The following quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Papers and the accompanying mess they make are evidence of productivity, and one can surmise that creative people simply lack time to clean. Of course, this might also be a clever way to defend a messy desk. But is there anything to the notion?
Per Inc. com, researchers at the University of Minnesota tested the theory of how well students came up with new ideas when working in orderly versus disorderly areas. This was the conclusion, “Participants in the messy room generated the same number of ideas for new uses as their clean-room counterparts.” Apparently, it doesn’t give them an edge on the number of ideas. However, here’s the kicker. The report also found, “But their ideas were rated as more interesting and creative when evaluated by impartial judges.” So, maybe there is something to a messy desk, after all.
History supports the correlation between genius and a messy desk. Along with Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Steve Jobs also lacked neat desks. Of particular interest is photo evidence of Einstein’s desk, taken by photographer Ralph Morse at his office located at the Institute of Advanced Studies. Stacks of papers on the bookshelves behind the desk with a lack of clear space on the desk surface. However, the photograph was not shown for many decades to protect the family’s privacy. In fact, Morse brought a bottle of booze to the building and gave the superintendent a fifth of scotch. Morse stated, “…and like that he opened up the office.”
Despite the slightly unscrupulous way in which Morse gained access to Einstein’s private office, he not only gained an iconic photo but some insight into the genius of the German-born scientist. On the desk lie notebooks and journals, a pipe and tobacco tin, with a blackboard in the background filled with equations and formulas. However, the chair is hauntingly empty, emphasizing the earthly departure of a true genius.
There are certain traits that are associated with smarts beyond a messy desk. Intelligent people not only tend to be sloppy, but they also go to bed late and curse a lot, per a study. It is likely that creative people share common traits, including impulsiveness, the ability to engage their minds better at night, and fluency in a language, including the use of curse words. Uncovering the human characteristics of geniuses is an interesting subject. However, scientific backing is required to separate myths and stereotypes from reality. Meanwhile, I may skip straightening up my office, stay up late, and throw around a few curse words to do my own unofficial study to see if it stirs my creative energy. Who am I kidding? I’m ready for bed!