A You-Shaped Space in the Universe

The “Perfect Mess” has started a train of thoughts for me about how and why successful and happy people become successful and happy.

Maybe it’s because I’m German, but where I come from, school is mainly about trying to standardize minds, every kid is supposed to produce comparably good results in every subject. Because you have to work much harder for passing those subjects you are not talented in, this means that you spend so much more time working in areas that you are not so good at than in those where you could excel. And while wasting all this time on becoming mediocre in your weak areas instead of becoming stunningly excellent in the fields where your true talent lies, you also learn as a kid that this is how life is supposed to be: Work hard at stuff you don’t like to become sort of medium good at it.

Now looking at people I would rate as both successful and happy, I get the feeling that what they have in common is to be stubborn enough to focus on what they are really good at and shape their work environment in a way that they can excel at these without being disturbed by the fact that they are weak in other areas. I know hyper-focused neat-freaks who are great computer programmers and love the fact that their office is like a high security cave where few people have access. And, on the other side of the spectrum these people-people who cannot focus on one thing for any amount of time but are great at keeping ten different dynamic situations sort-of balanced, making great facilitators. Both would be positively miserable in the other people’s job. Ah, yes and I know a lot of people, who never understood that it is ok to do what you like and what you are good at and who are somehow surviving being mediocre at something they don’t like.

So, is it all about finding (or carving out) a “you-shaped space in the universe”?

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind,

of what then, is an empty desk? (Albert Einstein)

Triggered by Nancy White’s comment I’m curious about the benefits of mess and stumbled over “A Perfect Mess” (by Eric Abrahamson and David H Freedman), a book about “The hidden benefits of disorder – how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place”.

While I started reading it, thinking this would be just a humorous self-defense of two messy authors, I found it really thought provoking and enjoyed the (slightly messy) read. They start by analyzing whether the effort of strictly organizing things (all the time and money spent filing and straightening things out) really pays off (their conclusion: It often doesn’t). So that’s the first step of admitting: Often it just doesn’t matter for the results, if something is a bit messy. Then they continue by exploring how people and organizations can actually benefit from mess:

“Specifically, messiness can confer six key benefits: flexibility, completeness, resonance, invention, efficiency, and robustness” (p78)