Paint & Pipette
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Paint & Pipette

Treasure The Mess

A quick plea for a messy work space (assuming previous references to Maya Angelou and Pablo Picasso are insufficient evidence for the virtues of a good mess):

Last week, I was given a last-minute opportunity to speak to ~60 international executives on a topic of my choosing. Ever eager to develop content in front of a live audience for feedback, I thought, “Hey, why not use this invitation to flesh out some ideas for a new talk I want to develop…” ( SXSW is next month!) and accepted.

As is often the case, I was scrambling with class and operational obligations, and put off preparation until things were down to the wire. I quickly fleshed out the key points I wanted to make, but was struggling to find a good, human story to increase engagement with the research-based recommendations I wanted to make (In my fit of desperation, I actually wrote a post-it that says “Be on the look out for a story about ____!!” and stuck it by my door. It’s still there — I just checked).

As I paced the room, pulling the outline talk together on my phone, I stepped up to my desk, eyes absently scanning… when it happened:

A reference to the exact story I knew I needed, but had forgotten I had, came into focus. Sitting there on a post-it — thin film of dust as evidence of its age on the desk — was a wonderful, relatable of the exact point I was hoping to make. Instantly, the remainder of the talk fell into place. A much better, more relatable lecture was the result.

Why take the time to mention this story? Because a cluttered work environment is crazy! It’s messy. It’s chaotic.

Who in their right mind would work in such conditions???” I often think to myself… And then that very, messy environment delivers an unexpected connection at the perfect time (ala legendary Stanford organizational theorist Jim March’s notion of the simultaneity of arrivals), and takes the work product to the next level, and I remember: me.

I have deliberately left things this way because the environment has routinely delivered.

I’ve learned to treasure the mess.

Related: Don’t Clean Up
Related: Imitate Frank Lloyd Wright
Related: Better Decisions Through Stories
Related: Dig Through Your Junk
Related: Review Old Notes

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Originally published at on February 4, 2022.




We’ve gotten creativity all wrong. Profound misunderstandings of how creativity works keep us from our most breakthrough thinking. Paint & Pipette illuminates the often counterintuitive tactics that drive differentiated outcomes across industries and disciplines.

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Jeremy Utley

Jeremy Utley

Director at Stanford Teaches leadership & entrepreneurship. Studies history of invention & discovery. Shares insights w fellow students of innovation.

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