Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
As a species, humans have an immense capacity for adaptation. Over the millennia, this has often served us well. Bored of the nomadic life? Let’s plant some crops and settle down. Sick of irrigating all those crops by hand? Enter the wheel. Want to keep some sort of record of all this? We’ll learn to write.
On an individual level though, we often struggle with change. Parents sell the family home? Distressing. Favorite bar is converted into a pizza joint? Weird. Twitter swaps the “Home” and “Latest” tabs for “For you” and “Following”? Catastrophic.
Our resistance to the unfamiliar in our day-to-day extends to change that affects other people — that forces us to shift our notion of where they fit in the world, and how we should respond in turn. The uncomfortable adjustment de jour comes courtesy of Marie Kondo, the organization expert whose 2011 book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” and 2019 Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” successfully persuaded a mass audience that their fastest route to contentment was via chucking out all their lesser-loved junk.
Kondo has recently shared that since the birth of her third child, she no longer concerns herself with tidying every day. Instead, she’s found peace with mess as an inevitable byproduct of motherhood. “The way I am spending my time is the right way for me at this time at this stage of my life,” she said at a recent media webinar.
Her benign comment, while welcomed with relief in some circles, prompted a surprisingly febrile reaction in others. Among the most widely shared of these came from the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who moaned: “Where is the official apology to those of us who she influenced to make our clothes into little envelopes when we HAD three children!”
Though Polley later deleted the tweet and clarified that she’d intended it as a joke, the response it received suggested it gave voice to a broader feeling of frustration. Kondo’s success was built on tidying, and encouraging us to tidy in turn. Where was her loyalty to tidying? How dare she pivot out of her well-ordered lane after selling us a way to live?
The discomfort, serious or otherwise, with Kondo’s personal rebrand demonstrates a rigidity that’s reflected across many areas of life. We typecast actors, then reel in shock when Hugh Grant displays a range beyond endearingly foppish, or Jennifer Aniston turns her hand to drama. Children, once established as academic, sometimes struggle to transition to being “creative” or “sporty.”
On a more sinister level, there can be an implicit sense that once you’ve established a particular trait or activity as inherent to your identity, it is somehow greedy or unfaithful to try your hand at something new. Sometimes, we rationalize the adjustment by devaluing what came before. The quest for a perfect home was always pointless! Of course Hugh Grant loves playing twisted weirdos now, charming leading men are dull!
The problem with this mindset, besides being ungenerous when we apply it to others, is that it can be very limiting when applied to ourselves. Why attempt any change, why it comes with an implicit assumption that we got things wrong before? How dare we grow, when we’ve already taken up enough space?
As a child, I was given to understand that my strengths were academic, but what appeared superficially to be a compliment came with an adverse subtext. You are good in class, but they are good at sports. You sit and read, and they run and jump.
Having been so decisively pigeonholed early on, it was decades before it occurred to me that sitting and reading and running and jumping might not be mutually exclusive. I attempted my first tentative jogs after I turned 30, and within months, I was trotting confidently around London most days. For about a year, I was an insufferably passionate runner. I talked about running, I read about running and I dreamed about running.
Then, almost overnight, I stopped running. This was in part because my attention span for practically anything cannot sustain more than 12 months’ intense interest, but mainly because I’d found a new diversion: studying law. Superficially, this may have looked like a callous rejection of hard effort in favor of a shiny new hobby. In fact, it was a natural progression.
Running was the first thing I’d found difficult on my first attempt but bothered to persevere with nevertheless. It was my first hard evidence that if I applied effort to apparently insurmountable tasks, they could eventually become manageable. Just as running 10 miles felt impossible after a week but comparatively effortless six months later, legal problems that were indecipherable to start with gradually revealed themselves to me over time.
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In a culture that’s inherently suspicious of the unknown, change is often misread either as an aberration or as a tacit acknowledgment that we’d underperformed until that point. But as the queen of clean has demonstrated, change is often a sign of growth, of recognizing that the limits you once set for yourself were false.
Marie Kondo may have shifted her priorities from tidying to playtime, but that’s because she’s done what she always has: pay attention to what sparks joy. Tidying was good because it rid her space of unnecessary debris and made room for the things that mattered most. Now that her children are what matter most, tidying is the clutter that she needs to siphon off. It’s not an idealistic U-turn. It’s evolution.