Do you lay awake at night, tossing and turning in bed, thinking with dread about another day at work? Feeling trapped in your cubicle, stuck in a Groundhog-Day, and knowing in your heart that you should be doing something else? I know I did.
I’ve always wanted to write, to paint, to make collages; to make art with my hands, and with my head, and with my heart. When I was ten, I had three library cards and read voraciously. I knew I would be a writer someday, there were no questions about that, no doubts.
I was also taking ballet lessons (not my best inclination as it turned out, but I did try it, didn’t I?). Attending art workshops for kids after school. Making collages with clippings from old magazines, and painting, and drawing, playing the guitar and writing songs, forgetting time, and forgetting the gray everyday life in communist Romania.
I continued to immerse myself in art in all forms throughout high school and university.
But something happened.
Reality happened. Or so I thought.
The Romanian revolution in December 1989 opened the doors to democracy after decades of communism. New opportunities and new challenges.
When I graduated, my fresh Master of Arts didn’t get me very long in the job market, and I didn’t see myself in the role of the penniless, tormented artist. I focused on getting a job in a multinational company that offered the best career opportunities at the time. I started at Procter & Gamble and learned a lot at one of the best business schools. I continued at Microsoft for over 20 years and learned more and more.
I Should Be Doing Something Else
But despite my “successful career”, I wasn’t happy. I had this horrible feeling that life was getting me by and all I had to show for it were SAP implementations and business process design. Was that really everything there was to it?
I started on a personal development journey and the more I thought about it, the more it became clear that I should be getting back to what I loved, really loved.
“So why didn’t you”? Fair enough. I was not happy, and I’d discovered what would make me happy. Simple, right?
Yes. And no. Because there’s a big gap between “thinking” and “doing” (duh!) I knew what I should be doing, but I didn’t. For years.
I was scared of what people would think of me when “throwing away my career” to do something so “flimsy”. Scared of the potential financial losses and the change in status. The uncertainty of the future.
During one of those endless nights, I finally realized that all those obstacles were in me, not in the outside world. All the hurdles I saw were created by my mind. And that I could change.
And so, after some reflection time, I resigned and changed gears. Almost one year later, I do what I love, writing every day, reading every day, doing photo projects, going back to that art world I had cast aside years ago. I’m happy as one can be. Or am I?
There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it – Oscar Wilde
Getting What I Wanted
In the beginning, I thought that quiet-but-growing-stronger apprehensive voice in my head was the “I just resigned & moved country”-jitters. It’s been a turbulent period, these past months, with a lot of bureaucracy and changes related to my resignation and the move. Say nothing about Covid-19.
When we’ve finally crossed the finish line, i.e. moved to our new house in Sweden, job and worries left in Switzerland, I was too exhausted to even celebrate. Slowly, boxes were unpacked (all 250 of them – don’t judge! I have many, many books); rooms decorated; Christmas cards written.
Several weeks later, with the house in order and more sleep under my belt, I decided it was time to get started with my new awesome artist life.
I had finally reached my lifelong goal.
Now I would finally do what I fantasized about for such a long time, now I would focus on writing, reading, taking photos, doing photo projects, and a million other things I had on my list. Drawing? Check. Painting? Check. Making collages? Check. The list went on and on and on …
I’ve got what I wanted. Now what?
I had dreamed about this for such a long time that getting what I wanted paradoxically paralyzed me. I didn’t feel any different. I certainly didn’t feel ecstatic. Or creative. Especially not creative. I felt more like … empty? Given the major changes in my life, maybe it’s not that surprising, I reasoned. I may need some time to unwind. To adjust. Find my zone.
However, after several months, I had to acknowledge that something else was at play. I was struggling to find routines for my new life. At Microsoft, I had honed them to perfection. I was very well organized, I had a to-do list, I had my priorities and I would work through my to-do list based on my priorities. Perfection is the enemy of done, as Adam Savages puts it in “Every Tool’s a Hammer”, so “good enough” was my mantra. I never missed a deadline, or let any boll drop. I was the Queen of “Getting Things Done”.
But now … my To-Do list had over 200 items on it (properly categorized, of course). The length was not, in fact, the issue, but the prioritization. What would be the best use of my time? Write every morning, then work on photo projects in the afternoon and read in the evening? What about the blog? I loved blogging and wanted to make room for it. And social media? And I don’t mean watching cat videos on YouTube (even though this may happen more often than I’d admit), but my Facebook photo page, and Instagram (posting well-curated photos, of course).
Where would I then fit drawing/painting/making music/going to art galleries/reading New York Review of Books/going to yoga/making tasty-yet-healthy smoothies/creating a new garden/gardening/listening to thought-provoking and inspirational podcasts/watching interesting and motivational TED talks/learning more about astrophysics, or 19th-century explorations, or psychology, or fractals – to say nothing about the mundane things like cooking (healthy, mostly vegetarian and locally sourced), or nurturing relationships, or just having plain, old fun?
Because – and this is typical of me – I had no relaxation in my schedule. None. My days were packed to the brim with “things to do” in an attempt to do it all. How could I not pack them full? I was finally FREE to be an artist goddamn it!
That was the first problem.
In the end, I had to admit I was too ambitious. I wanted to do too much, too fast, and do it well. So, I slowed down, went for long walks along the shore (one of the perks of living on an island), and thought about it.
However, there was a nagging doubt in the back of my mind that routines (or lack thereof) were, really, not the issue at hand. Sure, I had to re-orient myself and create new routines, but I was the uncrowned Queen of “Getting Things Done”, wasn’t I? This was more like a challenge to which I was to – successfully – apply my skills, not a crisis.
The routine stuff masked something else, I thought. Now I was getting somewhere. But what? More walks, more quiet time. And, gradually, the growing insight that I was simply scared.
Fear of success. That was the second problem. The only problem.
Of course. I could see it clearly now. No pretense, no “I’m too busy”. I had all I needed to do what I was supposed to do, and I was afraid that the result would be … lame. Worse than bad, like bad writing, or uninspired photos; just ordinary; banal; trivial. You name it.
This was my time, and I got performance anxiety, all the while the clock was ticking. I only had three (three!) photos in my photo gallery because I wanted to showcase only my super-duper best photos on my website, and very few photos met with my approval. Nothing I produced was good enough for me.
Did I mention that during this time I got a couple of texts published, sold a few photos, and grew my reach on social media? Obviously, other people had a different opinion.
But while everyone congratulated me, I felt evaluated, judged. I felt weighed, measured, and found wanting.
This was the turning point.
Now that I had a clear problem statement, I could do something about it.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. – Frank Herbert, Dune
I WILL FACE MY FEAR.
OK, so maybe my artwork isn’t ready for the Met or my book wouldn’t even get published. But few artists produced masterpieces from day one. Self-doubt and rejection are part of the process, ask any creative person. Successful people have their moments of self-doubt or fear too, but they are able to overcome that resistance and push on. Every single day.
So, I decided there and then that I would do better. I may still experience fear or self-doubt but will not let them stop me anymore. If I’m not my own supporter, how can I expect other people to be?
Besides, doing the work, doing what I love is the reward, not external success. I had to remind myself that I was at my happiest when fully immersed in my work; time flies and the world is far away.
Success is getting and achieving what you want. Happiness is wanting and being content with what you get. – Bernard Meltzer
I’m thankful that I can do what I love every day. I have worked hard to be able to do so I won’t let negativism take that away from me. The days are long, but the years are short. – Gretchen Rubin We all have a limited amount of time and I’d rather spend it doing what I love than wasting it in beating myself up for not being good enough.
What about you?