January 23, 2018

Do I Need to Leave Medicine? One Physician’s Story

yes no pixabay

Dear readers, I am honored to share with you an inciteful and powerful story by one of my awesome clients.  

When you tell people you are changing jobs, they want to know why. Many people will even ask, “Are you going to make more money?” or “Is this a promotion for you?” They don’t know how to react when the answer is, “No.” I make less money than I did two years ago. I am not the boss. I don’t have a title. Yet I am happier.

This concept would be so foreign to the younger me. Since high school, it has always been about the next step – college, medical school, internship, residency, that first job, that better job, more responsibility, more money, more prestige. At each step I was unhappy, yet I struggled through because I just knew that happiness would come when I reached the next level.

Two years ago, I had everything the world had taught me that I should have: more money than my parents ever did; freedom to run my practice the way I wanted; a directorship position and a chief of staff position. But I wasn’t happy. How could that be? I had checked off all the boxes in life, delayed gratification for years and found emptiness at the end of it all. Since my usual way of handling dissatisfaction was to force my way through to the next better thing, I just assumed that I needed to progress to a new level. Without realizing it, I was looking for more ladders to climb. I was so used to the constant “what’s next?” that I could not enjoy the now.

I enlisted the help of Heather Fork with the idea that I would find this great new career path. Certain that she would steer me into administration, medical writing, or some exciting new field, I jumped in with both feet and worked hard on the process. I was excited about the idea of developing new skills and succeeding in a new area. What I found instead was that I was in the right career but had lost sight of what I liked about it. With a little thinking about who I am and what I like, I could see the times in my career that I did enjoy what I was doing.

It turns out that I didn’t need to keep climbing; I needed to go back down! I have always enjoyed the basic work of my specialty, but my current position did not allow much of it. I was isolated, I was not working on interesting cases, and I felt as if I was not really making a difference. I knew I needed a new practice setting. So I set about looking for a new job.

The best thing I ever did was let go. I put in the work – got on LinkedIn, built a network (or rather, discovered that I actually had a network), bought a new suit, buffed up my CV, and applied to at least two dozen positions. Then I let go. Spending my life forcing the next step and searching for the perfect position had brought me nothing. This time I would let the process flow, and I would flow along with it.

The second best thing I ever did was to change my standard of living. All my chasing after more and trying to live the American dream had boxed me into a lifestyle that kept me reliant on my current job. It is easy to look back now and see that the level of joy in my life has never correlated with my income level. So I made some major lifestyle changes in anticipation of up to a 30% pay cut. Incredible freedom comes from living below your means and it opens you up to many new career opportunities.

I went on three interviews. Interestingly, of all the positions I applied to, all the fantastic letters I wrote, and calls I made, the only interviews I got came through someone in my network.

My first offer came through a nearby group. I would not have to move and it seemed the perfect opportunity. But as I looked it over and thought about this group, I found myself saying things like, “Well I guess I could live with that” or “I would just have to learn to do without this.” It dawned on me that I was forcing it. It didn’t feel right – it didn’t flow. So I turned the job down.

Then I was offered an interview in the “perfect” city, with the “perfect” group. I interviewed and thought this is it; this is where I will be. But I was not offered the job. I briefly thought that this flow business may not be working.

My next interview came from a friend of mine from residency. The thought of working for him was intriguing but I only took the interview out of respect for him. This job was very far from home, in a very different part of the country. The city didn’t exactly sound exciting either.

The interview went very well. I can’t explain it, but it felt right – I felt the flow. This would be a job with a good friend of mine and other, like-minded colleagues. The workload would be heavy, but interesting and worthwhile with a lot of support. After two weeks of sleeping on it, I called and accepted the job. Not two hours later, the second place I interviewed with (the “perfect” one) called me again. I was told that now they wanted me. They offered me a better package than my friend’s group. I really thought about it. I hadn’t signed anything, I could easily accept the new offer; but that would have been forcing it. I was resolved to let the process flow, so I told them no thanks.

So here I am, no longer in charge, just another guy doing work that I enjoy with people I like. I look back now at the whole process and think that had I not taken the time (with Heather’s help) to learn about what I really like and why I was unhappy, I would have forced a solution that was not in line with my true self. The biggest change I made was not changing my job, moving 1200 miles away or getting back to the basics of my specialty. It was a change in my attitude. I have learned to stop and enjoy the now. I am also starting to look for ways to incorporate some of my other interests into my job. I have had a desire to do something creative and to teach. So over the past year I have experimented with a couple of writing and speaking projects and have had the opportunity to do some mentoring. It is nice to know that I can do these things without completely changing careers. This new job is great but not perfect. No job is, so there is no need to always think about it and look for it. I may not be here forever, but I am here now and that’s what counts. At some point, the flow of life may take me somewhere else: but I’m going to let it be a surprise.

