A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder

“Neat people have become heroes in our society. Messy people are seen as weak people, people who fall short. It gets reinforced by our parents, our teachers and our colleagues.”

Neatniks: Stand down — there is meaning in messiness

Some scientists think that in life, as in nature, a little disorder signifies flexibility, improvisation

My mother was so neat that we never even had a junk drawer — that catchall most families use for things they don’t know what to do with.

Her sister, my Aunt Janice, completely was different. She lived in a big rambling house on the Deep River in Hobart and bred cocker spaniels who had the full run of the house. It was sometimes difficult to find a clean dish, and dog hairs seemed to float in the air before descending to cover everything.

“Aunt Janice wants you to spend a week with her in July,” my mother would say. “Is that OK?”

Of course it was, as order and neatness were never my strong suit. And even, today, decades later, though I don’t have 12 dogs bounding through the house and my dishes always are clean or at least in the dishwasher, I am more akin to my aunt than my mother when it comes to order.

And I always feel guilty about it. Neatness is a virtue, disorder a sin.

Though my mother never said anything when she would come to visit, she sometimes would ask if she could organize my canned goods.

But I’ve taken a new view of my life after talking to David Freedman, co-author of “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder — How crammed closets, cluttered offices and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place” (Little, Brown).

So after shoving aside a pile of papers so I could find a place to take notes, I listened avidly to what Freedman had to say.

“The idea came from left field, a little more than 10 years ago,” said Freedman, who co-authored the book with Eric Abrahamson, a professor of management at Columbia Business School.

“I came upon a physicist who had discovered that adding randomness makes a system work better.”

The physicist told Freedman scientists usually try to take randomness out when developing systems.

“But it turns out with everywhere in nature, particularly in the human brain, there is a lot of randomness,” Freedman said.

“If you reduce the randomness, the brain doesn’t work as well.”

In other words, messiness is random, or a lack of order. But it’s even better.

Smart and important people are messy, or should we say organizationally challenged.

“Einstein was a total mess,” Freedman said.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger lived his life in a very messy way. Even in body building he was one of the people who pioneered the mixing up in the way you lifted weights. He always advocated that way. Until then, body builders did the same repetitions over and over. He’s also random in his life. Is he a body builder, an actor or a politician? Is he a Democrat or a Republican?”

Being neat is about doing things a certain way, and messiness is about improvising, being flexible, Freedman told me. We both agreed that people with absolutely empty desks made us nervous.

“It turns out that when you take a look at the problems the messiness causes, except for the guilt, there are really no problems associated with it,” he said.

“People spend an average of nine minutes a day looking for things, while people who are really neat often spend more time trying to figure where they put things.

“Our clutter on our desk and around us have a personality, and it’s almost as if there’s a system to it that is very well suited to the way we think. That’s why the messy are pretty good at finding things. There’s a bit of a method to our messiness. There is meaning.”

Freedman, who lives in Needham, Mass., and has authored several other books including “Brainmakers: How Scientists Are Moving Beyond Computers to Create a Rival to the Human Brain,” emphasizes though it was initially science that lead him to write this book, it’s not a scientific book. But he did do extensive research.

“There is one scientist at Boston University who discovered that old people keep their balance better if they wear vibrating shoes,” he said. “The reason is that it is sending random signals to the brain through the feet.”

His research also revealed that many people feel guilt and shame about their messiness in America.

“We really do envy those neat people,” he said.

“Neat people have become heroes in our society. Messy people are seen as weak people, people who fall short. It gets reinforced by our parents, our teachers and our colleagues.”

Though there’s vindication — and relief — for paper stackers, there is a reason for order, too.

“Even we messy people need to straighten up, and there is an appeal to order,” Freedman said.

“Messiness is comfortable and natural and works well, and neatness also has its appeals. The message is to find the right balance for you.

“When you hear it, it sounds rather obvious, but up until now you have heard that neatness is better.”

Tips for Dealing with Clutter

Since “A Perfect Mess” isn’t a license to never pick anything up again, author David Freedman offers advice on managing clutter without stifling creativity.

* Take it slow and in small steps: If people see too much clutter, they think of picking everything up. But you don’t have to do it that way — that’s paralyzing to people. Do it a pile at a time over days or weeks.

