Six years ago, during the second semester of my architectural graduate program, I decided to take a watercolor class. I had always admired the delicacy of watercolor paintings, and the luminosity and movement they often embodied. I imagined myself sitting outside with my pallet full of paint, effortlessly painting beautiful landscapes.
I walked into the first day painting class full of hope and creative excitement, but by the end of the hour I had just one thought.
I. Hate. Watercolors.
You see, as long as I can remember I have been a very precise person. A perfectionist to put it nicely. A control freak to put it bluntly. So when I couldn’t control this water and paint the way I wanted to, it really frustrated me.
My desire for perfection and control runs deep, especially when it comes to academics and my career. Since childhood I have taken school very seriously. Architecture school was no joke. It was intense. We had a huge workload, and were expected to work around the clock to get it done.
For instance, one of my professors would come up to our studio around midnight a few nights a week, and if you weren’t there working he would call your cell phone and ask, “Am I not giving you enough work to do? Where are you?” We stashed cots and bean bags in our studios so we could sleep a couple hours a night without “wasting time” by going all the way home to sleep.
During those six years I spent in architecture school, I averaged about four hours of sleep a night.
I was also constantly stressed out. Not only was school extremely intense, but I had it in my mind that I must be the best. I must be at the top of my class. I wore my perfectionism like a badge of honor.
As you can imagine, all of those late nights and constant stress eventually took a tole on my body. Half way through graduate school I began to have headaches every single day, and soon suffered from chronic migraines. The migraines quickly became debilitating.
I sought medical help, but when my doctor recommended more sleep and reducing my stress I, in my infinite twenty three-year-old wisdom, made the decision that changing my lifestyle. So, she prescribed a few medications. The medications worked, kind of, they helped with my migraines but also came with a slew of side effects.
By the time I finished graduate school in 2011 my body was completely broken. Not only did I still struggle with migraines and panic attacks, but I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. Basically, my body had been under so much stress and for so long that it could no longer properly regulate the hormones I needed to function like a normal human being.
I had accomplished my dreams, I graduated at the very top of my class and got an excellent job, but at what cost? Today, five years later, I’m still dealing with some of the health problems that I developed during that time.
A big part of finding health and balance has been to give up that perfectionist mentality that in the past I so closely identified with. Now make time relax, to let loose, and I prioritize activities that bring me joy and peace. I’ve learned to do my work, and then let it go instead of redoing it over and over until it’s “perfect.” I’ve learned to stop comparing myself with others, not worrying about who is the “best.” And, most importantly, I’ve learned to be patient and forgiving when I do inevitably overextended myself and get stressed out. I’m a work in progress.
Which brings me back to the watercolors. A couple weeks ago I got the insatiable desire to try watercolors again. I kept reminding myself how much I hated it the last time I tried. I hadn’t picked up a brush since that class, back in grad school, when I got so frustrated. And yet, the desire would not go away.
Yesterday, I finally went to the store and bought some paints. Expecting to become all frustrated and impatient again, I set up my little art space – water, paints, brushes, paper, paper towel – and I attempted to paint a simple tree.
Guys, it was so much fun! I was no longer interested in trying to control the paint. My desire for perfection was replaced with curiosity. I embraced the unpredictable nature of the water. I was patient with it. I loved it!
That first little tree painting, the one you see above, is far from perfect. But, I had so much fun creating it that really I couldn’t care less about what the finished product looks like.
For me, the key to happiness is enjoying the process. Because everything is in process. Everything around us is constantly changing. Trying to tightly control my work and my life almost destroyed me, but this watercolor experiment has shown me just how far I’ve come in the past few years. It’s shown me just how much I’ve grown.
Now, I treat life more like a watercolor painting. I go with flow.