 

 

Comments

  1. Amie Langbein says:

    What a beautifully articulated inspiring journey ! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Heather Fork says:

      On behalf of the author, thank you very much for your support and kind words Amie! We appreciate your reading and commenting.

  2. Lynette Charity MD says:

    Wow! This doc literally took the words out of my mouth, expressing similar feelings I’ve had on my journey away from medicine only to return because I truely love what I do. But now I’m happier because it’s on my terms. I’m working with colleagues I respect. I found a niche in my profession that called to me and I answered. When I wanted to leave medicine, I thought “the grass would be greener”, however I learned that it was just “a different kind of green grass”, but not “better”. Giving up on an over 30-year career was not necessary. I just needed to make it “evolve” with me as I aged and found meaning in other endeavors other than medicine. I am now a cyborg, albeit a happy one. Heather and the writer, thank you for your insight. This made me feel better about my decision to return to medicine.

    • Heather Fork says:

      Thank you Lynette, for your enthusiastic comments and sharing your own experience and perspective. It is incredibly helpful for other doctors to hear about real-life examples of physicians finding fulfillment IN medicine, in these difficult times. As you know, because you did it yourself, it takes time and effort to explore options, do the soul-searching, and come to your own understanding of what is best for you. If one is willing to be open to the process, and believe there are solutions, solutions will be found. No one needs to feel trapped. I’m very happy for you that you came back full-circle to your love of medicine and being a doctor, because how many singing anesthesiologist are there out there anyway?

  3. That was truly inspiring and great. Unfortunately I’m in the same position but a dermatologist and I want out of medicine and the fear of being sued and all the government and insurance hell that goes along with it. I’m only 45 practiced 8 yrs but had detoured earlier. I love the old practice of medicine and have been blessed with the ability to work with my dad the entire time. I want to finish 10 years so I don’t have to pay the $10000 tail end for liability but I take too much time with people and am too sensitive that I will miss something and have never felt that confidence I should. I don’t make but around $100,000 and it is an older practice I have zero intention of doing EMR. I am completely lost. I am very artistic and love learning. I don’t know what to due and it’s been really depressing.
    Sorry so negative I am a usually upbeat person

    • Heather Fork says:

      Thank you, Ashely for your supportive comments to my client’s post. I am sorry to hear you are struggling so. Often, people do not understand why a dermatologist would be unhappy. “Don’t dermatologists have it good?” others may ask. The truth is, it is impossible for anyone judging from the outside to know what an individual is experiencing in his or her situation. As a former dermatologist, I am sure people thought I must be crazy to sell my practice after 9 years. There were great things about being a dermatologist, and it is a wonderful speciality, but it can be challenging if, as in your situation, you are experiencing a lot of anxiety and are too sensitive. Without having to leave, there are some ways to work with those things to help in the short term, even if you still want to leave. And while you are working, it is a good time to begin exploring your options. There are ALWAYS options. It can feel overwhelming since there is no clear-cut path to a next career as there was in medicine but there is a process one can follow with concrete steps. The advantage is, you get to follow what really resonates with you, and not a set plan that has little flexibility. Please don’t lose hope. Many have felt lost as you do right now, but they made it out of the dark forest and are very happy.

  4. Thanks to your client for sharing their story. As a physician working in physician health, I think it is important in certain situations to explore that physicians may still like what they do, just not how they do it. Sometimes leaving medicine may seem like the only choice but it is certainly worth exploring what the physician’s challenges are in the hopes of reclaiming their joy in medicine.

    • Heather Fork says:

      Your comments are appreciated Sara. From looking at your website, saratmd.com, I can see that you care very much about physician wellness and fulfillment. A big thank you to YOU for posting helpful blogs and dedicating your time and knowledge to this most important area. I am sure you help a lot of physicians lead happier lives in Canada and elsewhere. Keep up the good work!

  5. J. David Waller MD FACC says:

    Excellent! That’s me. I have moved up and up and have a huge practice, extremely high patient satisfaction scores, serve as chief of staff, and love serving in administration activities. Everyone in the community seems very happy with me except me. People and patients in the community come to me daily and for that I should feel honor but lately there has been a mix of honor and feeling put out. I fight the urge to begin that “what about me” thinking. My issue is I just don’t how to break free. I’ve been praying for years now to know not only how to break free but also how to let go. This story encouraged me and while I don’t have my personal answers I like hearing that there is another way.

