What I am sharing today is less of a blog post, and more of a personal essay. It’s personal, passionate and, well, long. (If you choose to read it, you should just refill your coffee cup or wine glass now.) If you watch “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on HBO, this would be the equivalent of the long discussion he does on one focused topic of the week. I was inspired to write this after reading The New York Times Magazine piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Marie Kondo, author of “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” The piece, entitled “Marie Kondo and the Ruthless War on Stuff,” upset me, and I’ve been struggling with how to respond since then. I know that what I’ve written here is mainly for my own benefit, but if you’re interested, perhaps you’ll come along with me on this trip.
I sat to read the story with great interest, and learned quickly that the story positioned Marie Kondo and her unusual approach and style as the hero of the story, the underdog, and the professional organizing industry and my colleagues in the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) as the institutional antagonist, the villain in the story. In the writer’s exploration of the pop culture phenomenon of Marie Kondo, she created what I consider to be an unfair characterization of NAPO. And, while that stings, that’s not why I am writing this.
I am writing this because there are thousands (millions?) of people out there today, struggling with their own relationship with stuff, and if even one of those people reads her piece thinks, “She’s made me feel like if I can’t help myself with a book, I’m a failure. And she’s now scared me away from working with someone to get the help I need,” she has made that person’s life worse. The hardest thing to do in life can often be asking for help, and this piece, in her desire for social media attention and future inches in future issues, has set back those who need professional organizers the most.
So, if you will, let me walk you through my phases of reaction to this NYT Magazine piece, and the story I wish those people would have read.
“FIRST, ABOUT THAT MAGIC TIDYING BOOK…”
I’ll first step back and discuss the Marie Kondo part of this story, since I can’t very well bring attention to how the writer addressed the attitude professional organizers have about Marie Kondo without sharing my own.
Many, many people, clients and otherwise, have asked me, “Have you read that Magic Tidying book? What do you think?”
Anyone who has asked has heard some variation of this response: “First, let me say that I am all for ANY thing that gets people to think critically about the life they want to live, and how their relationship to stuff may be getting in their way of that. And for many people, the approach in that book speaks to them instantly and inspires action they’ve never been able to take before. That said, those don’t tend to be my clients, the people for whom books and blogs and fits and starts haven’t really created real and permanent change. My clients don’t tend to easily look at an item, make a decision about what doesn’t spark joy and toss it out, without the prompting of any other process or partner. For my clients, we typically need to have big-picture conversations, skill-building sessions, and support to help them make change, achieve their goals, and maintain success.”
My viewpoint is not unique within any collection of professional organizers. If you walk around a room full of my professional organizer colleagues, both NAPO members and not, you’ll hear many say something very similar. You’ll also hear some other things as you walk around that same room:
- “I’m all about KonMari! I’m doing it a ton with clients, who call me specifically to go through their wardrobes and homes just to try it this way! I can’t wait to get certified in it some day so I can keep bringing it to people.”
- “Spark joy or let it go? That’s nothing new. It’s not like she invented this. We’ve been doing this for years in our industry.” These people are then likely to share the 135+ year old quote from William Morris every organizer knows, and anyone who’s ever read a Peter Walsh book knows: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
- “It’s a decent enough book with an amazing marketing arm behind it.” I was struck by a piece I read in The New Yorker which told about how she entered her book idea into a publishing training course entitled “How to write best sellers that will be loved for ten years.” One of the judges was a magazine editor who worked with her to get her book written, promoted through TV and internet campaigns. She faced criticism in Japan, too, as challengers claimed she wasn’t doing anything special and merely a successor of the ‘art of discarding’, a tradition that had become popular in the 1990’s.
- “Honestly, I haven’t read it,” or “I started it but didn’t finish it.”
- “It’s a fad or a blip that’s drawing a lot of new attention to our industry. That’s great and all, but it doesn’t feel so great that people seem to think this book has caused the invention or validation of our industry. We’ve been around for decades.”
- “It’s fresh! After working with clients for as long as some of us have, it’s nice to have some new language and approaches to help our clients get to the next level of their goals!”
- Finally, you may even hear something that will make it clear that a person is really put off by the book, the movement, even the author.
