I hear it all the time: To be happy, you must seek balance. “The only way to be a successful human being is to NOT be so obsessed with your work. Be obsessed with balance, instead! Balance between work and family, up time, downtime… You must prioritize rest, relaxation, and hanging out with friends. Get on board with that Millennial trend of finding a good ‘work-life balance.’ Get to work at 9. Take an hour lunch. Leave at 5. Whatever you do, don’t take your work home; that’s YOUR time. And don’t ever, ever work too hard!”
But no artist I admire has EVER sought a “work-life balance.” They work hard. Too hard. That’s what they do. That’s who they are.
And that’s why they’re great.
My favorite example of this has always been Michelangelo, one of the protagonists of my debut novel, Oil and Marble, art historical fiction about the real-life rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Neither of my protagonists had a BALANCED life. They were both completely obsessed with their work.
Michelangelo was a special case. He was so obsessed with his art that he regularly worked so long and hard he made himself deathly ill. To carve the David, he locked himself inside a shed with the marble, shutting out the rest of the world. He threw assistants — and even popes — out of his workspaces, determined never to let anyone interfere. He was so obsessed with his art that he often forgot to do mundane things like eat, drink, and change clothes. One of my favorite stories from history is when he worked so long and so hard that he forgot to take off his work boots for days (weeks? Months?!), and when he finally did take them off, the SKIN OF HIS FEET CAME OFF WITH HIS BOOTS.
Most people gasp or shake their heads at this story. That’s awful!
I WANT TO BE that person who works so hard that I forget to take off my shoes for three months and then have to regrow the skin on my toes… while I continue working.
And now, here in Barcelona, I’ve gotten to know modernist architect Antoni Gaudi. Talk about brilliant and obsessive.
When you look at a Gaudi you see his fanaticalness, his lost-in-his-own-head-and-heart-ness. You feel his disconnection from the real world, his determination to give into his own whims and whimsey, and to be dialed into the indescribable desire that gurgled in his gut and refused to be silenced.
To experience a Gaudi is to experience the insides of a man obsessed.
While building his masterpiece, the church Sagrada Familia (still under construction 130 years after it was started), Gaudi didn’t metaphorically “live at his work,” he LITERALLY lived at his work, moving into a studio on site. He was so obsessed that he lived INSIDE OF HIS ART until he died (after being struck by a trolley in the street. My guess is his eyes hadn’t adjusted to the light after working so long…).
Lots of people are apostles of this whole “work-life balance” thing. And I’m sure it’s healthy for many. If you aren’t obsessively passionate about your work, of course you need other things to fill yourself up. You need some family time and hobbies and hanging out at the beach… or else that work that you only half-like would make you depressed — if you had to think about only it all the time.
Well, I’ve TRIED desperately to seek that cherished “work-life balance.” I’ve thought I didn’t take enough time off. I was TOO much of a workaholic. I should enjoy socializing more or indulging in long meals or NOT thinking about work while I’m in the bathtub.
But I’ve always had this agitation I can’t kick… until now, while visiting Gaudi in Barcelona, where I’ve finally identified the problem:
The very act of trying to achieve a work-life balance
is what stresses me out.
I’m not talking about some sense that trying to achieve a work-life balance is too difficult… How it’s too stressful to reach for such an impossible ideal. I’m not talking about some feminist perfectionism gone awry.
I’m saying I actively don’t want the balance. I don’t want to be a content, balanced person. That sounds awful. I want to lock myself in the tower of my art and never come out until I’m so dazed one day that I get run over by a trolley and 100 years later, people are still flocking to my work, trying to figure out how to finish my obsessive dream.
I want to be Gaudi.
And by identifying this truth — this desire that has lived in me since childhood — I suddenly feel this sense of peace and confidence that I haven’t felt in a long time… (Maybe ever).
So, if you’re anything like me — with this deep, uncontrollable desire to buck off that balance, refuse it, resent it, feel frustrated and angered by it — then I’m giving you (AND me) permission to embrace your obsessiveness, your hermitness, your drowning-in-your-own-worlds-and-dreams-and-swirling-constantness-of-your-insides-ness. I give you permission to seek a life of complete UNbalance.
For better or for worse.
So, go ahead, try to be Michelangelo and Leonardo, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and Pollock, O’Keeffe when she told Stieglitz to jump off a cliff and exiled herself out west, or Virginia Woolf with that necessary room of her own. I’m not saying you’ll succeed, but I’m saying if it feels right to you, then don’t be afraid to be Gaudi, Gaudi, and even more Gaudi, and possibly watch your obsessions take root and bloom across an entire city and century.