Friday, 28 June 2013

Keeping a balance : considering curating

I was introduced to a great new phrase to use in my organising work recently: Curating. This refers to capturing things, especially experiences, which can be shared and valuable for yourself and for others.

A few months ago I made contact with the lovely Joel Zaslovsky, who is based in Edina, MN, USA, and responsible for the fascinating Value of Simple website. The contact came about because he created a first-class post about the organising profession (you can read it here).

As a result of ongoing conversations, I found myself recording a podcast for him for use on his Smart and Simple Matters show (I'll shout about it when I know when it's due to be made available, probably later this summer). He interviewed me about my role as President of apdo-uk, about my background, about what brought me to professional organising, and much more.

A couple of days ago, Joel responded to my follow-up email after the recording, sharing with me a YouTube video of a talk he gave recently at Ignite Minneapolis ("a high-energy evening of 5-minute talks by people who have an idea - and the guts to get onstage and share it with their hometown crowd"). It gives some great thoughts and ideas about this topic, and it got me thinking.

'Curating' has an interesting place in the world of the professional organiser. It involves assessing the value of items and experiences, and having decided that they are worth keeping, choosing the most user-friendly and elegant ways of capturing them to share with others. Joel has some excellent suggestions for these tools, such as EverNote, Pinterest, or his "personal favourite" (mine too!) - the Excel spreadsheet. The challenge here is to make those choices to curate - or to abandon, forget and move on. In other words, whether to declutter and dispose, or to keep and to organise.

The truth is, of course, that as in all parts of life, the answer lies in finding a sensible balance between the two. While I have great respect for the work and philosophies for advocates of the minimalist life, such as the lovely Joshua and Ryan at The Minimalists, or the inspiring couple Betsy & Warren Talbot at Married With Luggage (who effectively sold everything they owned and invested the proceeds in travel and all the experiences that came their way), I recognise that this complete paring down of absolutely everything that is not completely necessary to your existence is not for everybody. I prefer to read the writings of such people to find inspiration, clarity, ideas and motivation; I don't have to stick rigorously to everything they say. And, more importantly, neither do my clients. My business is to make life workable, not necessarily perfect.

Joel observes, quite rightly, "Most of your experiences are empty, but some of them are powerful, even transformational; not just to you, but to everyone around you." These are the moments, the resources, that Joel believes you should learn to curate, to capture, to share, for the benefit of yourself and those you meet.

However, it struck me, when listening to Joel's talk, that "curating" could, in careless hands, come to represent the very opposite to minimalism, the enemy of true efficiency: a desperate drive to create records, to capture, to ensure absolutely nothing is lost.

I know from my own experience that this brings its own kind of clutter. I have met people whose organisational capability is quite stunning - they capture everything, from every morsel they eat to every item they buy - but their mechanisms for discrimination are sadly lacking. This kind of curating only exists, it seems, to give them an illusion of control over their lives and their belongings. Writing down a careful note of everything you eat does not necessarily mean that you don't overeat: it just means you can quantify it. [I speak from personal experience here, I assure you.] Noting every purchase doesn't stop you from buying things you don't actually need - just that you know exactly when and for how much you bought them.

I turned up a long-forgotten moment on television from my own mental filing cabinet (with help from that excellent aid to curating, YouTube). Ever Decreasing Circles was a gentle, beautifully observed sit-com, starring Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan and the late, lamented Richard Briers, which ran from 1984-1989. It's desperately understated, British and detailed; it is very funny, but often in a painful way. Martin - Briers' character - is "an obsessive middle-aged man who is at the centre of his local suburban community". He is a control freak of the first order. His life must be kept under complete, precise control, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart; the end of the world, in fact. The very first episode shows him (as he does frequently) disentangling the telephone cord, and asking his long-suffering wife "One thirty-five alright for lunch, love?".

The episode I particularly remembered - and finally tracked down - is the first one in the fourth series (1987). Take a couple of minutes to watch from 09:15 to 12:13 as next door neighbour Paul (Egan) takes Martin in hand to attempt to get him to relax his grip on unnecessary minutiae.

