The Best Mess: Unearthing our Intrinsic Habits for Success
by Jennifer Paros
To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.
~ Samuel Beckett
When I was a little kid, my friend Wendy and I discovered the first floor of her family’s carriage house – an outbuilding behind their main house. The upper floor had been renovated and was being rented. But the ground level room had become a dumping ground. The space was crowded and filthy – filled with old furniture, a refrigerator, pieces of wood, and all kinds of odds and ends. In one corner was an unplumbed toilet around which stood the framing for a small loo – an abandoned project. The whole place had been abandoned, but we’d found it; and we were sure we’d found something valuable. We eagerly planned to start our work at 8 o’clock the next morning, even though it was summer – usually our time for riding bikes, going swimming, lying around, eating ice cream, and playing pretend games.
I mainly remember the heavy dust and dirt under my bare feet, the occasional rusty nail, and how hard we worked. Because the aborted bathroom was unusable and resistant to disguise, Wendy and I piled all unwanted items over there. A lot of time was spent hauling; though we filled garbage bags, mostly we were stacking things on the sidelines in order to clear a space. We swept and cleaned and took cans of leftover paint and used those questionable, bold colors to coat the walls. We painted until the paint ran out, starting wherever we chose, ending when we had to – large, awkward areas left bare. There were some kitschy cardboard prints we hung as well.
I don’t remember how many days it took before we christened our place with a sleepover and repeatedly jumped from the top of the refrigerator to the old, fold-out sofa bed below, ate popcorn, talked, laughed, and finally slept.
There are many things we try to teach our children and ourselves to be and do. We speak of hard work, dedication, responsibility, focus, and independence. When I think of Wendy and me, I see two of the most dedicated workers: always on time, putting in long hours, focused, thoughtful, cooperative, and resourceful. We would have done nearly anything for that project. These qualities naturally surfaced because, most importantly, we were connected; our actions were connected to and inspired by a great feeling. No one was telling us what to do or how to behave. The lines between play and work happily blurred and we grew into and expressed our best selves.
There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.
~ Aldous Huxley
But in both of our lives, in the context of school or home, it wouldn’t have been difficult to find other examples of us expressing none of these highly valued qualities. The little girl me, who was happy to schlep heavy things, clean a radically dirty environment, paint, and work for no pay, otherwise often balked at doing even minor household chores – amongst other things.
When we see successful people, we often look at what they’ve accomplished and attempt to study the steps they’ve taken. We look for what to do and how to be in order to get what we want. But what the successful person did was have an idea, recognize the great feeling fueling it, and give herself full freedom to pursue the path. From there the “habits of successful people” naturally emerge because the behaviors are organically expressed in service to the good feeling, not via action steps assigned by others or us.
Wendy and I didn’t criticized our accomplishments or bemoan the limitations of our resources. When the paint ran out, we moved on. The process was the success; the idea and the feeling were the win. We’d won the moment we recognized what we wanted and felt the flood of joy to go forward.
At some point, every project is a mess, or at least perceived as such. I’ve walked “into” ideas the way my child self walked into that carriage house – excited and inspired. I’ve also been daunted, believing, at least temporarily, that what was before me was bigger than I was. But the components of creation are the only things actually ever before us, and whether we see them as a mess or a castle in the making is our decision. A mess can help us summon and express the best of who we are and who we are becoming. That is the best mess.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.