Creative Minds Are Rarely Tidy

Carl Gustav Jung? John William Gardner? A Wise Man? My Friend’s Pillow? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I run a daily email quote list, and I try to do a quick Google search to see if I’ve got the correct attribution.  I came across your site and thank you for the help. Here is a stumper for you:

Creative minds are rarely tidy.

This maxim is credited to Carl Gustav Jung and several other individuals. Sometimes the attribution is Anonymous. Any ideas?

Quote Investigator: There is another common version of this saying that has been put into circulation more recently:

Creative minds are seldom tidy.

QI believes that the most likely creator of the initial maxim was John William Gardner who was once the President of the Carnegie Corporation and was the founder of the prominent advocacy organization Common Cause. He also helmed the Health, Education, and Welfare department during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

In 1964 Gardner published “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society,” and he used the adage without crediting anyone else (boldface added) [CTJG]:

It has been said that there is a stage in the life of a society (or organization or movement) in which the innovators and creative minds flower and a stage in which the connoisseurs and critics flower. Is it true that the heights of connoisseurship are achieved on the road to decadence? It is a highly debatable point, but not to be dismissed out of hand. Creative minds are rarely tidy.

Gardner also included in his book a version of the maxim that applied to larger groupings such as organizations instead of individuals [CTJG]. Both of these variants have been cited by later authors (boldface added):

Extremes of pluralism can lead to utter confusion. But creative organizations or societies are rarely tidy. Some tolerance for inconsistencies, for profusion of purposes and strategies, and for conflict is the price of freedom and vitality.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1965 a book for Certified Public Accountants titled “The CPA Plans for the Future” included the adage about organizations, and Gardner was credited [JGCP]:

This might, of course, give rise to some false starts and consequent backtracking. But as John Gardner says, “Creative organizations or societies are rarely tidy. Some tolerance for inconsistencies, for profusion of purposes and strategies, and for conflict is the price of freedom and vitality.”

In 1975 an article in an Idaho newspaper used the maxim about organizations in the context of a church service. No attribution was given [IDLD]:

We must remember, too, that creative organizations and societies are rarely tidy. Of our worship services we could say that they’re rarely as tidy and quiet as we would prefer, but the challenge we face is an inward one. Don’t we often make more noise telling our children to be quiet than they make being noisy?

In 1979 the quotation about minds appeared in an advertisement headlined “Shop with Sue” in a Spokane, Washington newspaper. No attribution was given [SDMT]:

Creative minds are rarely tidy.

A 1998 newspaper article described a sign in an office that displayed a version of the adage that used the word “seldom” instead of “rarely” [AAKP]:

When it comes to my work habits, the sign in my office that says “Creative Minds are Seldom Tidy” says it all. Creative I am, tidy I am not. So when our new computer and its accessories needed more space than the old one, we thought an armoire with doors that can be closed when the computer’s not in use (Read: hide the mess) would serve our needs best.

A 2003 newspaper article stated that a version of the saying was printed on refrigerator magnets [CSSH]:

Finally I reached the point where, in good conscience, I had to toss out the fridge magnet my roommate had given me that said, “Creative minds are seldom tidy.” That sentiment had become amusingly obsolete.

In 2011 the website had a webpage listing quotations ascribed to Carl Gustav Jung, and it included the version of the maxim using the word “rarely” [SQCJ]:

Carl Gustav Jung quotes

Creative minds are rarely tidy

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this saying located by QI is in a book by John William Gardner. He used the term “rarely tidy” to describe creative minds, organizations, and societies. It is possible that the maxim under investigation was used before Gardner, but QI has not located support for this possibility at this time. Hence, QI would credit Gardner for now. Thank you for sending in a fine question.

(Many thanks to ~~A~Duckling~Named~Ender~~, the moniker of the person who motivated this exploration.)

[CTJG] 1964, Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society by John W. Gardner, Page 49 and 69-70, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JGCP] 1965, The CPA Plans for the Future by John L. Carey, Page 512, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[IDLD] 1975 April 04, The Post-Register, Church Activities: LDS Church View: Higher Aim of Reverence by Leo Goates, Page A8, Idaho Falls, Idaho. (NewspaperArchive)

[SDMT] 1979 September 27, Spokane Daily Chronicle, [Advertisement], Shop With Sue, Page 13, Column 2 of advertisement, [Freestanding quotation], Spokane, Washington. (Google News Archive)

[AAKP] 1998 January 8, Austin American-Statesman, Doing it ourselves nearly does us in by Kay Powers, Section Lifestyle, Page E4, Austin, Texas. (NewsBank)

[CSSH] 2003 December 1, Christian Science Monitor, It only took me 30 years to finish cleaning my room by Sue Heard, Section The Home Forum, Page 18, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewsBank)

[SQCJ] website, Quote attributed to Carl Gustav Jung, “Creative minds are rarely tidy”. (Accessed 2011 August 25) link