    • Heather Fork says:

      Hello David, thank you very much for reading and commenting. I just read a very nice article about you, and it mentioned that you are an honorary state trooper for Georgia! You obviously have dedicated a huge amount of your time and talents to helping others. It is perfectly reasonable – and VERY IMPORTANT to think of your own needs and wants, and trust that there is a way to honor yourself that will also work in the big picture. I find that when doctors make their own health and happiness a priority, those around them benefit as well. You end up still sharing your gifts, but the work is more sustainable and you find your joy again. You don’t need to know HOW it will work out, just start with a commitment to listen to yourself, and don’t disregard or discount your feelings. If we can get a man to the moon, we should be able to enjoy our work.

  6. Craig Glaiberman says:

    Fantastic story and very applicable to my situation too. If I may share;

    “Flow” is a great way to describe the process of letting go and allowing the journey to mold to your desires rather than forcing the “appropriate” next step. This is in antithesis to nearly every doctors inner being. Taking control, being assertive, being decisive, and making your own way is how one gets to be a physician. Totally against the grain to let go as your client did.

    I like the Zen saying; “leap, and the net will appear”. Scary and reassuring all at the same time.

    While I have not directly used Heather’s advice, I have been reading these blogs and emails over the years. I too have been struggling with how to change my outlook, expectations, and job. There is no easy answer. After 13 years of specialty practice, I have recently done the same thing. I reduced my work schedule to 50%, took a pay cut, and networked with friends. I now volunteer my expertise at the nearby veterinarian teaching hospital and am taking on an ever increasing role in teaching and developing my specialty within veterinary medicine. It is refreshing and invigorating to do what I love and help create a new service within a related profession. It’s also rewarding to help animals in similar ways I was trained to help humans. Translational research opportunities exist and ideas flow back and forth.

    I had been actively seeking other career paths from chef school to dive master to sommelier to wine store owner. Holy cow, I was all over the map and had to check myself on many an occasion. But I was desperate, unhappy, and willing to risk it all. Call, administration interference or lack of action, and increasing loss of control of practice decisions affected me on a daily basis. I had become an employee and I despised it. I was simply a tool to help people. It was no longer rewarding.

    So I decided to let go. Those systemic problems affecting all of medicine were no longer mine. It’s sad that they affect how I deliver health care today. It feels like a reflection on me personally, but it’s a disease of an over burdened system and I had to divorce myself from the guilt and anger I was harboring.

    By stepping back, removing myself from the all immersive daily practices we are all in, I could finally get some perspective. The 30,000 foot view. Regroup, breathe deep, reassess, refresh, reboot.

    Kudos to just “flowing” and letting the process gel as you mold your future, massage it until you get it where you want it. It takes time, deep consideration, and thoughtful decisions which are near impossible in the rat races many of us are stuck in.

    Thank you to your client for sharing and thank you to Doctors Crossing for being a sounding board that probably many more people like myself than you actually know. Good luck to all of you on a similar journey.

    • Heather Fork says:

      Craig! Thank you very much for your lovely comments and story. My client and I very much appreciate your support. You are not the first doctor who has looked into a wide range of options – many seem to have interests in cooking, wine, baking, writing, traveling, having a wellness spa or fitness center, etc. Doctors are creative folks and life-long learners. One of the problems (and surprises) in medicine is that after all the years of intense learning and growth, the day-to-day practice can feel very stagnating. Almost like your brain is atrophying in a weird way. You have done a great job at finding your own way through this process. I am cheered to hear that you were able to step back and find a perspective that works for you. These definitely are challenging times, but out of the morass comes greater self-knowledge, innovation, and novel approaches. We can either spend our energy resisting what is happening, or look for opportunity. Good luck to everyone on finding where FLOW wants to lead you. Thank you again Craig.

  7. Christine Chen says:

    Heather,

    Great post as usual. It made me think about the word “downsizing,” which is something that most people think of only when planning for retirement, and only with regard to their homes and possessions. However, as this doc showed, sometimes you need to take a step down to feel fulfilled, secure, and happy. Doctors have been taught to be gung-ho strivers, always reaching for the next proverbial “brass ring.” But sometimes the increase in status/prestige/salary isn’t worth the cost to your soul. Diminishing returns.

    Hope you are well! Keep up your amazing work.

    • Heather Fork says:

      Christine, thank you so much for your very supportive comments on my client’s blog about his career path. I like your metaphor of the “brass ring.” It is very true that we have been conditioned to keep climbing, climbing, climbing, and somehow feel that to go down the mountain and check out a different view, is somehow wrong or wimping out. What doctors are finding, as you point out, is that there may be something else their soul is longing for, and that may have nothing to do with money or prestige. One of the silver linings of the challenges of medicine, is that it is prompting doctors to step off the hamster wheel long enough to ask some powerful questions, such as, “Does this bring me joy?” And if the answer is “No.” Or “Heck no!” there is a chance to take some action, rather than huffing and puffing at 90 revolutions per minute until they fall off the wheel.

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