Is a Messy Desk a Sign of Genius? Here’s What the Science Says
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Throughout life we are trained in the art and virtue of tidiness. As children we’re told to keep a clean bedroom, as adults a clean office. But what if our immaculate home and work environments are holding us back? What if beautiful, novel ideas prosper in a state of disorder? Spick and span share a long association with morality and righteousness. “Messy or tidy — which is better?” writes University of Minnesota researcher Kathleen D. Vohs. “Historically, the evidence has favored the tidy camp. Cleanliness, as the proverb says, is next to godliness.” Another school of thought, however, preaches the value of disarray.
Suppose an overbearing manager scolds you for your slovenly workspace. With a quick wit you might counter: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” That quip is often misattributed to Albert Einstein, whose own clutter was indeed commensurate with his towering genius. Photos of his study, taken after his death in 1955, reveal a scene of scattered papers, heaped books and displaced odds and ends. It’s a portrait of entropy.
And messiness, in Harford’s understanding, does not refer solely to the physical realm. It applies equally to our mental and emotional lives, to business and politics, to relationships with our fellow humans. It’s about embracing “the untidy, unquantified, uncoordinated, improvised, imperfect, incoherent, crude, cluttered, random, ambiguous, vague, difficult, diverse, or even dirty.”
In his book he tells the story of how pianist Keith Jarrett, in 1975, almost skipped the concert that became the best-selling solo jazz album of all time. The only available piano was (despite the tuner’s best efforts) off key, with several non-functioning notes and pedals. The performer nearly refused to play it, but the concert promoter eventually prevailed upon him.
Jesus: Hey, Dad? God: Yes, Son? Jesus: Western civilization followed me home. Can I keep it? God: Certainly not! And put it down this minute--you don't know where it's been! Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction
June 11, 2021 at 10:45 AM #428932Hobbit709Participant
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Then I’m a Supergenius.
I don't waste my time teaching pigs to sing.
June 11, 2021 at 11:15 AM #428934gordyflParticipant
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I worked with an engineer with the messiest office I had ever seen. Boxes laying on the floor, his desk was always cluttered. A total mess. I was surprised the company would even allow it. Whenever a government agency would come in to do an audit, the company management would lock the door to his office. Even though his office was a total mess, the engineer would do his job and do it well.
I once read that Steve Bannon’s apartment / office was such a mess that his friends insisted that he hire a secretary to organize his office. He hired a secretary who his friends said appeared to be just as disorganized as Bannon. As I remember reading, she had those yellow stick-on notes posted all over the place.
June 11, 2021 at 2:13 PM #428960retired liberalParticipant
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But I knew where the stuff I needed was and got the job/s done in reasonable time frames. It was the neat freaks, with the clean desks, their deleted e-mails/data files and shredded papers I had to deal with. They couldn’t seem to grasp the concept of some things being more important than others and not everything could be tossed after a certain date, or whatever. Records/backups and institutional memory are good.
If you can’t remember the past, the future will be repeats, till one does.
We are an arrogant species, believing our fantasy based "facts" are better than the other person's fake facts.
If you are wrong, it will be because you are not cynical enough.
The older we get, the less "Life in Prison" is a deterrent.
Always wear a proper mask when out and about. The life you save could be both yours and mine.
June 11, 2021 at 2:20 PM #428962Cold Mountain TrailParticipant
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“Records/backups and institutional memory are good”
Sure, but records and backup are useless unless you can find them. And whoever else needs them can find them
There’s a space between neat and messy and the article is another binary: messy = genius or whatever
Nothing = nothing
June 11, 2021 at 9:44 PM #4290263fingerbrownParticipant
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That could explain why we never had a messy Oval Office!
All governments lie to their citizen's, but only Americans believe theirs.
June 11, 2021 at 10:00 PM #429033SorbishParticipant
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A desk becomes messy when a person doesn’t put away the things placed on top of it.
This is a general truism that extends to ALL horizontal surfaces of a person who uses cultural artifacts and then doesn’t put them into conventional containers so that the artifacts are conventionally contained… which is to say tools go into tool boxes, papers go into file folders file folders go into file drawers, etc.
As just the sort of person who tends to move on to the next project before conventionally containing the artifacts associated with my last project I know another thing… In the future the stuff you want to find will have an enhanced probability of being where you last used it.
This doesn’t require remembering where you put something. It only requires a rather general knowledge of where you were doing a project that involved the cultural artifact you need to find.
If searching THAT place doesn’t reveal the now misplaced artifact, the thing to do is to avoid searching places you might have last used it, and instead consider 2 possibilities. First, it’s in an UNUSUAL place. This might involve looking in the freezer for a wrench, but on top of the refrigerator, or next to the phone, or on the coffee table in front of the TV might be higher probability search sites.
Second, a helpful housemate may have moved it. I have one of these with early Alzheimers. Things moved by this person are likely in random places that have similar function to the place you usually put things. My underwear, if put away by my housemate can be in any of 6 drawers. They were put away in a drawer! Hey, that’s means the housemate remembers what drawers are for!, but she just doesn’t know the difference between the drawer with her cross stitching stuff and the drawer next to the drawer that holds my underpants.
The genius involved if there is any, is moving between search modes so a person looks in the right place. I remember finding term papers for students years after they never came to get them, simply because I remember I usually filed them in a pick-up pile next to a bookshelf. Students thought I had a great capacity to find things among my mess. That wasn’t true. I just had a habit of doing similar things over and over and over.
Ending the pandemic needs a shot in the arm.
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