine for me. x

Rowena @ rolala loves said...

Since I share my desk with my husband, we try to keep it relatively clutter-free as it could otherwise be chaotic. You raise some interesting points in this post. I think it's perfectly fine for kids to be a little untidy. My mom was so rigid about that when I was growing up that I resented it and wanted to rebel. That said, I'm quite a neatnik as an adult.

Rowena @ rolala loves

Rag and Stone said...

This is such a well-written post, and so insightful into what a creative mess really is! Not all of us are tidy people, but that doesn't mean we aren't organized, creative and resourceful. And so true, the periphery of a person whose mind is a continual whirl of possibilities is usually a mess!

Sara said...

It was so comforting for me to read this post of yours. I do live in a messy way but, like you said, it is the tidiness that makes me uncomfortable. I am not saying I am a crazy lady whom lives in filth. Not that. It is just I like to have a number of things at hand and being messy is how I manage to create and do. And I do have my share of problems with my mother and father because I am messy. I am trying to make a compromise, between my way and theirs, and in the end I think it is just that - compromise - my messy space cannot interfere with their tidiness and their tidiness cannot stop my creative (read messy) space.

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