The Perks of Being Messy as an Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship requires us to be comfortable with chaos

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Thanks to the Marie Kondo effect, a lot of us spent the last few years tidying our work and living spaces more thoroughly and mindfully than ever before. First Kondo’s book taught us The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and then in 2018 her Netflix show demonstrated the KonMari method of holding up every item in a cluttered space and asking ourselves if it sparks joy. But what if the mess itself can spark joy?

Eric Abrahamson, author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, posits that the time and resources we put into tidiness are a cost we don’t ever get back, and they might not be worth it. While many of us hold “tidy room, tidy mind” to be true, does having a clear space actually help us think more clearly, or is it just satisfaction we are feeling from the act of cleaning? “In fact, neatness and organisation can exact a high price, and it’s widely unaccounted for,” he says. “Or to put it another way, there are often significant cost savings to be had by tolerating a certain level of messiness and disorder.”

Let’s look at a messy desk, for instance. It might be anxiety-inducing for some people, but there’s also a case to be made that an untidy desk or crowded inbox is a self-organizing filing system. When everything is right there in front of you, more often than not it’s already sorted by “most recent”, whereas when everything is filed away out of sight, remembering details and completing tasks can take longer. Of course, structure and rules have value in a working environment, but they are no substitute for culture. When managers impose rigorous new organizational systems, there is a possibility that they are largely doing so in order to exert control and create the illusion of order.

“Neatness for most of us has become an end in and of itself,” says Abrahamson. “When people are anxious about their messy homes and offices or their disorganized schedules, it’s often not because the messiness and disorder are causing problems, but because people simply assume they should be neater and more organized and feel bad that they aren't.”

This will strike a chord with anyone who has only ever been driven to tidy up their apartment or reorganize a bookshelf when they’re actively avoiding a deadline. But it’s something of a fallacy that being personally messy is a sign of creative genius; it might be more accurate to say that messy situations are what sparks creativity. In his book Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, Tim Harford explores how allowing elements of randomness into our lives as creators and entrepreneurs can have unprecedented and often beneficial results. Little bursts of chaos can force us to adjust perspectives, address biases, and seek alternative approaches.

Harford cites the example of a two-day strike on the London Underground; when the strike ended, 5 percent of people didn’t return to their usual route, as they had presumably found a more effective commute. “We tend to think that commuters have their route to work honed to perfection; evidently not,” he writes. “A substantial minority promptly found an improvement to the journey they had been making for years. All they needed was an unexpected shock to force them to seek out something better.”

In our working lives, this can translate to the setbacks and curveballs we seek desperately to avoid. Working solely within a sphere of order might make for steadier, more predictable outcomes, but it also leads to our unconscious assumptions becoming more deeply entrenched, and that comfort zone can become a cliché. Entrepreneurship requires us to be comfortable with chaos, to embrace it.

“The disruption puts an artist, scientist or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop,” says Harford. “But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upwards again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher… It’s human nature to want to improve and this means that we tend to be instinctive hill-climbers. Whether we’re trying to master a hobby, learn a language, write an essay or build a business, it’s natural to want every change to be a change for the better… But it’s easy to get stuck if we insist on never going downhill.”

Albert Einstein once said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?” And there is reason to believe that the clutter in our minds, the background noise and seemingly useless information that seeps into our unconscious each and every day, are all assets that we simply haven’t found a use for yet. A low ability to filter out unwanted stimuli has been linked to heightened creativity; Harford’s book cites a study of 25 precocious young “super-creatives,” including writers and musicians, of whom 22 had porous attention filters. The implicit takeaway here: nothing is irrelevant.

As we move into a paradigm where our lives and work are increasingly governed and informed by artificial intelligence, author and podcaster Gemma Milne believes these uniquely human imperfections will work to our advantage. “If we use AI and machine learning too much in our creative endeavors, aren’t we just moving towards a world where everything is the same?” She says. “Serendipity, and our human ability to react in weird, different ways to different scenarios; they’re what create unexpected joy and ingenious solutions.”

Algorithms and machine learning are critical, of course, but only we can produce randomness. Our knack for going off on tangents and finding disparate connections fuels creativity and problem-solving, which is why many predictions about the future involve us becoming “centaurs”, i.e. individuals who are able to inform our own convoluted thought processes, riddled with impulse and emotion, with the logical data provided by machines. In other words, let the robots be the perfect ones; being messy is what we’re good at.

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