* Don’t throw it out: Instead of thinking you have to get rid of all this mess, maybe you can just put it in neat piles or in a closet or in a drawer. And it’s OK to have messy closets.

* Understand it’s not permanent: People think you have to remain neat after picking up. But you don’t. You can save your periods of neatness for when you’re not under deadline or a certain time of month.

* Your whole abode doesn’t have to be a clutter-free zone: Don’t feel you have to be well organized everywhere. You can be messy one place.

* Living with a neat freak: Freedman advocates that families compromise on messy issues instead of constantly arguing. People constantly argue with their family members. Neat people have to ease up a little bit and messy people have to clean up a little.

Debunking the neat freaks

In a chapter from their book “A Perfect Mess,” authors Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman look at three suggestions commonly presented to help people get organized — and then debunk them.

The suggestions:

1. Use colored labels on your files, and cut filing time in half.

2. Given that there are 37 hours of unfinished work on the average desk at any one time, buy “filing solution” products and get the work off your desk.

3. Buy a quality label maker to print your file labels, because 72 percent of people who print file labels end up wasting time wrestling with jammed or stuck labels in printers.

Their comeback:

1. Because whatever information a colored label might convey also could be conveyed with a word, the most time that a colored label could save you is whatever time you save by glancing at a color rather than reading a word, perhaps a half second for very slow readers.

If you spend three hours a day filing, then saving a half second per label examined will save you one and a half hours, or half your time, only if you examine the labels of 10,800 files in those three hours — in other words, if you spend just about all your time examining file labels. One could imagine unusual situations where a color scheme might save several minutes at a shot, as, for example, if there were a need to find the only green-coded file in a vast sea of red-coded files, or if the entire population of yellow-coded files had to be pulled.

But since most filing work involves not just looking at file labels but also examining files’ contents, doing things with the contents of files, walking to and from filing cabinets, and creating new files, the time saved with colored labels will be just a tiny portion of the total filing work. This will come as a relief to the roughly 8 percent of people who are color-blind.

2. This advice seems meant to imply you have saved yourself 37 hours of work by clearing your desk. But if you have 37 hours of unfinished work, and the work then gets filed, don’t you end up with 37 hours of unfinished work now hidden away in files instead of at hand on your desk? Plus, you’ve spent a chunk of time filing it — not to mention the time spent buying filing-solution products.

3. Other research indicates that 0 percent of people who don’t bother printing labels for their files spend a single minute wrestling with jammed or stuck file labels.

Lives of Tecumseh and his brother revealed in new biography

“Writing the book was extremely emotional,” said Peter Cozzens, author of “Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation,” a former captain in the U.S. Army, where his focus was on military intelligence, before spending 30 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State. “I had a roller coaster of emotions. The most moving part for me was writing about Tenskwatawa at the end. I felt myself in that wigwam, the cold wind blowing across the plain and knowing that this guy who had been one of the greatest prophets lived out his days like this.”

Peter Cozzens

Historian Peter Cozzens, author of “Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation,” not only has written the first biography in more than 20 years of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader who was admired even by those who wanted to destroy him, but he also dispels, through solid research, the misrepresentation of Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, also known as the Prophet, in a book scheduled to be released Oct. 27.

The heroic Tecumseh was a great warrior and war leader who in his portrait looks strong, valiant, and handsome. Tenskwatawa, his younger brother, as his portrait shows, had none of those physical attributes and history recalls him as a charlatan, a drunk and, let’s face it, a loser.

Tenskwatawa was an alcoholic, but gave up drinking, and despite all the travails of his later life, never indulged in drowning out his many sorrows again.

“I was surprised to discover, after reading contemporaneous accounts, that the Prophet’s influence was prodigious. He was able to build an alliance with many of the tribes of the Old Northwest,” said Cozzens, the author or editor of 16 books on the American Civil War and the wars of the American West.

When visiting Prophetstown State Park near Lafayette, Indiana and seeing the landscape where the Prophet and Tecumseh strived, beginning in 1808, to build a community centered around the strength of banding together, Native American traditions and a cultural revitalization, it’s difficult not to be overcome with sadness knowing what happened to their dream. The same is true in Cozzens well-written book.

