Recently, I read a very interesting Forbes.com post by Kathy Caprino, entitled “Why You Remain Stuck in a Career You Hate.” In it, she gives eight outstanding reasons why those of us who are unhappy in our careers remain paralyzed and unable to move. The first reason on her list (“You Don’t Know Yourself”) resonated strongly with me. It took me eleven years in primary care medicine to come to the conclusion that I just don’t like being a primary care doctor. It’s not a good fit for my personality or how I tend to function in a work role. I’m much happier in a “specialist” model – where I can take more time and function in a niche rather than trying to cover a broad range of things in a very limited period of time.
This is just a simple fact I had to learn about myself. It’s not a judgment about the importance of primary care versus other specialities. On the contrary, I have enormous respect for my colleagues who are primary care providers and do it well. I think they have one of the most challenging jobs on the planet. I just needed to do enough introspective searching to finally admit to myself that I wasn’t in the right field.
But why did it take me such a long time? The immediate obvious answer is that for those of us who spend the better part of our lifetime training for a specific career, it’s a hard pill to swallow to admit that maybe that career isn’t exactly the best one for you. Especially if you are one of those types who was born knowing you wanted to become a doctor/lawyer/etc. But, as I’ve alluded to in some of my other blog posts, I’ve never been one of those people. I’ve also never really viewed being a physician as a critical part of my identity. I am a person first, who practices medicine second. I know that is not the case for everyone, and that’s the point. We are all different.
In really taking some time to figure out what makes me “tick” as a career person, I came to realize something very important in the months leading up to my eventual resignation from clinical medicine. It turns out that I am one of those self-masochists who loves to turn a career’s worth of guilt inward. I was the stereotypical worrier, wondering what would happen to my patients. If I left, who would take care of them the way I did? How would they get what they needed from someone who didn’t know them like I did?” Looking back, these “guilt scripts” held me hostage for years before I finally took a good hard look at what was preventing me from being happy in my work.
It was actually the fiancé of a friend of mine who inadvertently helped me break through the last of my career shackles. My friend was a nurse practitioner in the clinic I worked in, and the two of us developed a friendship borne out of commiseration. We would often get dinner or hit the local bar after clinic was over and just wallow in the injustices of our work environment. We even had our own little book club so we could have some kind of pretense for getting together. We’d talk about the book for about three minutes, and then the conversation would immediately devolve into a first-class bitch session.
One day her fiancé happened to join us for dinner. He listened to us talk about how trapped we were working for an institution that refused to listen to its employees, and imposed all sorts of inappropriate constraints on us. We bemoaned how powerless we were to make change, despite the fact that we were two of the most outspoken faculty in the clinic. We complained about the unbelievable inefficiency and suboptimal level of care in our clinic due to administrative decisions that clinically left our hands tied.
After this went on for about half an hour, he looked at both of us and then asked quite frankly, “So why do you continue to work there?”
My friend and I of course had all sorts of excuses. Our patients needed us. No one else knew the issues our patients faced as well as we did. As I listened to myself spouting off 101 reasons why I couldn’t leave, I realized I had enough career guilt on board to fuel a Catholic mass for three weeks.
His question stuck with me though. He had planted a seed, and over the next several months it germinated into a big, blooming flower. Eventually I had to admit to myself that my patients somehow had found medical care before they met me, and they would after I left . Would it be the same medical care that I provided them? No. Would they get worse care after I left? Possibly. Or maybe someone would come along and do a better job than I had. Regardless, they would not be left lying in a ditch somewhere. Sure, they would miss me. I have several families that I still keep in touch with by email after having left clinical practice, and they do miss me. But they also are very pleased to hear that I am happy and thriving in my new work.
With due deference to Kathy Caprino, I respectfully submit Reason #9 for her consideration: Guilt Is Not A Career Platform. Certainly not for a fulfilling career anyway.