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Caitlin MacLeod

When Good Enough is Good Enough

July 5th, 2019

I Will Not Work Overtime, Period!

 

This is the declaration-slash-title of a recent Japanese hit TV show which is, in essence, about a woman who refuses to work overtime. Period. Reading about this in a recent Guardian article, I chuckled to myself at how Very Japanese this concept was, somewhat amusing and yet unfortunately reflective of a darker societal issue surrounding overwork. Would it be so strange a concept to leave work at 6pm that it warranted a whole television series centred around it? After a moment of introspection, I realised that I probably could have made my own TV show right here, in my home country, centred around my life in University one year prior to this and titled "I Will Not Stay Late in Architecture School, Period!” (though perhaps with a lowercase P, and a question mark in place of an exclamation).

 

Following a period of working in practice, I had made some observations and come to some conclusions regarding how I viewed the practice of architecture and how I intended to study from then on. Surprisingly, I realised that architecture school was, to put it bluntly, not that important to me. I will hurry to clarify that I do not mean I didn't consider my education important, but that I had many other things which were of equal or even greater importance to me, or were less important, but nonetheless of value in my life. This included, in no apparent order: family, friends, movies, fresh air, my dogs, exercise, videogames, concerts, cooking, weekend trips, eating in restaurants, reorganising my stationary collection, writing, and sleeping. Put simply, I did not want studying to consume my world in the way it did in those first few years, when I saw my life as far richer and more complex than just that. I know many will disagree with me on this point, maybe even think me a Bad Student, or a Bad Architect-To-Be, but this the thing I realised and still firmly believe in. 

 

I also realised that sacrificing my social life, my sleeping patterns and my exercise habits wasn't in any way laudable or necessary or good, that this perception was actually a lie I was telling myself, and which I believe the wider student body (tutors included) of the discipline of architecture is telling itself, too. I touched on this on a previous post discussing mental health in architectural education, so I won’t myself by elaborating on this point. Besides, I would hope that the demerits of giving up sleep and human contact are quite obvious all by themselves. 

 

Lastly, I realised from my placement that there seemed to be more to being a good architect than being a hard grafter in the studio, drawing and modelling and writing all day, day after day, confined to the studio environment. That perhaps living a varied and balanced life would help me become a more layered, interesting and complex human being, which could only impact positively on my career in architecture, a profession which I believed (and still believe) could benefit from some diversity in thought, points of view and life experiences.

 

Thus I decided early on in this, my final semester of undergraduate study, that I would try as best I could to live what would resemble a "normal" life. I treated my time in studio as a working day, coming in early (mental illness status dependant) and leaving (mostly) on time to have dinner at home with my fiancé. At the weekends I would spend time with my family and friends, attend events, and indulge in hobbies and pastimes, and would try to avoid spending time in the studio as much as I possibly could on these days. As best I could, I treated my studies as a 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday, normal working week, give or take a few unavoidable exceptions: even the main character of I Will Not Work Overtime is forced to actually work overtime in one episode, with shameful disregard for the title of her own show. As idealistic and borderline naive as this sounds (see: irresponsible and lazy, to some), it meant sacrificing something else that I still believe is a fundamental part of myself, as a student and full-time long-term human: my constant search for perfection, and the seeking of approval from both peers and authority-figures alike. This is when I came to adopt the philosophy that sometimes, Good Enough is good enough.

 

Reflexively you may recoil at this. I did, too - if something can be improved upon, why not improve it? Why accept anything in a substandard state, why not push further, work longer, produce more, and strive for the best one is capable of achieving? Architecture understandably goes hand in hand with this line of thinking - there being no one "true" answer leading to endless possibilities, the constant promise of a better proposal always looming, agitating. This can be freeing in its own way, and I still consider myself fortunate to be working in a profession that marries problem solving with creativity in a way that I find satisfying more often than frustrating. But it can also be a prison, a reason to fill up every waking hour - and some sleeping ones - with as much work as possible, right down to the wire, five minutes before a crit, a pin-up or a final exhibition. 

 

This proved more difficult for me to exercise in the context of working in practice: when extra effort has the potential to translate into better housing for real, living, actual people, and when a whole team of people are working alongside you and relying on you to get the job done, going home on time suddenly becomes somewhat of a moralistic dilemma. Studying is a different beast. Unlike with practical working, students are experimenting in the hypothetical and imaginary. At the end of the day, what is at stake, when an architecture student decides to favour home life over excessive studio working, but a grade? In a time when it seems we are finally beginning to collectively understand the gravity of the mental health crisis we are facing - within the degree, within the nation, and beyond - students should be encouraged to prioritise a healthy work-life balance over their design projects. Students should aim for Bs over As if it means they can adhere to a regular sleep schedule. Students should live full and active lives outwith the studio. The idea that some might consider this a radical opinion to hold is beyond baffling to me.

 

Furthermore, and when all is said and done, overworking doesn't actually work. Tutors and students alike acknowledge that working until one is mentally and physically burned out is not conducive to an effective learning environment, that drawings created at 4am are never going to be one's best, so the pervasiveness of this idea that longer hours equate to better work seems unfounded and fallacious. I think there is an undeniable posturing element to the hardcore all-nighter culture of a university architecture studio: I have myself felt an inflated sense of self-worth and righteousness after working all night long, feeling that my denying myself of light, sleep and exercise somehow made me more "worthy" of a better grade than those who hadn't, although I didn't acknowledge this harmful pattern of thinking until much later. Dedication to quality of work, I believe, has actually very little to do with it.

 

I often opted to trade in better grades for more time outside the studio walls in this, my final semester. In fact, my last piece of feedback - from a tutor I very much admired and enjoyed working with, I must stress - informed me that there were many instances where I was advised on the ways I could have made my project better, but chose to not take on board this advice. I recall these moments fondly, and have no regrets: a time when I was told that I could work in another section drawing and bump my grade up but instead chose to go to my hometown and get takeaway with my family, or a time when I was told to work over the weekend to enrich my concept but opted to spend it cleaning my flat, going to the movies, and getting takeaway with my fiancé (most of my precious memories feature ordering a takeaway as a central plot point). Beyond the kindling of fond personal memories, I also saw things and talked to people and read books, I learned new skills and tried new things, I even went to exhibitions and events, and during this time I learned those unquantifiable lessons about places and people and culture that yes, in fact, are just as valuable in becoming an (pragmatic, well-rounded, people-focused) architect.

 

And it worked; I got a first for my project. I did well, not despite my new approach, but because of it. Was it the best it could have been? Definitely not - there was more I could have done to take it further, and possibly acquire that all-important and much sought after (by me) extra praise from tutors and peers. But that would not, and I really do want to stress this, have been the best thing for me as an architect in training, who needs to learn about balance as much as anything else during this long road to qualification. This was one of those times in life when Good Enough was good enough, and I take great pride in recognising, accepting and practising that philosophy.

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