Ultimately, Prophetstown was destroyed by American troops led by General William Henry Harrison, who would go on to become the ninth president of the United States. Tecumseh would die in battle in 1813, and the Prophet would end up impoverished and forgotten.

“Writing the book was extremely emotional,” said Cozzens, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army, where his focus was on military intelligence, before spending 30 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State. “I had a roller coaster of emotions. The most moving part for me was writing about Tenskwatawa at the end. I felt myself in that wigwam, the cold wind blowing across the plain and knowing that this guy who had been one of the greatest prophets lived out his days like this.”

Cozzens, who stumbled across a document recounting the Prophet’s final days in what would become Kansas, visited the place where he lived, discovering a few last vestiges connecting to his past.

“It’s now a run-down neighborhood in Kansas. It was in a ravine; the original spring is still there,” he said.

The Prophet died in 1837 and for almost 200 years has been looked upon as a failure.

“He stayed sober for the rest of his life,” Cozzens said. “He was an equal partner with his brother; they had a symbiotic relationship. I think they came remarkably close to changing history.”

For your information

Peter Cozzens Virtual Event

What: Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, talks with Peter Cozzens about his latest book, Tecumseh, and the Prophet. The program streams live on Facebook. Live stream: 3:30 p.m. Oct 27, 2020  Connect: http://www.facebook.com/AbrahamLincolnBookShop/

This article originally appeared in Northwest Indiana Times.

Comedian Michael Ian Black “A Better Man”

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them.

Michael Ian Black

A Buzzfeed Most Anticipated Book of 2020, Michael Ian Black‘s new book, A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to my Son (Algonquin Books) is a poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from the comedian to his teenage son as he is leaving for college. But more than that, it is also a far-reaching and radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching today’s young men how to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and gives a touching answer to an extremely important question: How can we be, and raise, better men?

Black, an actor, comedian, and writer, started his career with the sketch comedy show The State, on MTV, and has now created and starred in many other television shows. Movie appearances include Wet Hot American Summer, The Baxter, and Sextuplets.

He is also the author of several children’s books including the award-winning I’m Bored, I’m Sad, and I’m Worried, and the parody A Child’s First Book of Trump. His books for adults include the memoirs You’re Not Doing It Right and Navel Gazing, and the essay collection My Custom Van. Black also co-authored with Meghan McCain America, You Sexy Bitch.

As a stand-up comedian, Michael regularly tours the country, and he has released several comedy albums. His podcasts include Mike & Tom Eat Snacks, with Tom Cavanagh; Topics, with Michael Showalter; How to Be Amazing; and Obscure.

Married, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children.

Trust: America’s Best Chance

Buttigieg, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, has also written his second book, the just released “Trust: America’s Best Chance “(Liveright 2020; $23.95).

Pete Buttigieg

If you’re wondering what Mayor Pete, aka Pete Buttigieg the former two term mayor of South Bend, Indiana has been doing since he dropped his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in May, the answer is a lot. Since then, Buttigieg has accepted a position as a Faculty Fellow for the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Studies (NDIAS) and launched “Win the Era,” a political action committee aimed at electing a new generation of leaders who bring new ideas and generational vision to down-ballot races.

“We are calling out to a new generation,” he says.

Buttigieg, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, has also written his second book, the just released “Trust: America’s Best Chance “(Liveright 2020; $23.95).

“I believe our country faces a three-fold crisis in trust,” says Buttigieg, listing those as the lack of trust in America’s institutions and in each other as well as trust in America around the world. His belief in the need for a global renewal in trust ties in with his work at NDAIS. Besides teaching an interdisciplinary undergraduate course on the importance of trust as understood through different fields, he is working on two research projects–exploring how to restore trust in political institutions and another focusing on the forces distinctively shaping the 2020s.

The book is another way of starting a conversation about trust and how we can, as he says, “move on from this pandemic, to deliver racial and economic justice, and how trust can be earned and how it can  restore America’s leadership role in this world.”

Buttigieg believes that America offers a type of leadership that the world needs.

“Not just any kind of American leadership,” he says. “But America at its best.”

