Messiness gets a bad rap. Don’t get me wrong, I love the clear-mindedness that comes from focused attention, and the peace that comes from an uncluttered home. I strive to be organized in my work, and have a powerful flow in my presentations, born of a natural order that invites the audience into a depth of learning and dialogue. I teach my children to be organized, neat and tidy. In many ways, I live the mantra that organized = good, messy = bad. But life and work without messiness is excellence unrealized.
If we want to create something new or lead our business or ourselves forward on a different path, messiness is a natural part of the equation. In fact, excellence is born not from an orderly, predictable pattern, but from the curiosity that uncertainty and unpredictability provoke. New solutions to old problems emerge when we let the structure of “what is” dissolve, or at least loosen up, and explore “what might be” in the space of the mess.
One of the biggest challenges I see today in organizations that I work with is breaking free from the death grip of complacency and inviting more experimentation, innovation and tolerance for failure. They know they need to disrupt themselves before others do, but to experiment means that we must disturb the current order of things and that means change. The fundamental tension is that people want stability, and if we experiment, it’s going to be inherently messy, and probably emotionally uncomfortable. So, we unconsciously allow the “order = good, messy = bad” mantra to limit our possibilities, limit our sight, and we stand still and stagnate.
Many of the most original minds of our times embrace messiness. Astro Teller, head of X (formerly Google X) often speaks about how the secret to their success at moonshots is in the messiness. In a TED Talk last year, he shares, “Rather than avoid the mess… we spend most of our time breaking things and try to prove them wrong.”
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, often shares that messiness is part of leadership. In an interview with McKinsey last year, he talks about how as a leader, we are always in this precarious balance between clarity and chaos and our job is not to prevent messiness, but to allow enough of it to propel creative thinking, but not too much so that things fall completely apart.
Even the way we are building meaning today on the Internet is messy. Searching for the properties of platinum for my daughter’s fifth grade project the other day, we were faced with dozens of links to related topics, in a spider web of connected meaning. By following a few links, it prompted her to think in a more expanded way about the topic at hand. It was messy, but she had an abundance of ways to put together seemingly disparate pieces of information into a new presentation of ideas. The mess invited exploration, critical thinking and creativity.
Messiness is an unavoidable part of the process of reaching for excellence. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s also the pathway to freedom from limits, mediocrity and stagnation. I personally love Einstein’s thoughts on messiness: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Messy is good, that’s my new mantra. And my desk is a tribute to that value.