Organization Is Not Minimalism


Walking through any home improvement store or furniture outlet, you will always find a very large section devoted to “home organization.” It sounds wonderful. Pick up a plastic tote to store toys the kids don’t use or outgrew (maybe get two) and what about the eight compartment shelf you need to buy with some square boxes for to actually hold things out of view in the living room?

Totes of all sizes, colors and materials, plastic boxes to compartmentalize and sort knick-knacks and the junk drawer. Closet organizer systems that “easily install” to make room for even more clothes. Or perhaps some of the “folding hangers” that allow you to hang six shirts on one?

But organization isn’t minimalism.

Watching any of the popular “hoarder” type shows and you will always find a psychologist and an “organization expert” helping with the cleanup. The organization expert, really, is there as a fall-back when the psychologist can’t break the subject of the episode of their habit to keep things. If you can’t let things go, at least organize it, right?

I have always considered myself an “organization expert.” My VHS collection was expertly displayed on rows of shelves the perfect size, including those pesky Disney clamshells. I purchased several Billy Bookcases from Ikea where I could adjust the shelves just right to fit my VHS replacement DVDs in nice rows, complete with additional shelves to take full advantage of the space.  I could now fit more “stuff” in less space.

But it was still more stuff.

As I make a journey towards minimalism, or as close as I can to it, I look around and I still see too much stuff. I don’t know if I can ever get to a magic number of 100 possessions – or even 50 – but it is indeed getting harder and harder to make the decision to let things go.
My DVDs and Blu-rays are among the last “collections” I have. I had downsized them a year before, and the few remaining are in the trunk of my car as I debate taking them to a donation place, or trying to sell them online for a couple of dollars.

The final collection – is going to be a tough one..

Chemistry Set vs Radio Kit Learning

Recently, I witnessed something that intrigued me but gave it little thought at the time. During some online webinar training with a few colleagues, I became aware of the different ways people learn and troubleshoot problems. After listening to Seth Godin’s “Leap First” audiobook, I was able to put this observation into more concrete definition: the difference between “chemistry set” and “radio kit” learning.

Like many web developers and programmers, I have always been of the “chemistry set” mind, despite never been allowed to have one as a child. This type of learning involves trying different things, and if one doesn’t yield the correct results, trying another one – or more. Things might blow up, but through trial and error you learn what does what, and eventually you not only learn what you were trying to accomplish, but also what led you to the wrong results.

The other type of learning is called the radio kit method. This is the method that was taught during industrialization, and is starting to show its face again. In this method, there is only one right answer. There is only one way to get the radio kit to function correctly. Experimenting is frowned upon, as you might blow a capacitor. This type of learning paralyzes creativity and awards only the correct answer, giving step-by-step instructions on how to receive the desired result. More recently this is evident in LEGO sets, where detailed instructions on how to build the pictured vehicle or space ship on the box are given in exact detail. I have watched kids build the purchased model, then be completely lost at what to do next – except buy a bigger kit that will take longer.

When a colleague was paralyzed by not wanting to “do something wrong” during the webinar I was truly taken aback.  The majority of the skills I have gathered over the years have been achieved through trial and error, learning as I went along about what worked and what did not. I couldn’t imagine starting something new without the freedom to explore. Seth Godin took this one step further, extrapolating this observation to schools and colleges, who are intent on teaching “by the book.”  Learn a trade, step-by-step, get the expected results. Produce.

But sometimes even going step-by-step doesn’t give the expected results. I can tell you the proper way to cook an omelette, but 7 times out of 10 I can’t make it as perfect as the recipe and the steps tell me to. There are may different variables. And what happens when things don’t go as planned even if following the steps? Frustration. Anger. Resentment. Giving up.

Once you recognize radio-kit methodologies, you will see it everywhere. Parents are told exactly what to do at various stages of their child’s life. Kids are told exactly what to do in order to advance rank in Scouts. To sell the most cookies, here is a checklist. Want a beautiful yard? Spread this seed in the Spring, this fertilizer in the Summer, and then winterize with this chemical in the Fall. step – by – step – by step.

But the world doesn’t tend to reward those who stick to the directions. Everywhere you look you see not only vast fortunes, but fantastic new discoveries by those who didn’t stick to the instructions.  We celebrate creativity in public but shun it in private, drugging kids who show ambition and creativity so they can sit quietly – and simply follow directions. The biggest chemistry set ever invented, the Internet, is now at our disposal.

So why are we still building radio kits?

Experiment a little.

You Can’t Be An Expert In A Week

When Peter Shankman told me to get out of my comfort zone, he told me this:

“Can you take a few days and get the hell out of town and do totally different things? Things that have NOTHING to do with your professional life? The goal is to try something new – Learn new things about yourself – You’d be surprised where those might lead…”

Now, I’m pretty sure he meant to take a weekend trip out of my area, maybe a few hours drive, settle into a nice hotel or bread and breakfast, and think, write, draw – do whatever.  What happened was a several month challenge doing something completely foreign to me:

Dancing in The Nutcracker.

I had been threatening to audition for years, but I always talked myself out of it.  This year I missed auditions, but due to a recommendation by a friend, I was cast in the role of “party guest.”  I accepted.  So, I immediately took to YouTube and found previous years’ performances in the city, and watched the opening scene a couple hundred times before the first rehearsal.

It didn’t help that much.

I was awkward on my feet and had no idea what I was doing.  In terms of instruction, we pretty much learned by doing since the majority of the cast knew the steps already and had been doing it for years.  I became frustrated.  In fact, the 2nd rehearsal I popped my achilles tendon and was out for a week and a half.

My problem: I wasn’t an expert.

I realized the frustration that comes with learning a new skill.  I had become so comfortable with where I was and what I knew, that I actually forgot what it was like to start completely from scratch and learn.  And more importantly – that I wasn’t going to become an expert in a few days, weeks, or even months.  It wil be a continual process even after the production is over if I decide to do it again. (and it’s almost a certainty)
As adults, when we start a new activity, or hobby, we strive for “perfection.”  We become upset if things aren’t going at the pace we want them to.  We marvel at all the “technical” knowledge we gleaned from googling or watching eHow or YouTube videos.

But while we may “technically” know WHAT to do – there is that piece of getting better by actually doing it.
I forgot what it was like to learn a completely new skill, especially one that required different motor skills.  I have learned to code HTML, Perl, PHP, WordPress, etc little by little, but doing something as simple as an 8 second polka eluded me.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world.  Besides the lesson I can’t be an expert in a day, I learned a lot from watching the people who ARE experts, and marveled in the way everybody in the production controlled their movements across the stage, to the delight of thousands of people in attendance.

And I was part of it.

So thank you Peter for suggesting I get out of my comfort zone.  It really did change my perspective on a lot of things.