Messy is the New Black

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Woman running small business from her home office. She is smiling at her desk with a lot of clutter and objects.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the chair at my dentist’s office thinking about this blog post. What? Don’t you do all of your best thinking in your dentist’s chair?

My phone was in my purse hanging on the back of the door across the room, but I was just waiting for the dentist to come by and do my final check. So, I didn’t think I’d be waiting too long.

It turned out to be a long enough wait that I thought about getting up to get my phone several times. But I was happy looking out the window, watching the birds, and letting my mind run wild for a bit. My thoughts turned to the messines of this year and our lives.

If I’ve learned anything from 2020 (and believe me, the jury’s still out), it’s to consciously accept the messiness and embrace what is.

20/20 Vision

In one sense, I’ve learned to accept the messiness of this year. I mean what choice do I have, right? In another sense, I find myself fighting so hard against this realization. 

The past few months, I’ve felt like I’m holding one long breath. I’ve been waiting for some sign that my “normal” way of life will return and then, I think, “I’ll be able to exhale.” Well, that moment of confirmation has been stubbornly hiding itself from us. So, the conscious acceptance of being here, now feels like a good shift. 

I’m breathing again.

I don’t see this acceptance of messiness as a grand epiphany, though, so much as a helpful change in perspective. 

A profound change in perspective, like putting on glasses for the first time, can bring a rush of clarity and shape everything going forward. This conscious acceptance of the messiness and embracing of the here and now is keeping me sane and focused enough to keep moving forward.

But what does this look like?

Okay, enough with the abstract stuff, let’s talk nuts and bolts. In practice what does this look like?

For me, accepting the messiness and embracing what is looks like:

  • Not beating myself up or listening to my inner critic when the words won’t come
  • Giving grace to those whose messes interfere with my day
  • Being honest with myself about who I am and loving myself unconditionally
  • Recognizing life as a process that’s only complete when what is no longer is
  • Finishing a good book when I can’t sleep, instead of spending hours tossing, turning, and worrying
  • Having conversations with others about the messiness in their worlds and guiding them to find more clarity
  • Pointing out the messiness in language and how that messiness is part of its beauty
  • Being open to the possibilities that could come out of this mess
  • Letting my mind wander
  • Tempering my impulsivity and waiting before jumping in with both feet
  • (Sometimes) doing nothing at all

A lot of the items on this list are not exactly public facing, though, which leads me to my biggest dilemma here: as a business owner and professional what does it mean to consciously accept the messiness? 

What is an acceptable amount of messiness in business?

Working from home and all the other changes living through a global pandemic has foisted upon us have made us all feel more vulnerable. 

Thanks to Zoom, now more than ever before, our coworkers and clients get a front row seat to the messiness of our lives. And even if we appear to have our sh*t together on our video calls, there are enough posts like this to help us remember chewing gum, spit, and duct tape are holding it all together.   

For the most part, I see people embracing these moments of mess and vulnerability. I’m almost tempted to call it a movement. To a large extent, though, this shift started happening long before the pandemic hit. We’ve all become more accustomed to being vulnerable and sharing our real lives on social media.

But is there an acceptable amount of messiness to share? What can we reveal without damaging our credibility? Is messiness something different from vulnerability or authenticity? 

There have to be guardrails here, right?

Here are three:

Messiness Guardrail #1: Think Critically About All the Mess

In truth, messiness is a tale as old as time. Every rags to riches story includes messy moments. Our favorite heroes are the ones who seem relatable and relatable often translates to messy like us. But if you’re like me, you might find yourself thinking, “I don’t know. This story of ‘messiness’ seems a bit too contrived.” 

Grab and hold onto that thought!

We don’t all live lives fit for the silver screen. So before you get wrapped up in the hype, make sure you’re thinking critically. What’s credible about a hero who finds her way out of a mess and lives to tell us about it is that she figured it out for herself and maybe you need to do the same. 

There’s no magic wand for cleaning up your mess. Beware of the person trying to sell you a chance to avoid the struggles she went through and get on the millionaire fast-track. Think about what you might be missing out on by taking this shortcut.

Also, remember your biases. For one, you’re reading, listening, or watching this story knowing it has a happy ending. As Mike Birbiglia says during his stand up comedy shows, “I know. I’m in the future also.” Messiness always looks different in hindsight.

Messiness Guardrail #2: Be Mindful of Privilege

If you choose to share your mess with the world, be mindful of your position of privilege. You have almost certainly overcome adversity on your way to success and it’s natural to want to share the lessons you’ve learned to help others. 

But if you tell your story of straightening out your mess without acknowledging your privilege, that is another red flag for me. Without this acknowledgement, you risk crossing the line into whining.

Now might be a good time for me to acknowledge my privilege. Sure, the pandemic has made my life messier than I might prefer (I miss writing in coffee shops and hanging out with people in the same room) and I’m saying all of this from a privileged place. I’m in the future also. I’ve been through some messes in my life and my messes weren’t that bad. 

Of course, acknowledging my privilege is compatible with feeling like the world was caving in on me when I was in the sh*t. What saved me in those moments was making conscious choices—realizing happiness, or better, contentment wasn’t something I needed to wait to come along. Contentment was something I could have right now, right in the middle of my mess.

Messiness Guardrail #3: Share Only What’s Truly Valuable to Others

Finally, when it comes to the question of how much of the mess is acceptable to share, I say, consider what’s valuable to others.

Check in with yourself before you share:

  • If you want to vent or get someone to tell you everything’s going to be okay, call your mom or your best friend. 
  • If you think you’ll regret sharing your mess on social media tomorrow, just say no.
  • If you have learned something that you know will pay off for you in the future, go ahead and share.

Sharing what’s valuable to others requires you to be conscious about how this mess is leading you to something bigger and better. But this is easier said than done.

Don’t mistake this for a tenet of some type of cult of positivity. It’s not Little Orphan Annie singing, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” This is a conscious decision to accept the messiness and move through it. It’s opening your mind to the mess around you and actively seeking the lessons in it. 

Sometimes a mess is a beautiful lesson waiting to be shared. Sometimes a mess is just a mess, though. Maintaining your professional credibility and reputation, while sharing your mess means learning to distinguish between the two.

I’m not sure whether the new trend of sharing the messes of our lives and businesses is conscious. But if I’m right that messy is the new black, we’re all going to need to figure out together what we want the new guardrails to be.

Does your writing process feel messy? Gain some clarity with my Writer Type Quiz. Figure out what type of writer you are and get some quick tips to make the writing process easier.

Photo credit:  Cathy Yeulet