Achievement Without Self-Care Is Empty

Pierre Van Zylhousecleaning, medical school, PracticeBalance, self-care


 “I made a big mess over here!” my daughter yelled gleefully from the hallway. When you’re 5, making messes is just part of the fun. I reluctantly peered around the corner to find pink kinetic sand all over her legs and the floor.

Cursing my mother silently for gifting her that kinetic sand, I sent her to the shower and attempted to sweep it up. After three iterations, I still felt sand crunching under my bare feet. Then I looked around. The floor tiles were dingy, and the baseboards were covered with scuff marks. So were the walls and the banister.

So instead of taking my planned solo walk that Sunday morning, I got out the cleaning materials and went to work.

I scrubbed on hands and knees, did many mini squats and deadlifts, even resurrected “wax on/wax off.” This long hallway had been neglected for a while. We walk through it every day, but it’s not really a central part of our living area. It’s an entryway, a makeshift messy play area, and the transport conduit for bikes and scooters and gear and even garbage to go from inside to outside and back again. So I started at one end and proceeded to deep clean this important yet quite underappreciated hallway.

As I was working, I realized something.

Scrubbing walls and tiles and baseboard on hands and knees is hard work. It wasn’t the most pleasant thing to do at first, and yet the more time I spent, the better it looked and the more appreciation I felt for the space. I even noticed improvement in my scrubbing technique; I was honing my system. I ignored voices from the other rooms. In my focus, I became invested in this improvement project and the intended outcome.

In medicine, we sip from the fire hose and then quickly dive into the trenches, and it’s not particularly fun at first. We put our heads down and study and work. We gain incredible amounts of knowledge, we see improvement, and the further we go down the path, the more invested we get in the pursuit of mastery. When the outcome we’ve been working toward appears in the light at the end of the tunnel, it becomes almost addicting to continue chugging along in a linear fashion.

When my scrubbing neared the end of the hall, though, I got fatigued. My shoulders were burning and my kneecaps hurt. There was just one little section left, over to the right where the hall opens up near the front door. I thought about stopping early and just leaving that area the way it was. Does some dirty tile in that one little area really matter that much when I “checked all the boxes” on rest of the hallway?

That’s where it hit me.

If I left that last section unexamined and not tended to, would I really appreciate the whole of the accomplishment? What about my other family members who share the space? A big project, whether it be a home improvement project or a career advancement project, can never be complete if you neglect a part of the work.

For us high achieving professionals, the often neglected section on our path is our self-care. We focus on the endpoint in front of us (which is often a false summit anyway), continuing on the treadmill of achievement with heads down so we can just get done… all the while not tending to our own needs. And then, once we “arrive,” what’s it all for? Are you able to enjoy what your worked for, or are you left wondering who you even are anymore? Finishing tired is one thing, but neglecting ourselves during our pursuits might lead to full-blown sickness.

So of course, I finished the whole thing and basked in my clean hallway despite really wanting to ignore part of the job. Tell me, how do you fit self-care into your busy life of projects?

A version of this post first appeared on the blog Practice Balance.