He starts with a pile of match results for the under-thirteens' football team, six years previously. The conversation goes like this.

"Do you actually need this piece of paper?" "Yes." "Why?" "To file." "Why?" "So that I know I've got it."

Any of my colleagues who has struggled to help a client to let go of inconsequential detritus will recognise this scenario. The point is that Martin's military-style precision in his record keeping has trapped him; but his organisational skills are superb. It's his skills in discrimination which are lacking.

As I thought this through, I recognised that my own style tends to the curating, too. My home is most certainly not minimalist; I am fortunate enough to live in a large property (which we don't own, I hasten to add; my husband is a minister in the Church of England, and it goes with the job). This gives me the luxury of being able to keep, and curate, items that in other circumstances would have to be disposed of. Specifically, we have one room dedicated to a library of theatre, music and literature. [That's the room in the photo at the top of this post.] These activities account for a huge amount of our leisure hours: we both love the theatre, as audience, performers and directors. We both have a fairly thorough knowledge of such matters, specialising in curiosities ranging from the Victorian & Edwardian operettas, through music hall and variety, to my personal enthusiasm for the works of Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb. As such, in our wide circle of friends, it's no surprise that we are known to be 'experts' of a sort, and known to possess this library. Both our knowledge and the volumes are, of course, always available to anyone who wishes to make use of them. And, I would add, we are likely to find ourselves - at least annually, but more likely several times each year - involved in creating entertainments, workshops and fundraising events in our local community, for which these volumes will always be a valuable source.

A minimalist might look at our precious library, and say "But you hardly touch these volumes. They're clutter. You don't need them!". However, this resource is organised, acknowledged and available; the frequency with which any one item is required by us personally is neither here nor there.

An oft-discussed condundrum today is "the difference between a hoard and a collection". The difference is fairly simple. If, like us, you are fortunate enough to have sufficient space for the items; if you value them, display them, organise them and share them; if you can find them when they are required with minimal effort - it's a collection. If, on the other hand, the items are buried, invisible, inaccessible, forgotten, broken, mildewed or eaten by mice; if you cannot locate an item when it is required, by you or anyone else - then it's a hoard. Moreover, if that hoard takes up so much inappropriate physical space that it prevents you from living a comfortable, relaxed, hygienic life - it can't be classified as a collection in any true sense.

A final note. One of my favourite personal collections is a single folder containing assorted cards, notes and letters from my husband. I know where to find it when I want a sentiment-fest. I don't want to burrow through mountains of rubbish to find that card that he wrote to me within weeks of our relationship starting. I value it and I honour it, so I curate it.

We all have the capacity for curating. We take photographs, create videos, write diaries. If the things and the people and the memories that we curate are of value and interest, to ourselves and to others, for today and for the future, we can learn best practice to make them meaningful and useful. But in the same breath, we must be selective, choosy, discriminating. We must recognise the differences between the 'empty' and the 'transformational'; and when we can comfortably choose between decluttering and letting go or curating and organising, then we will be truly empowered.


  1. Wow, Cassie. Thanks for the rave review of my talk and the depth of this breakdown on curating! I love the balanced approach and one section of this post really stuck with me. You wrote:

    "However, it struck me, when listening to Joel's talk, that 'curating' could, in careless hands, come to represent the very opposite to minimalism, the enemy of true efficiency: a desperate drive to create records, to capture, to ensure absolutely nothing is lost."

    That is absolutely true. And that's why I stress to people to define why they want to curate in the first place before they decide on how or what. If you don't have a good internal experience filter in place or a pack-rat of an archive... oh boy. You're getting yourself into a whole lot of trouble with curating in the way that I practice it.

    Thanks for approaching Experience Curating from such a cool angle!

    1. So glad you like it, Joel: it was fun to write and provoking to think about. And I hope you enjoyed a little peep into the psyche of old-fashioned British sit-com, too... :)