I have been an ex-lawyer and full-time part-time student for almost two months now. My body and mind are slowly settling into a new routine. The stress and anxiety of the past decade are unfurling gradually as my muscles, tendons and brain relax into a different state of normality.
Of course, it was not in my nature to go completely cold turkey. Rather than heading off on far-flung travels, I launched myself into an intense few weeks of university: tutorials, essay deadlines and frantic research. It was only partially my choice: the dates were dictated by the compulsory modules of my MSc programme. But there was no denying it, I was swapping one form of stress for another, at least in the short-term.
Patterns of perfectionism
A familiar factor aggravated my stress levels: my own enjoyment of the course. I felt as if my professional interests, views on food production and community, and values were finding a home in the course module. So, just as in my professional past, to do justice to a subject I loved, I threw myself into the research paper with zeal and I went into my ‘Duracell rabbit’ mode. With intense concentration, I collated data from articles and industry reports and started to craft the material into a coherent analysis. Once the ideas were down on-screen, the editing skills honed during my PR and legal careers kicked in and I spent hours polishing and ‘perfecting’.
I was aware I was repeating the patterns of the past but could not change gear. They were still second nature. But something was different.
Although the tutors would mark the paper, they were not my client. I was. I wanted the paper to be a true reflection of my abilities but I had also chosen a topic to expand my understanding and was enjoying reading around the subject. And with every essay and research paper I’ve submitted for my MSc, I was learning that the perfectionism advocated in many law firms does not exist, especially not in academic or strategic work. A piece of research and writing may be very good, excellent even, but never perfect as there will always be more factors to consider, different weightings to apply, different boundaries to set…
It may take me a lifetime to break the long-learnt instinct for perfectionism but my masters programme is certainly showing me the pointlessness of perfectionism compared with the enjoyment of learning. And this lesson is being reinforced by another, more practical course.
As I was walking along the inner circle of London’s Regent’s Park to horticultural college one morning, I was chanting the Latin and common names for the plant identification quiz in an attempt to remember them all. (How I wish my memory absorbed lists and paradigms as it did a quarter of a century ago!) I could retain seven of the ten but the last three stubbornly refused to stick. Not only could I not recall their names, I could not for the life of me remember what they looked like.
My annoyance however passed as my eyes caught sight of a stunning pink Camellia and beautiful lime green hellebores in the glorious morning sun. Gardens and gardening have this effect on me. They cause my mind to wander off on tangents as I glance upon unexpected delights.
Since starting my part-time RHS course, I have spent more time consulting my Encyclopaedia of Gardening and the Dr Hessayon Expert books than revisiting my college notes. This is hardly surprising, I chose this course to grow my horticultural knowledge and confidence rather than gain a qualification. I wanted to learn about flowers and shrubs, borders and bedding plants and all the things that our little patio garden cannot hold. It is therefore no surprise that the plant names I remember are those of the plants I like, of those I can imagine in a future cottage garden of mine.
I expect the next 15 months will be busy ones as I juggle two part-time courses. I imagine I shall still experience stressful moments to finish essays on time or cram for exams. I am, however, hopeful that my horticultural course will help keep me on track, or rather on a path where life and learning mesh in a web of meandering tangents. And that I can break the destructive circle of perfectionism and instead, as Mr M wisely advises, “concentrate on enjoying the learning rather than worrying about the results”.