I saw this messiness/genius correlation also applied to garages, believe it or not. Years ago, I saw a piece on PBS, I think it was, about Silicon Valley. The reporter commented on how messy the garage of some of the Silicon Valley originals were. And then he proudly showed his own messy garage, on TV. I suppose we were meant to infer that this reporter was a genius too? All I could think was, what a wannabe!
I won't deny the possibility that genuine genii probably do suffer from some form of attention deficit disorder in other facets of their lives, and that this could lead to messy desks and households, or other manifestations of ADD that have nothing to do with surrounding oneself in a mess. I also don't deny the obvious existence of poseurs, in regard to messiness. Putting your stuff away at the end of the day takes a handful minutes, at most.
The messy desk = genius myth is a ruse to defend laziness and protect idiots. After all, even a lazy idiot can figure out if all that is necessary to be considered a genius is having a messy desk, well then just don't ever clean up!
Of course, there are lazy geniuses too...
Usually messy desks mean that the person is either very busy or very lazy or uses it as a filing system for ideas to get back to, or is a pack rat, or all of the above to one degree or another.
All I know is I do not like another person dealing with items in or on my desk since then I loose track of where something was before.
If you focus on the person's desk, mostly likely you will miss their genius, and if not genius, their contributions.
The only clean desk situation I ever really had to deal with was when working on top secret DOD and Military projects. The policy was - not a single thing on the desk, and every drawer locked. Unless your office had a name tag, a passerby would not know who sat where. Of course, this was when the Cold War was in full swing.
I would never say my desk was extremely messy though one of my bosses would have. I use to have two shelves of databooks plus several others, which I most often used, within easy reach at the back of my desk. I tended to keep older versions of databooks also because often they had good technical information that sometimes wasn't found in the latest databook. My boss would walk by every once in a while and comment about all the literature, but I never gave it too much thought. After all, he must have some idea of their real value, right? Now as it is said, it's a digital world, so I guess his comments were just registering as 0's, 0's until one day, that is. One day, he wheeled a large blue recycling bin outside of my office and left it there. That clearly registered as a digital "1". Vth (V-threshold-hint) had clearly been exceeded. I parted with some of those data books with deep regrets however--true gems all of them.
Now I have hundreds of bookmarks, well categorized. And my desk is neat. But I wonder, am I really a different person? ;)
Ok, Allwires is right about Williams' desk, but take a look at the photos rolling in. Not everything is meticulously placed!
I don't know of any correlation between the messiness of one's desk and genius, but I can relate to the earlier comment about the engineer who was fired on the spot for having a perfectly neat desk. That's rather extreme, but the point is well made that if your desk is so tidy, then you must not have enough real work to do.
For years now, I have been trying to go more and more paperless, with only modest degrees of success. My desk isn't as bad as it used to be in the days before email & internet, but it has gotten better. Still, there is no way to avoid having some documents lying around in hard copy form.
I agree that this is rubbish. If you actually take a close look at the picture of Jim Williams desk in this article, it is incredibly neat! There are a lot of things there but everything is meticulously positioned. Just thought I would bring that up!
Ron, my colleague at EET/UBM Electronics, with whom I've worked for 20 years, taught me an important lesson in the '90s. His desk was reasonably orderly save for a mounting pile of paper on one side. It grew as the months passed in a given year. He used no file cabinet.
These were press releases back before email became the favorite medium for distributing such, um, information. Normally reporters have these strewn all over the place. But Ron's method was to simply stack them in chronological order. He had a reasonable sense for when something was sent over, so he'd just thumb through the stack until he found it. Then, on Dec. 31, it took a forklift to dump the pile!