Rising Above the Messiness of the Human Condition


Messiness Everywhere

Families can be messy. I reached this conclusion, again, after a number of friends and colleagues shared stories of dealing with difficult family issues. Their issues weren’t all that strange or unique. It seems it was just their turn to experience unplanned and unexpected family messiness.

The fact is, life in general is pretty messy. That’s what I’ve concluded after 55 years of navigating a variety of life challenges. Some of these challenges were the result of my actions and were within my control. But many were not. As is true for all of us, I didn’t knowingly invite or plan for most of my challenges.

Work is messy too. We attempt to do our work alongside a mix of personalities we didn’t choose – and many we wouldn’t choose. Meanwhile, rapid change, conflicting priorities and lack of adequate resources all add to the messiness.

Complain or Clean Up the Mess

So basically we’re surrounded by messiness at home and at work. But we don’t just pack up and leave home because it’s messy. To some extent, we all try to live our lives as an island of hope, love and compassion in the middle of the mess. We hope our efforts to do good will take hold, catch on and replace the messiness with clarity, security and joy.

We should try to do the same at work. Organizations are made up of men and women, which means they are human and flawed. We’ve all seen reviews and lists advertising “best places to work.” But most people who have worked at multiple agencies will agree that no place can promise the absence of flawed humans. Other agencies just have humans flawed in new and different ways.

And yet, work is the place where we tend to complain most freely. We are often incredulous and outraged at the flaws we see around us, in our systems and processes and especially in our colleagues and management. But we also often fail to recognize that these flaws simply reflect the fundamental messiness of humanity. We believe we are the only ones who know the right way. And we bemoan our powerlessness to change the course of those who we believe are going the wrong way.

Or Be the Change We Seek

If we are to find resilience, to persist and even thrive in spite of the messiness, we might want to follow a model I recently read about in a description of Francis of Assisi. The passage reads, “Francis had no pragmatic social agenda for reform. [He] just moved outside the system of illusion, more by ignoring it than fighting it, and quite simply doing it better.”

We don’t need to ignore the mess or abandon our agenda to change things for the better. But we won’t bring about positive change being the critic who stands on the sidelines and points out flaws without offering a better way. We should first of all expect the messiness and recognize it as a basic reality of our human condition. Then we can focus on being the change we hope to see in the organization.


This blog does not represent official policies of the Corporation for National and Community Service or those of the U.S. Government.

Jeffrey Page is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Megan Manfredi

Great post! It’s so easy to get caught up in “the mess” and be an inactive complainer. Trying to step back and make actual effort to change the things that are bothering you is the first step to cleaning up the mess!