One of our customers is a lovely, wonderful, smart, thoughtful college student who is contemplating going to medical school. She emails me every now and then with some questions and musings about whether to go into medicine, and what that life would entail. I think she values the perspective I can offer, as a physician who has recently switched careers. She wants to have a family eventually, and is feeling concerned that her work will just consume every bit of her life for the next 10 years. I can understand this concern. I really can. But here is what I told her – and I decided to post it here, because I feel like it applies to, well, all of us.
“…Here’s the thing. Everything gets put in perspective eventually. What feels like hard work now will be child’s play later. First and second year will seem like grueling hard work. Then you get to 3rd and 4th year, when you are working, in your case, close to 80 hours a week (back in my time it was more like 100). Then you get to internship, where you are the low man on the totem pole, and you add that feeling to the 80 hours of work. Then come boards, first round, eventually the second and third rounds follow. Then you move through your residency and decide to have a baby in your 3rd year. You do your ICU rotation while 8 months pregnant, putting in central lines from behind your massive belly. Then you have your beautiful baby, and you go back to work with a 5 week old and start your trauma surgery rotation, with call every 3rd night, back to 100 hours a week, pumping every 4 hours in a dirty call room, and double timing back to the wards to outshine your colleagues. Then you leave medicine and start your own business, where you check your ego at the door, scrub your own floors and toilets, and figure out how to make an entirely new career right from scratch, all while trying to be a good mom and wife and friend to all those you love and cherish. Now residency seems like a breeze.
So here’s the point. You have to figure out how to live your life while you are working your ass off, no matter what you do. You have to find humor and tenderness and joy and shame and sadness and levity and the beauty of humanity in nooks and crannies. You have to know, at every moment, that no matter how hard you are working, there are millions of people working harder with WAY less payback (and less pay). You have to MAKE the work INTO life. Or it’s not worth doing. So if you do it, do it with everything you have. Work harder than everyone else, with a smile and crazy endurance, and don’t whine about how tired you are. Then it will become your life. And you’ll get to hang out with friends on weekends occasionally and form relationships, in the depths of endless nights, that will last the rest of your life.
YOU get to decide. (Recognize the privilege inherent to this choice – few people are intelligent and accomplished and motivated enough to have it.) And once you decide, put your little heart into it and you will be a happy, helpful, satisfied human. Med school or Starbucks barista - doesn’t matter. If you are going to do it, do it well and with spirit. Because the worst thing you can do, ever, is to feel sorry for yourself.
So that’s my best piece of advice. If you choose it, jump in. Don’t choose it, then whimper and moan about how hard your life is. Nobody wants to be around that person, right? There were a good lot of them in my med school class. Where I would see them coming and want to say, preemptively, ‘Yeah, I know you’re exhausted and I know you’ve been up 40 hours and I KNOW you didn’t have time for breakfast or coffee or a shower. Tell me something ELSE about you.’”
Now, I can already tell that this astute young woman will succeed at whatever she does – she just doesn’t know that yet. And we will all complain sometimes – unlike the animals, we are capable of self-pity, and have to work through that emotion when things are difficult. But, Abe Lincoln, as he was prone to do, said it best: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Have you made up yours??