What does it mean to be successful? We use this word so often in our society to compare status with others or to measure our abilities to accomplish tasks. In some ways striving for “success” allows us to stretch our limits and to grow, but when it becomes a chase for what we think will bring us happiness, it can be extremely debilitating and miserable.
For the longest time, I had this picture in my mind of what it would be like to win a full time job. Not only would I be able to use the power of performing classical music to connect and serve others, I would finally be able to live comfortably and pay all my bills without worrying where the next check was coming from. All of my worries and stress that comes without having a stable income would disappear, and I could finally find some inner peace.
Although this thought pattern was understandable, it wasn’t useful and actually destructive both to my growth process as an artist and as a human being. I was waiting for happiness to come to me, but forgetting about what it was that made me happy in the first place. I chose the life as a cellist because I am deeply passionate about the process of creating, problem solving and self-discovery that comes along with being a musician, and most of all I love sharing this process and using music to connect with others. However, instead of remembering this, I was too caught up in the stress of getting to my goal, forgetting about my love for the cello and thinking that winning a job is what would bring me satisfaction.
Then, during this past winter on February 19th, the day before I was scheduled to play in a recital I had anxiously prepared for over the course of six months, everything changed.
During the night I had gotten very ill, eventually driving myself to the emergency room. While there, I was told that my life was in danger and that I needed an emergency gallbladder surgery. Usually, these kinds of surgeries have a quick recovery rate, however due to the nature of my surgery, my stomach became damaged and I was unable to eat or consume adequate amounts of liquids for four months, eventually being hospitalized for two weeks due to severe malnutrition. Although during those four months I was attempting to continue to push myself out of fear that I would never reach my goal as an orchestral cellist while at the same time literally starving to death, I was missing this great lesson that was being presented to me. It wasn’t until I was forced to be apart from my cello, that I finally began to understand the importance of mindfulness and how to be happy right now, regardless of the situations in front of me.
After years of research on what brings individuals happiness and sustained satisfaction, positive psychologist and author of Flow, Csikszentmihalyi, (1990) suggests that rather then constantly worrying about how to control our external world to maximize pleasure, in order to obtain happiness, one must master their inner world, learning to be satisfied with what is. In his book Flow, he states, “Happiness is not something that happens…it does not depend on outside events, but rather how we interpret them…. People who learn to control their inner experience will be able to control the quality of their lives….” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, Pg. 17)
In my case, I had to be stripped of everything that made me who I am to recognize that I actually need very little to make me happy. While in the hospital it was the little things that made my day: a shower, a bit of fresh air, the sun shining on my skin, playing my cello just for the sake of playing (which was brought to me the second week I was there) and most of all my friends and family. Since returning home, I have been incredibly grateful for every moment of my life, every piece of food that enters my mouth and each moment I have been able to spend creating and exploring while making music. Although like anyone, my life isn’t perfect, but no longer am I allowing worries, fears or doubts consume or control me. I still strive to for the stars but the anxiety about winning a job in order to obtain happiness has finally disappeared. To me, success is about following my passions, wherever that may lead, creating, connecting and being open for anything coming my way.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York, NY: HarperCollins.