There is Only Entropy; Everything Else is the Mall.
Entropy: “Lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.”
I was talking with someone on my management team a few months ago. We had brought on a new project manager and this manager was in her first six months, learning and adapting and getting to know us and our process, or lack thereof. This new person has a very structured mind. She is very organized and prone to imposing order on the world she lives in. We were watching her get increasingly frustrated with our lack of structure and process as time went on. In our defense, Solspace is a well-ordered company that functions very well, unusually well even. We build quality stuff. We do it on time and we do it on budget. However, we’ve noticed that we do exceptionally well in project spaces where there is a lack of order. When a client has a problem that is not well defined, or where the process is especially fluid and creative in nature, we do well. We don’t necessarily do well because we impose order on that problem. We do well because we are comfortable inside disorder. At least we were before this new manager started.
There came a day at around the 4-month mark where this new manager expressed her annoyance about how disorganized we seemed to be and how we seemed to tolerate an inappropriate amount of disorder from a few of our clients. I joked about how this person should probably just grow up and face the fact that the world is not a well-ordered place. I heard myself say, “there is only entropy; everything else is the mall.” I thought my cute turn of phrase was true. I was wrong.
What ended up being true was that I was the one who needed to grow up. Thriving in chaotic situations is great. These situations are inevitable in life and one should try to grow and mature such that they do not upset us too much and we can navigate them successfully. Think of your 4-year-old and how they react when their daily routine is disrupted. They lose it. A grown up doesn’t lose it right? A grownup just adapts.
It turns out I was oversimplifying. My new project manager, with all her annoyance about how tolerant we were of disorder, was the grownup in the room. What she was really saying was, grow up and take control of your life. Rid yourself of the appetite for chaos. Grow up and grow into a way of being where you want and expect your life to be serene, ordered and under control to whatever extent is rational and possible, and enjoy it.
For years I have enjoyed doing all-nighters to meet a deadline. I loved the adrenaline rush. I had become addicted to being the hero, and loved the accolades that came with it. But all of this was illusory, and weightless. I was a fictional character, defining myself by how good I looked under pressure, which meant I also had to make sure there was a steady supply of chaos so I could jump in and save the day. I was always focused on getting my fix, rushing from crisis to crisis, burning out. From where I am now, I can see this as immaturity. I’d really rather be a grownup. A grownup with the courage to slow things down, look at the big picture and structure things for long-term sanity.
Go to the mall and you see many many examples of fictional order. Shirts are folded neatly on their shelves instead of strewn about the floor like at your house. Jeans are perfectly weathered and stained, imitating entropy, according to current fashion. Shoes are clean and squeaky instead of covered in grit. The lovely irony is that malls, as many of us know them, are dying, succumbing to entropy. But many still exist as havens of artificial order and reassurance. The wind can be blowing tree branches down outside, but inside the mall the Muzak is playing Maroon 5 and the place smells of cakey perfume counter ladies; nice and predictable.
All these years I identified what is “real” with the anti-mall, which is to say, “real” for me was disorder, chaos, entropy. The mall was a fake place and so too was an overly organized life. But this was also a fiction. Adaptability to chaos is a real thing, a necessary thing. But so too is the maturity to order and structure one’s world so that it is livable for oneself and others.
This is my public apology to my new project manager for my immature mistake. She’s right. We should have less of an appetite for the crazy and more of an appetite for the sane and sustainable. We can be excellent when things are a mess, but we shouldn’t create messes just to prove it. We can survive the cold blustery day outside, but we shouldn’t crave it. We should also not crave perfectly obsessive order. There’s a sane and happy middle path. We can create well-defined places for our stuff and make (and execute) well-considered plans, and still stay ready to adapt when entropy takes over and blows our stuff all over the place, or a client brings us an insanely complicated problem that needs to be solved in an insanely short amount of time. Being a grownup means getting to choose what happens next.