Not an inch of Einstein’s desk is free of paper. Books, manuscripts, magazines, and envelopes are everywhere. The same goes for shelves. One shelf holds neatly arrayed journals, but everywhere are messy piles and piles of paper. – Andrew Tate
This is what Andrew Tate – a creativity and psychology writer – had to say about the snapshot taken of Einstein’s desk after he had died. This famed picture by Time’s photographer Ralph Morse of the world’s greatest mind (Seriously, Google it!) encapsulated Einstein’s approach to his work – scattered, messy, unorganized.
Cue Einstein: “If a cluttered desk if a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Einstein, and any of the world’s creative geniuses of both past and present were unapologetically messy. Nobody would doubt Mark Twain’s creative genius, regardless of how “disorganized” his office may appear, and it is most certainly disorganized. Some of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds insist that clutter breeds creativity, as do countless artists, writers, and other folks with a mean creative streak. But is there anything to the notion that a messy workplace sparks creative juices? Indeed, there are.
Are You A Messy Person? Here’s Why It Might Mean You’re A Creative Genius
Consider this study by psychologist Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota. In her study, Vohs’ researchers meticulously organized one room of their laboratory and completely messed up the other. Research subjects were then given the creative task of thinking up the possible uses of a ping pong ball within a certain timeframe.
While they both constructed roughly the same number of possibilities, folks in the messy room were “far more creative.”
Here is Vohs’ conclusion:
Therefore the people surrounded by tidiness were choosing convention, whereas the people surrounded by messiness were choosing novelty.
With perhaps a bit of skepticism, researchers at Northwestern conducted the exact same test. Here is their conclusion:
They found people in messy rooms drew more creativity and were quicker at solving creative problems.
Why is this?
Piggybacking off of Northwestern University’s study, it all comes down to “irrelevant” sensory information and allowing the individual to focus more on the task at hand. More specifically, that creative talent has a strong association with the reduced ability to filter this information and allow for more unconventional thinking processes.
In other words, conventional thinking is perhaps best achieved with a tidy approach. But unconventional (read: creative) processes originate from a sense of disorder, uninhibited by the socially-acceptable traits of organization and meticulousness.
Creative people have the very rare ability to produce something out of a mess of ideas. Thomas Edison, undoubtedly one of history’s greatest creative minds once said:
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
For those of us with a creative streak, this quote by Edison is certainly relatable. Creative geniuses are not only prone to sense of disorder… they feast off of it.
The world around us seems to be an organized, structured entity that invites a minimalist approach – something that is not very conducive to dreaming or novelty. Not to mention, it’s flat-out unexciting.
A creative person has an innate need for a degree of chaos, as the world would simply bore them if deprived of such. In terms of work, this need shifts the brain into creative mode and invites a seemingly endless flow of abstract thoughts.
The creative among us will ignore a desk scattered with papers and coffee cups in order to focus on what’s truly important – creation. Simply put: it doesn’t matter how disorganized their surroundings may be. They’re too busy focusing on the next novel, painting, sculpture, or music piece. Now, as it turns out, there may just be a pretty darn good reason.
Our workspaces are a reflection of who we are as individuals. Walk into any corporate office, and odds are that everything is tidy, organized and unobstructed. Ask any talented artist what they think about the traditional workplace, and there’s bound to be some semblance of disapproval, dissatisfaction and (assuredly) boredom.
Who wants to live in a world that is all business? It’s monotonous, uninspiring and completely dull. Creative people wear their “unorthodox” label with pride, as they should. Artists are a rare breed in a world that values structure and order above anything else. We need individuality and a flare for the artistic, which our fellow artists provide.
Final Thoughts on Messy People
If there’s a takeaway, it’s this: don’t be hampered by expectations to conform. If you’re a creative person working in the corporate culture, refuse any attempt to detract you from your creative work. Find the environment that you work best in and maintain that environment.
For the rest of us, it may just be worth it to “forget” cleaning the workspace for a while. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness?” BAH