Mess Up Your Life

Illustration: Andu Martin

New Yorkers relieve stress in different ways. They drink wine, do yoga, play poker. I dress my dog in little outfits. Somehow, after a crazy day, centering his messy shag with a smart red hoodie and tidying his unkempt ears with a rakish little cap—it gives a sense of order. Even my wife (yes, wife) understands it’s just one of my foibles. Like arranging CDs by genre, artist, and release date, DVDs by auteur, and books so as to provide physical symmetry. I’m neat—so what?

According to a new “It” book, I’m part of an epidemic of dysfunction. In A Perfect Mess, business professor Eric Abrahamson and his co-author, David H. Freedman, identify tendencies like mine as signposts of personal neurosis, cultural bias, blinkered thinking, and worse. Some mess is good, and excessive order costly, they argue, on both a micro and a macro scale. They use this conceit so expansively—discussing Einstein’s desk, hardware stores, and the Iraq war, among other things—that just about every person, company, city, art movement, and military campaign seems up for reassessment. The book takes a strong stand on the Oscar-Felix conflict, and I land squarely on the feather-dusting, pantywaist side of the ledger.

Obviously, this could not stand. Who was this Eric Abrahamson anyway? I at least had to check out his office. My first visit to his digs, at Columbia’s business school, was unannounced but during his posted office hours. I arrived promptly at four, knocked on the door, and waited. Nothing, but that figures: “Planfulness and consistency have attained the status of commandments” (page 73). After 45 minutes, I decided to embrace “time sprawl” and come back later.

After making an appointment, I arrive a few days later to find a hale, smiling bald man in sleek designer glasses. “Hey!” he says, shaking hands (and leaving no discernible residue). Glancing over his office, I rate his clutter level at six out of ten. Books point in various directions on sagging shelves. A whiteboard bears scribbles in five different colors. A two-foot-tall barrel of Tang looms atop one filing cabinet, a necktie strewn over another. These last two touches seem suspiciously haphazard.

“Oh, no!” he says with a laugh when I suggest stagecraft. “But I did wonder, Should I mess up my office?

Abrahamson has actually been tidying up since the semester ended (which explains the terminated office hours). “But I never say I’m messy,” he says. “I say I’m optimally messy.” As a management professor, his goal is examining the relationship of messes to efficiency. “I’ve done computer simulations of messes,” he says. “I can show you your optimal messiness for a variety of settings—corporations, offices, relationships.” In each, efficiency is often hindered by pointless organizing.

His foe, he explains, is order for its own sake. “People have the most profound discomfort around the issue,” he says. “Women in particular often have tremendous guilt. The whole domestic-goddess thing.” One subject, he says, saw herself as a second-generation mess and was worrying about passing it on to her children—like alcoholism or mental illness.

Untidiness doesn’t terrify me, though. I just prefer its opposite. Abrahamson thinks even this feeling has vestigial moral overtones. “Satan is the Lord of Mess,” he says. “And God is the ultimate professional organizer. Alexander Pope said, ‘Order is the first rule of God,’ and this idea goes all the way back to Plato.”

Abrahamson doesn’t indict only the neat. “In fact, the book is critical of extremely messy people, too,” he says, citing New York’s Collyer brothers, who expired under tons of junk hoarded in their home. He’s just concerned by what folks like me miss by holding the reins too tight: flexibility, invention, and other benefits that spring from tolerating a bit more clutter. Just as an unsterile lab prompted the discovery of penicillin mold, so might chance encounters with objects on a desk prompt invention, or an unplanned walk yield discoveries in a city. “On most every level of analysis—cognitively, institutionally, socially—we benefit from some clutter in our lives.”

Well, I guess I could do that. Abandon an indexing system, try fashionable lateness, let it ride a bit. No need for foolish consistency, right? I contain multitudes! I just hope it’s okay if the multitudes are neat.

Mess Up Your Life