January 28, 2011

Brilliant Clutter

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

My home dining room table, cluttered with computer, papers, notebook, phone, and cat, Spring 2010.

Some of the most brilliant, productive people I know have the most cluttered offices and homes. For instance, I know of one MIT professor whose office is a mess, though he always knows where to find things. Similarly, my friend and mentor James Randi has an office that is full of clutter. Randi doesn’t know where to find things, generally, but his cluttered office doesn’t keep him from doing brilliant work.

Is there a link between clutter and brilliance? Are brilliant, productive people just less concerned with details of keeping house than with their work? Does the lack of time spent tidying up translate into more time for doing more interesting work?

Of course, I am generalizing. There are plenty of brilliant, productive people who keep their offices and homes immaculate. One could argue, just as easily perhaps, that there’s a link between obsessive compulsive disorder and brilliance. However, looking around the halls of MIT, I see clutter, mess, and brilliant work everywhere. Is the scientific mind, the mind of an engineer perhaps, prone to clutter? Or at least prone to not worry about clutter and keeping up appearances?

Personally, I fall somewhere in-between extreme clutter and extreme neatness. Growing up, my room was certainly a mess. I cluttered my room with rocks, books, and sporting equipment. I rarely dusted my bookshelves or made my bed. I shoved large quantities of artwork, shoes, books, and stuffed animals underneath my bed in my infrequent cleaning attempts. My parents rarely lectured me to clean my room, which was great. The forts I built out of sheets and pillows could stay up for weeks (along with the “No Boys or Little Sisters Allowed” signs), and I was free to organize and re-organize my rock collection, laying out various pieces all over my room. The time and freedom I gained by having a messy room far outweighed the benefits of keeping up appearances with a clean room, though I did have to tidy up whenever my grandmothers came to visit.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become more tidy. I still have far too many rocks, books, and sports equipment items in my apartment, but now I make my bed most mornings and vacuum and dust on a regular basis. I find that I think and write better, often, in a somewhat neater space. Cleaning can also be relaxing, at times. Sometimes, I clean when I want to think about something but also want to feel productive.

However, I still allow myself to be somewhat cluttered, especially if I’m organizing something or working on an intense project. And if I end up becoming a working mom, my house is undoubtedly going to be somewhat cluttered. Why? I want my kids to have the freedom to live in their house without worrying about being perfectly clean. Also, I don’t want to feel that I need to keep things spotless when I have a big deadline at work or a distant volcanic expedition to plan. If my husband wants to clean up or hire a housekeeper, fine with me.

My desk is still a cluttered mess, most days, but that’s okay. After all, as Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Besides, clutter is more fun. Who wants to clean up their desk or room, anyway?

*When I wrote this, I was still with my first advisor, whom I left at the end of my second year of grad school. I am now co-advised by two scientists. One of my advisors has a nearly spotless office while the other has a moderately messy office that is full to the brim with maps, books, papers, and so on. I’d argue that both of my advisors are brilliant scientists.