God Bless This Mess

When I was a teenager, my bedroom was an unholy mess. Piles of books, notebooks, papers, record albums, clean clothes and dirty laundry inhabited every surface: from desk, dresser, nightstand and bed, to the wall-to-wall carpet, including under the bed and the closet floor.

I’m not sure why I chose to live this way as a teenager. Was I expressing my innermost feelings, rebelling against my parents, or merely asserting order over the one space that was entirely mine?

The rest of the house was kept tidy, with one exception: my Dad’s office. That room, his desk especially, was a mess. I found it ironic that he was always ribbing me about the chaos in my bedroom. 

When my eldest was a teenager—resisting my demands that she put away clean clothes and, at the very least, confine her piles of books to the nightstand, her papers to a basket tucked under her bed—my father sent her a Polaroid picture he’d taken of my bedroom to bolster her case. This was neither the first nor the last time he would prove the rule that grandparents and grandchildren are united against a common enemy.

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My home office is pretty orderly, with organized clutter hidden in the closet, piled atop file cabinets crammed with folders. My electronic files are stored in multiple Google Drives that are easily searched and, for the most part, books and binders stand neatly arranged by topic in the bookcases. 

But then there’s my desk. The drawers are stuffed and the surface is covered, with both useful and useless items. Occasionally, inspired by some article posted on LinkedIn or motivated by regret that I may be returning to my teenage habits, I try to tame the chaos.  

After twenty or thirty minutes of rearranging and recycling, I realize my efforts have barely made a difference. And I think, so what if I have a messy desk?

According to Geoffrey James’ article in Inc., “Back in the day, a clean desk was considered a sign of slothful laziness. Busy people, and smart people, didn’t have time to straighten up. Mark Twain, for example, chose to leave his desk cluttered whenever he was photographed.”

It is reported that Albert Einstein once asked, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? 

If you examine the picture of my desk above, you’ll see this on my computer screen:

Albert Einstein's Desk
Albert Einstein’s Desk

In Einstein’s case, it seems a messy desk was indeed the sign of creative genius. Some psychologists would argue with Einstein, though, citing studies that show clutter can contribute to stress or signal depression.

Perhaps my desk, and others like it, belong to distracted dreamers or disorganized people of average intelligence, people too busy to be bothered with keeping their desks neat and tidy.

Still, I’d like to think Einstein was onto something.