With such a diversity of opinion, you would think that a magazine writer spending a few days with 600 professional organizers at the Annual Conference of NAPO would hear and then present a spectrum of what she heard. You would think that, until you read her piece and saw she stated her intention in attending was to “better understand the state of stuff in America, and to study Kondo’s competition.”
Whoa. How come nobody told ME I was Kondo’s competition?
“A WRITER COMES TO CONFERENCE…”
Pivoting now to my thoughts on Ms. Brodesser-Akner’s piece, the tone and the content all made sense when I saw that it was her intention to attend Conference to paint NAPO as “competition”. (Yes, as the writer pointed out, we call it “Conference,” as in, “Are you planning on going to Conference next April in Pittsburgh?”)
First, I should state what I wished were more obvious to her: You are going to find it really hard to find a professional organizer in ANY room who will say, “I’m losing a lot of business because people read an organizing book instead.” We are most typically in the business of working with people for whom “reading the book” doesn’t work. In fact, we often have great chuckles with our clients when we get to the point in the organizing session where it’s time to declutter all the organizing books bought, read, and stored, now collecting dust. Marie Kondo’s book is on that shelf. Marie Kondo, and her book, are not our competition.
So, since the writer got that most important point wrong from the start, it’s no wonder that the case she then built to make her point felt unfair and insulting to me. She gathered all the details that a good writer will, the ones that help describe the room and the experience in such detail as to have her reader feel that he or she is in the same room with her, the ones that would have you believe that NAPO professional organizers are the wicked stepsister to the story’s hero, Marie Kondo. She set out to find the details that worked for her and the case she already knew she would make.
She sat through some sessions (that were not inspiring to her, as if she were the intended audience of our Conference), joined in some of our social events, and met and spoke to professional organizers about their thoughts on Marie Kondo. (If you’d like to learn more about one organizer’s first hand experience speaking with the writer, and was quoted in her article, you can read more here. )
She spent her time to identify those quotes which best supported her thesis: that NAPO organizers view Marie Kondo as competition, and they take the opportunity to attack her out of jealousy along the way. The writer states, as it so serves her piece to make professional organizers the villain, “While NAPO members don’t share any standardized method for organizing — the group offers certification classes, but each woman I spoke with has her own approach — they are fairly unified in their disdain for this Japanese interloper.”
Would it surprise you to know that in our four-day agenda at Conference, and over 50 hours of educational sessions, there was NOT ONE session dedicated to address this “major issue” of competition and infiltration of our industry? Wouldn’t you expect that hundreds of people who are “unified their disdain” would have made this a priority? Even the writer, who admits she attended a session on crises in our industry does not list “Marie Kondo and her book” on a long list of issues that organizers generally perceive we face in our industry. And yet, the writer’s take is that we are clearly an anti-Kondo group, and just can’t wait to be asked about it so that we may share our collectively-held negative comments.
Her only dissent to this claim of unified disdain in her piece arrives with: “The nice ones, struggling for something that wasn’t overtly bitchy to say, said they appreciated that the popularity of her book has brought attention to their industry.”
It’s right there, isn’t it? In a room full of 600 people, even the nice ones had to work hard to not be bitchy. This is her big mic-drop in the article: Even the nicest organizers aren’t actually nice.
At this point, with that punch to the gut, I continued to read the article, trying to pry my mind to stay as open as possible. She listed out many observations she had of our Conference, and if I’m reading with a defensive lens, of course I’d find offense intended in her tone. She’s taking her reader on a walk around the room, and pointing out items, describing in mocking tones or using language which appears to want you to think things are questionable or ridiculous or even offensive. A few that stuck with me:
- She writes, “I met women who categorized themselves as “solopreneurs,” which, what’s that now?” Perhaps this attributed to the difference between writers who cover pop culture and those who cover the business world? In the comments section of the piece online, Terri Lonier, author of the 1993 book, “Working Solo,” stated the term dates back at least as long as that, and is well known in the business industry. But that’s not the point, right? The point is that the writer wants you to question its legitimacy, too.