This previous was published in The Times of Northwest Indiana.

They Never Learn

              Scarlet Clark, the lead character in Layne Fargo’s newest psychological thriller, They Never Learn, is not your typical English professor. While she takes her studies and students seriously, for 16 years she’s also been on a mission, to eliminate men at Gorman University she considers to be bad guys. By planning carefully and keeping the murder rate down to one a year, she’s managed to avoid discovery. That is until her last killing—the poisoning of a star football player accused of rape—doesn’t go so well.

She’d posted a suicide note on the guy’s Instagram account, but it turns out you can’t kill a star athlete without some ramifications. Suddenly, the other suicide notes written by Scarlet are under review and her current project—dispatching a lewd department head who also (not all of Scarlet’s killings are devoid of self-interest) is her competitor for a fellowship she desperately wants.  

Trying to forestall discovery, Scarlet insinuates herself with the police investigation while under pressure to get away with soon with this next kill.

  But it’s even more complex than this, after all it is a Fargo book and the Chicago author who wrote the well-received Temper, likes the complexities and power struggles inherent in relationships.

 In this case, adding to the drama is the transformation of Carly Schiller, a freshman who has escaped an abusive home life and now immerses herself in studies as a way of avoiding life. But when Allison, her self-assured roommate, is sexually assaulted at a party, Carly dreams of revenge.

Fargo, Vice President of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the cocreator of the podcast Unlikeable Female Characters, has a little bad girl in her too.

“I love the sinister title of They Never Learn,” she says, adding that this, her second thriller, has everything she loves in a book—sexy women, Shakespeare references and stabbing men who deserve it.

She was enraged at what she saw as the injustice of the appointment of a man accused of rape into a high position.

 “I channeled that all-consuming anger into a story where men like that are stripped of their power, where they get exactly what they deserve,” she says.

It’s a timely topic and Fargo is excited that PatMa Productions optioned the TV rights for her book, and she’ll be writing the pilot. 

That’s a form of sweet revenge.

Layne Fargo Virtual Book Events

When: Thursday, October 22; 6 to 7:30 p.m. CT

What: Layne Fargo in conversation with Allison Dickson, author of The Other Mrs. Miller, to celebrate the release of her new novel, They Never Learn.

This event is hosted by Gramercy Books in Columbus, Ohio, and will be livestreamed on their Facebook page, with participants able to ask questions of both authors in the latter portion of the program.

For more information and to stream: https://www.facebook.com/GramercyBooksBexley/events/?ref=page_internal

When: Sunday, October 25, 1 p.m. EST

What: Fiction: Witches and Other Bad Heroines by Boston Book Festival

To register: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/bad-heroines/register

The Nesting

The negatives of accepting what it appears to be a glam job in extraordinary luxury, turn out, to be numerous. Lexi is an emotional wreck, having just attempted suicide, the home is in a different country — Norway — so she is far away from those she knows, and even more, it’s totally isolated.

No one ever listens to me. When I tell the heroine of a spooky movie not to open the cellar door, or a character in a book to avoid the shortcut through the forest, they always do so anyway.

And so it is in “The Nesting,” by C. J. Cooke, when Lexi Ellis, after losing her job, her boyfriend, and her home, applies for a position to nanny two young girls. Don’t take that job, I try to tell Lexi.

Why not, you might ask? After all, a job is a good thing and her employer, a noted architect, is building the show-stopping, eco-sensitive home where they’ll be living.

The negatives, it turns out, are numerous. Lexi is an emotional wreck, having just attempted suicide, the home is in a different country — Norway — so she is far away from those she knows, and even more, it’s totally isolated.

Oh, and did I mention that Aurelia, the girls’ mother, committed suicide on the property not long ago and that Lexi is pretending to be Sophie Hallerton, the woman who initially applied for the job?

It doesn’t get better. The young girls are overly energetic, leaving Sophie/Lexi exhausted by the end of the day, and the beauty of their location fades as a sense of eeriness seems to overtake the house as odd things begin happening.

Cooke, an award-winning poet whose books have been published in 23 languages, also writes scholarly pieces on creative writing interventions for mental health. That fits Lexi, who before moving to Norway found that writing helped her cope with all her troubles.

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