Do you flourish in the swirl of chaos, or does disorder derail you? I put the question to friends recently, and their answers surprised—and reassured—me.
As someone who's been teased about excessive organization (my label maker is the first thing I'd rescue from a fire), I've always felt my need for order was a character flaw—a sure hallmark of an unimaginative dullard. The truly creative thrived on mental and physical messiness. Or so I'd been led to believe.
So imagine my surprise when many of my most inventive and original friends confessed they prefer order over disarray—at least some of the time.
One person I'd thought for sure would come down on the side of chaos is my writing pal Susan, a mile-a-minute talker who writes highly imaginative paranormal romance, urban fantasy humor and horror books populated with an uninhibited bunch of characters in riotous situations. I kinda figured her life must be like her books. But no, when Susan summons the muse, she wants order (though she does admit to revving herself up with old rock music).
Van, a school-days chum who builds fine furniture in his spare time, concurs. Without the utmost tidiness, he says, "I just stir the sawdust and rethink the design for hours."
Then there's the practical side of the question. "I can't find things, I get cranky," says Rebecca, who has a degree in library science and a reputation for organization (bet she loves her label maker, too), but also a mad creative streak (somewhere I still have the carrot-shaped hand puppet she made when we were roomies in Detroit).
Okay, I feel better knowing I'm not the only one who finds comfort in order. But what about the notion that chaos feeds creativity? It's not a myth—there's research to back it up.
A study published in Psychological Science a few years ago found that although working in a tidy environment encouraged people to do responsible things like eating healthfully and giving to charity, working in a messy space stimulated their creative juices.
The experiment by psychological scientist Karen Vohs and colleagues worked like this: participants were divided into two groups, with one group assigned to an orderly room and the other group assigned to a room with books and papers strewn about.
The researchers asked both groups to work for a while in their assigned rooms, filling out questionnaires unrelated to the study. Afterward, all subjects were given a chance to donate money for books and toys for children. And as they were leaving, all were offered a snack of either a candy bar or an apple.
The results were clear: 82 percent of those who'd worked in the tidy room donated money, compared to only 47 percent from the messy room. And 67 percent of the neat room folks chose an apple over chocolate, while only 20 percent of the messy-room workers made that choice.
But look what happened when the researchers conducted an identical experiment with a different challenge at the end: thinking up novel uses for a ping pong ball. The messy-room and neat-room participants came up with the same number of ideas, but an independent panel of judges rated the messy-room workers' ideas as significantly more creative.
Indeed, being willing to make a mess is key to breaking new ground, notes innovation consultant Linda Naiman in her Creativity at Work blog. "Chaos is part of the creative process, and you miss out if you avoid it."
Naiman's blog post, which includes a video clip of journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell expounding on embracing creative chaos, ends with this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star."
Note the word within. I read in a Scientific American blog post that brain researchers recognize two crucial brain networks for creative thought: the Executive Attention Network, which gets busy when cognitive control is needed, and the Imagination Network (also known by the too-boring-for-something-so-cool name Default Mode Network), which retrieves personal past experiences and other long-term memories and also is involved in thinking about the future and imagining alternative scenarios to the present. Daydreaming type stuff, in other words.
Studies show that the Imagination Network is highly active during creative thinking. But there's also a need for controlled attention—the business of the Executive Attention Network—to make sense of the jumble of ideas the creative mind comes up with.
"I like to think of creative cognition as controlled chaos because it incorporates both elements of the creative process," writes Scott Barry Kaufman, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania's Imagination Institute, in the Scientific American blog piece. "Cognition that is merely controlled is rigid and colorless. Cognition that is pure chaos is bizarre. But we owe some of the greatest inventions of all time to cognition that is both controlled and chaotic."
My friends and I don't claim to be coming up with the greatest inventions of all time, but that's pretty much the conclusion we've arrived at. There's a need for balance between chaos and order. Here's Rebecca, the puppet-making library science grad:
"If we want to get Hegelian, the sequence is thesis, antithesis, synthesis, so we need a little chaos in the middle in order (ha!) to get to the innovation/synthesis part."
The whole thing is a joy, and that same order-chaos-order process seems to work for many of my creative friends, judging from their responses to my question. Diane, for example, is a Feng Shui consultant whose latest projects—helping prepare Red Fox Market in Big Rapids for opening and creating a fairy house for Camp Newaygo's Enchanted Forest event—are all about "creating spaces to reflect what one wants to 'feel' in their life." She puts it this way:
"Totally love the order that comes through chaos! Whether creating a huge mess, or just finding oneself in the middle of a chaotic life, the feeling of satisfaction and calm joy surfaces once all is clean, organized and less stressful. Love the process of it all."
So here, to me, is the bottom line: You don't have to a slob to be creative, you only have to be willing to get messy sometimes. Just make sure you choose your snacks after you've cleaned up the mess.
Agree? Disagree? Where do you fall on the order-to-chaos continuum, and how do you think your position on the scale affects your creativity?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.