The Life-Changing Magic of Being Messy

The Life-Changing Magic of Being Messy

This essay, by Isabel Hwang, age 17, is one of the Top 12 winners of our Sixth Annual Student Editorial Contest, for which we received 10,509 entries.

We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up this week, and you can find them here as they post. Excerpts from some will also be in the special Learning print section on Sunday, June 9.


The Life-Changing Magic of Being Messy

You might have a “messy” friend or family member. You can’t help but sigh at the chaos of their room — clean and dirty laundry mixed together. Odds are it’ll be difficult to walk two feet without encountering an empty chip bag. Gross? Yes. Bad? Not necessarily.

As a stereotypically “messy” person myself, I’ve received my own share of scorn. Living in a boarding school, I’m obligated to keep my room nice and tidy, ready for visitors and as a model to underclassmen. Monday room inspections are the norm, and faculty members have sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively, urged my roommate and me to clean up. For these purposes, I used to harbor a 24 x 24 x 24 cardboard box in which I’d stuff everything on Monday mornings and empty it out later that evening. Now, I just throw everything downstairs into the communal storage. Out of sight, out of mind.

As much judgment as we get for our clutter, research has shown that messiness can be a sign of creativity and openness. In the NYT article “It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity,” Kathleen D. Vohs’ study of messiness serves as a rare champion for us less-than-neat people. In her study, she gathered a group of subjects in a tidy room and another in a messy room. When each subject had to choose between a “classic” or “new” smoothie on a fake menu, the subjects in the tidy room chose “classic” while subjects in the messy room chose the “new” smoothies. This shows that “people greatly preferred convention in the tidy room and novelty in the messy room.” In addition, Vohs revealed that messy people were more creative. So, what does this mean?

Messy people are willing to challenge the conventional norm. They aren’t confined to the status quo. In a growing age where minimalism seems to be taking on the world by storm, we must remember that there is beauty in chaos. Although a University of Michigan study warns that some people might take one look at your messy desk and view you as “lazy” or “neurotic,” we must remember the people who challenge the old ways of being are some of our greatest innovators. After all, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg famously harbored hideously disorganized workplaces.

So, when you see a scatter of papers, laundry, and old food containers, don’t rush out to buy your child, friend, or roommate “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Instead, appreciate that your acquaintance might be “sparking joy” by channeling their creativity differently.

Works Cited

Eichenstein, Izzy. “Albert Einstein, Mark Twain & Steve Jobs: The Messy Desk Link.” The LAX Morning Minute, Word Press, 19 Oct. 2013.

Vohs, Kathleen. “Tidy Desk or Messy Desk? Each Has Its Benefits.” Association for Psychological Science, 6 Aug. 2013.