- She quotes different people, a negative clip here and there, and I’m sure she didn’t make these up. She has no reason to fabricate quotes. She zeroes in on one person’s comment: “It’s a book if you’re a 20-something Japanese girl and you live at home and you still have a bunch of your Hello Kitty toys and stuff,” and responds to the quote: “[while it was] not the only thing a professional organizer told me that was tinged with an aggressive xenophobia and racism, it is the only one that can run in a New York Times article.” For the record: I don’t disagree with the writer about this Hello Kitty comment. If someone made that comment to me about MK, I’d for sure give it a side-eye. But the writer suggests that there were many comments, so much worse that they were unprintable, as if she found she was wading through some thinly-veiled hate group. (I mean, what could possibly have been said over canapés and a chardonnay while standing in front of a display for junk removal services?) And while I have no proof she is exaggerating to serve her storyline, I have such dissonance over this part of her article that I can only choose to believe it was a kernel of truth in the one statement that allowed her to paint the brush more broadly for effect.
- She got personal, too. She took time to mock one of our esteemed colleagues, Angela Cody-Rouget, not by name, but by outfit. “I met a woman in camouflage (though the invitation begged us to confine ourselves to our native business-casual), who carried a clipboard and called herself Major Mom, and instead of an organizer she calls herself a liberator, like in Falluja.” (Her spelling, not mine.) Sure, the words themselves aren’t particularly damning, but consistent with her tone, you just sense she wants you to hear a “Gettaloadofthisone” as she points across the room. By the way, does Angela sound familiar to you? She was featured in an episode of “Shark Tank” last fall, in an episode focusing on veteran-owned businesses. And I don’t use the term “esteemed” loosely; Angela was one of three nominees of a peer-nominated-and-voted Founders Award, awarded annually at the NAPO Conference, for her contributions to our industry, bringing tremendous visibility for what professional organizers do in service to our clients every day.
Angela did not win that award, but Jose Luis Cunha did, for his work in expanding the professional organization industry throughout Brazil. How perfectly xenophobic and racist of us, no?
- And, as she summarized what she pieced together to benefit her argument: “Ultimately, the women of NAPO said that Kondo’s methods were too draconian and that the clients they knew couldn’t live in Kondo’s world. They had jobs and children, and they needed baby steps and hand-holding and maintenance plans. They needed someone to do for them what they couldn’t naturally do for themselves.” It was then that I bristled more and understood why. She’s not just insulting me; she is insulting my clients. She is insulting those for whom a book doesn’t work, those who need help and ask for it.
That is when I saw the real victim of this piece in The Magazine. It isn’t me and other professional organizers, NAPO or not. Someone was going to read this article and see that, if he or she is a person who needs help, who can’t get unstuck independently, that the judgment that exists is pervasive and real. If you can’t read a book and walk around and find things that spark joy and make quick decisions, and turn your life upside down because of it, you are “less than.”
It was then that I started to process my reaction to all of this, and this essay of my own began to take form.
“LIFE AFTER A NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE AUTHOR PAINTED MY INDUSTRY AS THE OGRE TO HER HERO…”
I sat on the article a while before writing this. I connected with other organizers, NAPO and non-NAPO, and that has helped me gain some clarity. I’ve gone through the stages of processing. First, I felt betrayed and violated, as a member of NAPO and an attendee at Conference. I went through the “expose her for what she truly is” anger – “she’s a pop culture writer,” even though I know it is just as unfair to paint a brush of “pop culture writer” as it is to do so of “professional organizer.”
I began to separate out the problems I have with this piece and ask “what are my REAL feelings about Marie Kondo, anyway? Am I part of the problem here?”
It forced me to look inwards, and then I realized where my problem with Marie Kondo’s methodology may actually lie and I need to thank Ms. Brodesser-Akner, because she’s embedded it right there in her own title: RUTHLESS. Marie Kondo’s method requires being ruthless.
Even as you read her descriptions of Marie Kondo, it tells of a cold distance she has from people. Kondo herself confessed that she is more comfortable with items than with people. And so, it becomes hard for me to identify with her approach, because I can’t imagine working with my clients without connecting with them and meeting them where they are at in their process. What comes through is an absence of compassion in her approach.
