In Defense of Mess

When Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago economics professor Robert Fogel found his desk becoming massively piled he simply installed a second desk behind him that now competes in towering clutter with the first.

That is from A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abramson and David Freedman, an intriguing defense of…um…mess.  Here is my previous post on this topic.


In "Buckaroo Banzai," the inside of the alien invaders' spaceship is not the gleaming white standard in sci-fe movies, but an unholy mess because the aliens are so smart that they can remember exactly where they dropped things. In real life, the smartest executive at my old marketing research firm had a desk just like that, completely covered in stacks of papers, from which he could instantly locate whatever he needed. That kind of random access search is great if you have a 200 IQ, but I don't.

Dave Freedman was the one. Here's the address. It's a decent listen. . .

I've always thought of organization along the lines of 'situational awareness' as they call it in aviation circles. A high degree of SA does require an exceptional IQ, and even then, some order is needed.

Otherwise, a mess is just an accident waiting to happen.

Speaking of aviation, think of the "creatively messy" mechanic working on the airplane you'll be flying on next.

As an instrument-rated land and sea pilot, I can whole-heartedly agree with the idea that there are some places where you don't want messiness. In the cockpit, I'm a checklist guy. And while it may have not come out in that particular NPR segment, I (and my co-author) have consistently emphasized throughout A Perfect Mess and in most interviews that the idea of the benefits of mess is all about balance, and finding the right level and type of mess, not about being very messy, or about being messy in all ways in all situations. And by the way, in our survey, very neat people reported spending more time looking for things than fairly messy people--and if you think about it, it makes sense. Also by the way, plenty of aviation accidents occur when a pilot isn't able to step outside the checklist and think creatively about what's going on--and the copilot is too mindful of his or her place as 2nd in command.

Comments for this post are closed