Paper Piles

Last week I looked around my home office and my shoulders slumped. I arrived at the crossroads: either I got to work and cleaned up the piles or I would die as a paper hoarder, suffocating under the continually reproducing stacks of papers, never to have finished my research. But what about that aphorism, “a messy desk is a sign of a creative mind”?

My dad practiced public accounting during my formative years and as such introduced me to neatly piled folders full of important papers. He had two types of tidy paper piles: the yellow files sequestering tax records and the thick, grosgrain bound, burnt-sienna colored expandable files containing all other business related documents.

He organized both folder types according to urgency across his office credenza. While these stacks of files existed in steady state throughout the year, a surge started forming towards the end of October, peaked during the first quarter of the year and settled out somewhere prior to April 15 every spring.

My paper piles are scattered, inside out and backwards piles of technical papers, memorabilia, receipts to be entered into spreadsheets, new articles I need to read, and business ideas- in no particular order. In fact, my fellow grad students at MT Tech voted my paper piles the office hazard for slips, trips and falls.

Eventually they shamed me into tidying up my paper piles. I crunched stacks of technical papers through my 13/32″ diameter three-hole punch and arranged them according to topic in giant three ring binders. Then I graduated, hauled all those tidy binders with me and landed in SD.

Creative people may be messy, but how creative can I be if I cannot think straight, or at all? I started yanking old binders off the shelf, emptying them into the recycle bin and replacing their contents with new research materials. My floor and desk are free of paper piles past their angle of repose, sliding into chaos.

Writing my dissertation background and literature review does require a bit of controlled chaos. Once the papers were in their respective binders and organized, I could pull out one major topic area,

  • Shale – General
  • Shale – Marcellus
  • Tensile testing
    • Historical
    • Uses of/Need for
  • Permeability
    • High pressure pulse decay
    • Mathematical definition/relationships
  • GCTS RTR-1000

spread the papers around on my floor, and enjoy the creative chaos.

Far from being an impediment to creativity, chaos is an essential ingredient. Our brains not only make order out of chaos, they also make chaos out of order. The creative person doesn’t view chaos as an abyss but, rather, as a mother lode of information…

The creative person collaborates with chaos, but collaboration is not the same as capitulation. Perennial chaos is hardly conducive to creativity any more than perfect order is, ‘yet somewhere between the two, there is a magical meeting of overview and surprise, which creativity builds upon.’ … Creative people are forever dancing in this space, on the edge of chaos.

–Eric Weiner, The Geography of Genius

My friends, enjoy the chaos. Go create something magnificent. I cannot wait to see, hear, read what you come up with!



  1. You make me want to write:

    I think it is good that you are getting your papers cleaned up. It shows that you perceive that order is better than chaos – but I’m not sure that Eric Wiener’s views are all that accurate. He implies that both order and chaos are ingredients for creativity. I think that his perception is that they coexist as complimentary elements – kind of like equal but opposite powers – where both are necessary but one never completely dominates or serves the other.

    My view is different. I think that chaos was actually created first. It was given a single unrelenting function to dominate and take down, and to make everything uniformly formless – kind of like the second law of energy which was actually discovered before the first law. So by itself this is not good. It is sad – and hopeless – because if everything was the same everywhere and always, then there could be no variation of things. But – when the creation of order showed up – it was like light piercing the darkness. The light showed not only that chaos itself could be put into order – but that this order could have an infinite number of meaningful ways to be expressed.

    In the perception of our physical world we see that both order and chaos exist – and together they share the same “god like” attribute of being everywhere and always – and so we might be tempted to think that they are equal but opposite, and that they are just complimentary elements working together. But it is the different functionalities of the two that reveal a hierarchy.

    Chaos proceeds by itself and it can do only one thing – and this is to destroy. It forcefully removes variations of function and form from the elements of our world that have real meaning. It does this without any plan, or any good idea, or any noble cause. On the other hand order cannot exist, or even be established without a creative intellect. It requires a higher will, and a dominion over the things to be put in order to actually have order. It can therefore only proceed from something or someone who is way beyond it. Isaac Newton once said: “This most beautiful creation could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. “

    Just think how easy it was for your papers to become a mess. It happened almost by default without any real effort or plan. But when you make the effort, and put them in order – they will have a new property. They will have a new form that is much more useful than the old form. Of course this new form will bear the marks of the one who made the form exist. So by observing the order that you establish we can learn something about you. And that thing we learn will reveal something far greater than the stuff we observe.

    So I think that this is where creativity comes from. It is the creator who creates and makes the formless stuff. But the formless stuff can show no real virtue until the creator then creates a meaningful order and puts the stuff into that order. And because the created order bears the very image of its creator it is of a higher rank – not only of the stuff itself – but also of the forces which might cause the stuff to fall into disorder.

    So both chaos and order are created – but order exceeds chaos as wisdom exceeds foolishness, or as light exceeds darkness. It only seems natural that a hierarchy must exist in these things.

    Sorry for writing so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John, you absolutely should write!! Your response made me think of a theologian I am currently enjoying, Pavel Florensky. He was a Russian Orthodox priest trained in math, science and theology. Dense writing, but excellent to contemplate. Love your comments on order/chaos, wisdom/foolishness. Thank you for your comments!! SJB


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