Perspective | When Is a Messy Desk a Sign of Genius? Probably Never

By: | June 26, 2019

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

For some years, I worked for a psychopath. It wasn’t fun. Common traits among those with this personality disorder include persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and disinhibited and egotistical conduct. This guy had all those, and then some.

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He bullied us constantly. He’d throw his typewriter at people. When computers took over, he’d throw them too. He smashed a dozen keyboards in half as many years, piling the wreckage in the corner of his office. He would scream at new hires, increasing the volume until tears were induced.

The man’s office was the most disgusting place I have ever visited, and that’s saying something. Years of filthy paperwork were piled as high as the cigarette butts on what had once been the ashtray. The office cleaners had long since abandoned their visits to his rats’ nest, and the rest of us wished with fervor that we might enjoy the same privilege.

I’ve been an empty desk person since such was company policy when I worked at a life insurer in my 20s. A fine was levied on anyone who left even a single document or post-it note on their desk overnight. As you’d expect, the office was always immaculate.

In the odd moments of lucidity during which conversation was possible with my psychotic boss, every reference to the state of his office was met with a uniform response: “An empty desk is a sign of an empty mind.”

Even a private office is a public space if people visit. Basic respect for others (and therefore for oneself) calls for cleanliness. Building a fortress of squalitude, in public or private, is aberrant behavior.

Words have power. I wondered for a long time if, perhaps, the empty mind theory might be true. It is routinely trotted out by those incapable of filing, or even tidying up. The phrase is often accompanied by “I know exactly where everything in the pile is.”

That’s a lie.

Even a private office is a public space if people visit. Basic respect for others (and therefore for oneself) calls for cleanliness. Building a fortress of squalitude, in public or private, is aberrant behavior.

A study of 10,000 primary school children by pediatricians at the University of Virginia this year established that children who keep their rooms tidy do better at school than those who don’t.

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It doesn’t come as a shock, does it? Since you work in insurance, the chances are that (a) you have a tidy-ish desk (and mind), and (b) you have done better in your career than those who work in chaotic and filthy surroundings. Having visited dozens of insurance offices in my time, I cannot recall a single one where disorder was the order of the day.

Insurance is not alone in this regimen. Many other industries insist on maintaining their offices in a state of orderly cleanliness for obvious reasons.

The truth is that a messy office is a sign of a messy mind. The phrase won’t catch on, though, since disciples of office organization understand the futility of trying to convert an Oscar Madison into a Felix Unger. Lost causes and all that.

Eventually, the psychopath drove our employer out of existence. We all had to look for work. As so often must be the case, his cluttered desk was simply a sign of incompetence. &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]