Fortunately, for clients everywhere, most professional organizers feel similarly: we love helping build skills and empower people to become more organized, because they believe their own lives will be better when that happens. They will say, as I do, that it is because of our ability to connect with, understand, and support people, that we are able to help those who have raised their hands and receive the help they need, so that the client may move forward towards achieving the life they most want to live.
When I think of what I hope I am, and what I hope I bring to all my clients, RUTHLESS is the last word I’d use, or want used, to describe me.
What words would I hope my clients use to describe me, and working with me?
- That I am compassionate, not ruthless.
- That I am non-judgmental, not holding people to rules and expectations set by others.
- That I am patient, not expecting progress to come in a particular sequence or pace.
- That I work hard to understand each and every person and their challenges, not assume that their struggles, and their solutions, will all be the same.
- That I teach them how to live differently, not just tell them that they should.
- That I helped them become who they wanted to be, not who a book wanted them to be.
May the word “ruthless” never ever be used to describe me, my methods, or my relationship with anything. (By the way, if we were watching this as a “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” rant, at this point John would point to the bottom of the screen and say, “#compassionatenotruthless #feminism #butmenareorganizerstoo” in his delightful accent, but, again, I digress.)
“SO, WHAT ABOUT THAT NAPO STUFF….”
I know I can’t control what takeaways someone has from the piece in The Magazine about what NAPO is or what we members of NAPO say or do when asked a question by someone with a pointed agenda about a topic. I can’t even control the fact that much of what she said is factually correct, from the ribbons we put on our badge to the fact that, yes, for the first time in years, we had karaoke at our Awards gala that night, and yes, someone sang to Eminem. We are, in all those ways, highly unremarkable in our conference experience.
I can, however, tell you about MY experience in NAPO, and why I, despite everything that writer would have you believe, will continue to be a proud member of NAPO.
There is nothing magical about being a member of NAPO. There was no special power bestowed on me the day after I paid my first membership dues. That’s not how this works. NAPO is a collection of nearly 4,000 professional organizers and productivity specialists who consider being a part of the premier professional association within their industry a valuable investment of time, money and energy. We belong to an association that brings education, awareness, connectivity and ethics to the world, both to its members and to the people who would most benefit from what we have to share.
I believe that belonging to a professional association for my industry helps me be a better organizer, and a better business owner, both of which allow me to be in service to my clients and audiences who hear me speak and read what I write. NAPO is committed to its mission to be the leading source for organizing and productivity professionals by providing exceptional education, enhancing business connections, advancing industry research, and increasing public awareness. I give back to NAPO to make it, as an Association, stronger. I get what I give, and I give what I get.
Like any other group of thousands, you’ll find we differ across a lot of measures. We specialize in different populations, different challenges. We don’t all approach organizing principles the same way. Some have been doing it for decades and some have just launched into their careers. And, yes, some are going to be better organizers than others are.
We’re also different PEOPLE. Not every person struggling with organization is going to click with every organizer looking to help. It is not so different than looking for another service provider – a doctor, a therapist, a personal trainer – sometimes it is a good combination, and sometimes, it just doesn’t feel right. When trying to get the right help, take the time to talk to different organizers or productivity specialists, NAPO members or not.
But, at the core, like any group, we believe that we are stronger together, and that we are collectively impacting the lives of people and the futures of businesses in ways that improve them meaningfully.
“SO, WHY DID I WRITE THIS AGAIN?….”
If you stayed with me this long, thank you. I hope you learned something, but at the very least, I hope you know that you are appreciated, because I needed to share this. But more importantly, if you read this article in the New York Times Magazine thinking you’d find some, and you know your answer is “but I need more than just telling my t-shirt it brings me joy and folding it to stand up… I need help to change,” please, please, please consider getting help from a professional organizer. If you need help finding one in your area, yes, as I’m comfortable stating my bias, I’m going to refer you to NAPO to find one by zip code or by expertise. We’re here for you, and we want you to have the life you want to live, just as much as you do.
But, please, if you know you would benefit from help, consider raising your hand and making that investment in yourself. Just don’t let the piece in the New York Times Magazine convince you that if Marie Kondo’s book can’t help you, no one can.