This weekend my wonderful girlfriend and I went to a ceramics studio called Fired Up for a short evening lesson they call a “claydate.” Clearly, somebody involved in the studio has a penchant for a good pun now and then. I couldn’t complain. After the instructor, a pottery guru named Ralph, gave us a brief crash course in the basics of throwing clay on the wheel, we experimented for an hour or so making cups, bowls and vases with mixed results.
Toward the end of the lesson, I was attempting to make a tall coffee mug. I had centered the clay and hollowed it out, and was straining all of my powers of concentration on raising the walls. Obviously, I am no expert on the wheel, and for me raising the walls of a pot is a precarious process of smoothing out wild density fluctuations and asking myself, “How thin can I make this clay without centrifugal force tearing it apart and throwing it all about this room?”
As I was focused with an acute monomania on the task at hand, my hand caught the side of the pot and the angular momentum of the wheel instantly tore and collapsed my amateur artwork. I was stunned, and a little disappointed with myself for destroying the mug — I could have quit while I was ahead and ended up with something decent. As I was expressing my frustration, Ralph interjected with his analysis of the situation.
“You know what happened?” he asked rhetorically. “You were so focused on the minute details, working on the walls, that you lost sight of the whole pot. When you are throwing a pot, you need to feel the details in your hands but constantly observe the work as a whole.”
He was right, of course.
Ralph’s advice resonated with me, but I wasn’t quite sure why at the time. After a day or so of turning that experience over in my head, I think I get it. It’s a rather Zen metaphor for healthy balance between awareness of the details of the present moment and consciousness of the grand scheme of things, life as a whole. Actually, I have been struggling with this since my first days at the University of Wisconsin.
As I look back, I realize that for the past three years I have been busy as hell here in Madison with school and associated extracurricular activities, such as writing this column to you. I can only speak from my own experience, but I trust that what I am about to say sounds somewhat familiar to you – I am learning the importance of balancing school, work and my personal life.
While I would love to play cool and pretend that I don’t care about academics, that would be an utter falsehood because since freshman year I have been entirely too absorbed by my classes. I am not telling you this with any air of pretentious nerdy pride – being stressed out about school has negatively impacted the rest of my life. Academic anxiety has caused me to exercise less, screwed with my eating habits, interfered with my social life and caused me no end of sleep deprivation. Although I have always felt that having a job alongside school helps me to take my mind off book-learning by forcing me do something else for a few hours a day and meet new people, it isn’t always relaxing.
For me, last spring was “rock bottom.” Taking one too many classes, I was up to my neck in homework and spinning out, burning out. Between school and work my schedule was dense, and the most exasperating feeling was that I simply didn’t have enough time to get everything done. I hardly ever ate a meal sitting down, and I can count on two hands the number of times I felt truly relaxed between the months of February and May. The grind started getting to me: Insomniac sleep deprivation made me frayed at the edges and frustrated; school consumed time I would have spent exercising and playing music; and spending time with my friends and family reminded me that I didn’t see them enough.
I knew that lifestyle was unsustainable. Ultimately, it was only with support of friends and family that I made it to summer, when I began learning to unwind and rediscovered the things I was missing while trapped in textbooks and glued to a computer — things like jazz music, the great outdoors and putting everything else on hold to spend time with people I care about.
This fall, I arrived in Madison with nervous excitement, a surplus of optimism and a “new school year’s resolution”: to find a balance like the one Ralph pointed out as I picked up the broken pieces of clay that would have one day fed somebody’s caffeine addiction. While I cannot pretend to know all the answers or have a recipe for peace of mind, as I am on the other side of rock bottom, I am realizing by trial and error, what works and what doesn’t.
For instance, it is important to have some free time in your life. Keeping up with the things you love to do, whatever that may be – for me it is being active outside – is not an inefficient use of time during the school year and in fact, I can’t sleep without taking an hour off at the end of the day.
Eating healthy food and exercising doesn’t hurt either. While it may seem that you don’t have time for these things, I can say from experience that I have never regretted putting things on hold to go for a run by the lake or putting in some extra effort to make a legit stir fry in place of Ramen noodles. I have, on the other hand, regretted eating junk food and skipping out on exercise. The energy and alertness that you’ll feel living a healthy lifestyle will more than make up for the time you put into it.
Most importantly, making time for people in my life is the healthiest decision I’ve ever made. After all, ambition is all well and good, but ending up wealthy, famous or distinguished but lonely is no true success. Life isn’t about the homework you will do this fall, and it isn’t about the end goal of that, either, whether it is a degree or a career, or whatever. It isn’t even about the journey there – it is, however, about the people you meet along the way.
Ultimately, I am glad I inadvertently destroyed that pot. Sometimes one learns more from mistakes than from success, and to be brutally honest, the last thing the world needs is another poorly crafted ceramic coffee mug.
Charles Godfrey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in math and physics.