Mess Up Your Life


We New Yorkers relieve stress in different ways. We drink wine, do yoga, play poker, shoot paintball. I dress my dog in little outfits.

Somehow, after a crazy day, centering his messy shag with a smart red hoodie and sprucing up his flopping ears with a rakish little cap—it soothes me. It gives a sense of order. Even my wife (yes, wife) understands that this is just one of my foibles. Like arranging CDs by genre, artist, and release date, my DVDs by auteur nationaliy and cinema movement, and my books by color and symmetric placement on the shelves. 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, with me landing squarely on the feather-dusting, apron-wearing, 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 about 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 almost suspiciously haphazard, a bit too perfectly deshabillé.

“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 just 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 might 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 unplanned walks yield discoveries in a city. “On most every level of analysis—cognitively, institutionally, socially—we benefit from some clutter in our lives.”

I mull this over as I head to the subway, pausing to pick up an empty forty-ouncer and drop it in the trash. After all, I could adopt at least some of Abrahamson’s suggestions – like not grabbing the knee-cinched jeans waistband of this teenager on the One Train and yanking them up to at least cover his ass. Or ditching DVD index categories like Polish Directors, Polish-Expat Directors, and Polish Directors of Moral-Anxiety. Or trying this strange but common practice of arriving fashionably late. In my early childhood, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall reprised their “Odd Couple” roles in a commercial for a new boardgame. After Oscar explains this fast-paced contest of rolling dice and fleet improvization, Felix nods and briskly starts the round. “First, I go for the ones. Then I go for the –” Oscar cuts him off. “You gotta go with the dice! You gotta be bold! Innovate!” Felix shakes his head, keeps ordering his pieces, and says, “I’d rather be neat.”

He’d rather be neat. Rather than win, thrive, have friends, and a full life. As the graffitti-free subway rumbles onward downtown, Felix’s last words haunt me. Will I join those like him in the dustbin of American history? Is a foolish tidiness the hobgoblin of little minds?

Maybe, but I’m still not quite convinced. How can the word neat possibly sum up the complexities of a human Self? Two rodes diverged in a wood and I…took the better-maintained one had a great time. I am large, after all, I contain multitudes. They’re just arranged by the Dewey Decimal System.