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Monday, May 29, 2023

Creativity From Chaos

Note: This is an encore column. It was originally published in the Jan. 8, 2007, issue of the Business Journal.

A few years ago, January became “get organized month,” according to some obscure group. As a result, early each year we are subjected to articles about the latest science on filing away papers and television segments with tips to help us impose order on our unkempt desks and, by implication, our untidy lives. It seems everyone’s bought into the notion that we need to rededicate ourselves to this national mission.

I beg to differ. I think Americans are already too organized and our society suffers for it.

A little disorganization is natural. Most of us feel perfectly comfortable amid a kind of studied clutter. When I’m in a rigorously organized and neat workplace, I feel I’m in a Victorian parlor and I should sit up straight. I want to get out.

What’s more, I think we tend to be most effective when our workplace is untidy. Creativity springs from chaos. I like it when papers pile up on my desk. I kind of know in which stack some particular paper is, and when I start to exhume some buried document, I get reacquainted with everything in the stack. That’s when I make connections. I once came across a forgotten, two-month-old note from an executive warning of a looming scandal in his industry. It had been mystifying when I first received it. I put it in a stack, but when I came across it again, that very scandal had started to unfold. What had been worthless was suddenly valuable.

The point is, had I obeyed the neatniks and filed that note away, I never would have come across it while I was unburying the other document. Important stuff or interesting stuff or just stuff that you think may be interesting in the future needs to be out in the open where you can touch it and see it once in a while.

It’s just a personal observation, but it seems to me the best reporters typically have the messiest desks. Ditto with high-octane executives and artistic types. Professors are famous for laboring amid swaying towers of books and papers. Those people are busy and creative; they’re smart enough to focus on what they do best and not on wasting their time and burning up brain cells creating categories of folders to organize their stuff.

I know, I know. Some stuff – your tax records – should be neatly filed away. And some jobs require logical order. If you call your insurance agent, you don’t want him to put you on hold while he rummages through stacks looking for wherever it is that he put your latest bill. Desks in plain view of the public need to appear orderly. I get all that.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. Most professionals, most workers, need to have a certain amount of creative chaos growing on their desktops and office floors.

The problem is, lots of workplaces don’t allow that. They’ve bought into the notion that desktops should be cleared daily, regardless of the time wasted on that exercise, and that everything should be put in its place, regardless of the creativity stifled or the stultifying workplace created.

I’d like to find a different obscure group that could be talked into sponsoring February as the “creative clutter” month. February is a short month, but it doesn’t take long to get disorganized.

I’ll write a note proposing that right now. Except I can’t find a clean sheet of paper in all this mess.

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at ccrumpley@labusinessjournal.com.

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