“Is that as high as you can go?” my surgeon asked.

I winced and nodded, arm outstretched slightly above shoulder height.

“That’s great!”

I dropped my arm, trying not to cry. It was three weeks after my surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, the beginning of a year-long healing process that would be filled with constant, severe pain and also with tremendous learning. It would be another three weeks before I’d be able to lift my arm above my head and turn my head in both directions, five months before I could pull a shirt over my head and sleep lying down, another two months after that before I could sit comfortably at the computer to type or even write with my right hand, and eight months before I could even begin to think about re-engaging in doing what I loved most in the world: playing the flute.

“How does your neck feel?” he asked.

Because the surgery had involved the removal of one of my neck muscles, it was a challenge to hold my head up, never mind to sit up straight, and I had to take frequent rest breaks.

“I’m able to sit up for 30 minutes a day now, unsupported,” I responded.

“It’s going to be a while. Remember to rest before you feel the fatigue. It really does take a year. Right now, it’s all about the baby steps. How’s the walking?”

I brightened. For the first week after my surgery, it had been a struggle to walk the length of the hospital hall, and a week later, around the block. Now, I was up to an hour. “It’s going well. I walked two miles here!”

“That’s terrific – keep it up! Try to have patience.”

Patience … that would be an accomplishment.

In my younger years, I had been a competitive distance runner and a performing flutist with hopes set on winning a job in a major symphony orchestra. Achievement for me then was defined by hitting a five-minute mile, breaking a record, winning an audition, or performing in a great concert hall. On paper, my life was the perfect constellation of success-in-the-making. In reality, however, I was miserable a great deal of the time: overtired, overstressed, overcommitted, and overworked. My happiness depended on my performance, and my existence became a slave to daily fluctuations of my physiology. My identity was conditional and fragile, defined almost solely by external markers of success, with the potential to be shattered in an instant if I couldn’t meet the standards I aspired to.

Now, however, the paradigm on which my world was founded had shifted. I could no longer structure my life around the comfort of goals and deadlines. Healing required the release of any striving for results and an acceptance of the reality in front of me, a willingness to engage in the questions and the process, and to respond to myself honestly and compassionately in the moment or risk getting physically injured.

Achievement became defined by the degrees to which I was able to lift my arm, turn my head, and how long I could hold my head up without pain; in essence, by my ability to respond to and soften into pain rather than compound my suffering by resisting what was. It was both humbling and terrifying, and at the same time, hugely liberating. My only job was to be fully present in the process, and to let go of all expectations of what I thought I should be able to do so that I could see and work with what I actually could do. I had to absolve my ego and put myself as a whole person- a person with hopes, fears, doubts, dreams, and an overflowing reservoir of emotion – into the center of the system.

Each step in the right direction was meaningful. When I reached a point of being able to pick up my instrument for just two minutes a day, I was ecstatic. As I continue to build by increasing the number of two-minute intervals I could play, I was filled both with a joy in playing music and a profound gratitude and appreciation for the ability to play at all. My drive to improve was still there, as were my critical standards, AND I was enjoying the process despite how much room I had to grow. I could see the potential for growth and was content with nourishing seeds without looking for the ultimate all-time best end result at the end of each practice session. I could recognize and validate my worth as a person independently from the work I was doing and be fully engaged in where I was in the journey, while holding out the vision of where I one day hoped to be and taking steps in that direction. Ironically, I was not only happier (despite the fact that by outside standards, I was still very out of shape and actually “achieving” less) but the quality of my work was also better than it had ever been before. Plus, I was having more fun.

It got me thinking about the nature of achievement. In our modern society, achievement is generally synonymous with “bigger, better, faster, and stronger” with feats that are quantifiable and laudable by accepted social and cultural standards. Given that the Oxford Classical dictionary defines achievement as “a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill,” it is no surprise that we tend to place tremendous value on the outcomes of our efforts. The word “achievement” itself implies a consummation, the fulfillment of a task, the finality of closing a chapter. When I finish this project, I’ll be happy. When I reach this goal, I’ll have mastered this skill.

In reality, while we arrive in the individual moments of our lives, there are rarely localized endpoints along the way. Each externally validated milestone becomes a marker in the process of growth, a stepping stone for the next adventure, and the greatest achievements are often the ones that happen when no one is watching – the ones that can’t be measured and easily go unrecognized. Getting out of bed in the morning after losing a loved one. Embracing and opening yourself to life when you’ve been hurt many times before. Choosing to be kind and loving anyway. Persevering through another day, even when that day is filled with pain, disappointment, frustration, and upset. Holding onto hope of a brighter future. Overcoming a personal barrier to growth. Speaking and living your truth. Trusting the process of life and engaging fully in it. Seeking to, as Dr. David Schnarch says, “know and be known” rather than validated.

As Tal Ben-Shahar reminds us, “In every moment of every day we have a choice,” and it is these choices that shape our days and our lives. One of our chief aims and utmost triumphs is to recognize we have a choice and then choose to be the author of our own lives as they unfold; accepting and embracing the moments we have been given, and choosing to make the best of them. Because when accolades as the world recognizes them fall away, when the applause ends and the lights go out, what will be left? Will it be an empty shell of an existence, or a whole person who left the world a slightly better place?

I thought I had known achievement; that glittery ideal that beckons us forward with the promise of fame or recognition, a golden ticket to respect and credibility. Now, however, I realize that the true achievements are not the things we do but our ability to act with integrity and intention, to live from a place of authenticity … the ability to embrace what we have been given in the moment and to respond to it there, with as much kindness and compassion as we can muster. If you can base your achievement on your ability to work hard, to treat others with kindness and respect, to be fully present in your life and with the people in your life, and to contribute to the world – you will always be a star.

Schnarch, D. Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship. New York, N.Y: Beaufort Books, 2011. Print.
Ben-Shahar, T. Choose the Life You Want: 101 Ways to Create Your Own Road to Happiness. The Experiment, 2012. Print.

ElizabethSternElizabeth Stern is a flutist, writer, and performance coach who focuses on how mindfulness and presence, combined with a strength-based approach, influence healing and the creative process. Elizabeth is passionate about sharing music, teaching the whole person, and bringing the applications of positive psychology to recovery from injury and illness, and achieving peak performance and flow.