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‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up’ vs. Ben Franklin

“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up,” by Japanese writer Marie Kondo, continues to clean up on our bestseller list, where it’s currently No. 2. The author and her book, which has sold 2 million copies, have received lavish media attention, and there are reports that “to kondo” has entered the language as a verb.

Read an excerpt here.

Kondo speaks of people being “led by fate” to read her book. And she guarantees that her method, the KonMari Method, “will change your life forever.” Like every successful self-help book, this one promises that the method is easy and simple and that everyone who sincerely applies it will succeed.

It seems that the only thing we want more than more stuff is more organized stuff. But this is hardly a shift in the zeitgeist. For Americans, the world leaders of prosperity and material acquisition, finding ways to manage our possessions has long been an obsession. Indeed, American publishing is a mess of popular books about how to simplify one’s life. Even our first great self-help bestseller addressed the subject — though with considerable exasperation.

I’m speaking, of course, of Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography.” In that classic of self-invention, Franklin tells us that as a young man he “conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He even presents a copy of his daily schedule, which begins at 5 a.m.: “Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness.” At 6 p.m., after a productive day of inventing a new stove or a better catheter, he sets aside a full hour to “Put things in their places.”

This daily approach is a no-no, according to the KonMari Method. She also explains “why you should aim for perfection,” but she insists that “tidying is a special event. Don’t do it every day.” Maybe that’s where Franklin went wrong. Or maybe nobody told him: “Visualize the ideal lifestyle you dream of.”

The KonMari Method rests on discarding the vast bulk of stuff we really don’t want or need and keeping only those possessions that “spark joy inside us.”

Flying a kite in a thunderstorm, Franklin knew something about sparks, but he’s a lot more honest than most self-help writers, who make personal transformation sound so easy and effective. In the wry discussion that follows his schedule, Franklin admits, “Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extremely difficult to acquire.” Like most of us busy people, he’d rather just remember where everything is than try to put everything in a proper place. The effort to be neat, he says, “cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character.”

What a disaster that lax attitude would be for self-help publishing! The growth of that pernicious industry is predicated on never-ending waves of hope and despair.

Later in life, Franklin had some regrets that he wasn’t more organized. But in that hilarious way that makes him so lovable, he concludes that he doesn’t want to be perfect. After all, if he succeeded, he might just look ridiculous or have to contend “with the inconvenience of being envied and hated.”

So, go ahead and skip “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up.” As Franklin said, “A benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.”

Being messy is the kind thing to do.