I am certain of three things: I want a meaningful and fulfilling life. I love clinical medicine (amongst other things) and things can’t continue as they have. I’m losing faith.
The beaten path ain’t it.
I wish that I was announcing my retirement from medicine. I’d love nothing more than an easy solution. Unfortunately (fortunately?), I didn’t pick the wrong profession, I don’t hate my job, I don’t want to move to Canada (I hear its lovely) and I’m optimistically suspicious of the private sector. In short: I’m screwed. You’ve heard it before: “the health system is failing” blah blah blah. “there are also good people in health though”. All true. I’ve written (and talked) about it at length (repeatedly) here, here, here and here. Cry me a river right? Am I complaining about employment and my position in the economic top 10%. In South Africa? In 2019? Yes and no. I know I’m luckier then most.
Millennials as a group are typical restless middle children. Wedged between the dutiful (if a little bulldozer-y) Boomers and the contradictory irreverence and energy of Gen Z. We are creating jobs and careers that didn’t exist a decade ago, getting married later (if at all), are steadily decreasing the 2.4 children/person average, own plants instead of homes (home owning being less likely in light of the lovely economy and environmental crisis-es that we inherited from the Boomers and the choke-hold of student debt to name but a few deterrents) all while navigating multiple small and large scale socio-political revolutions. In all of our activism and angst we want more. We are not a particularly content group. We want lives we can be proud of, jobs (that we spend at least a 3rd of our lives at) that we don’t have to endure. We’re simply too aware to be happy with numbly surviving. We want rich emotional, financial and psychological lives. We want freedom and ambition and to break glass ceilings. We’re less likely to tolerate slave labour that’s been cleverly branded as employment. We’re a problem (the good kind) because we’re almost always opposing the agenda. I’m proud of and unapologetic about this. That being said, It’s difficult to not feel like a brat for always wanting more, even when you know it’s right. Which brings me back to my dilemma.
I’m having a crisis of faith (of vocation?). I’ve committed a decade of my natural life, my youthful prime and my entire (short) professional life to something that I love and l constantly joke about it not loving me back. It’s a wonderful profession, truly. I should probably mention that I’m not delusional: I am black African and female so life’s no picnic and there is little to no respite on those fronts. I know there is no utopia. I also know that I cannot continue to work the way I do. Systemically, interpersonally, institutionally. Life is too short to want to escape my day job which has a frequent night and weekend (and much touted lifelong) component. Maybe it’s because I’m at a natural transition: independent practice. I lie awake at night thinking about all the ways things could change. Some are even realistic. “you are not a tree” comes up a lot: change your environment or change yourself. Until recently, I’ve assumed that there were a few set options for doctors.
The aforementioned “path”:
1. Continue: specialise, don’t. Enter the private sector, don’t.
2. Take a slight left turn: leave clinical practice but stay in health. This includes Pathology, Sports Medicine, Aesthetics (which is big money right now though I’m genuinely not sure what’s in a ‘vitamin drip’ that isn’t in the jet fuel I give my intoxicated patients every other Saturday night).
3. Take a slight right turn: leave clinical clinical practice for health associated structures and Academia: aka Public health and research. I assure nobody wants me in a lab.
4. Leave: as in stop or do something else. Even this path is clear. There’s Consulting (I have entire friends who do this and from what I gather it’s proposals, pitches, clients and late nights). The MBA come CEO route. Also included (in the interest of diversity): housewifery and associated structures. I have great difficulty picturing myself in those spaces.
Reality check: What they don’t mention is that once you start working it is hard to stop. Whether it’s Financial responsibility (ranging from fixed assets, debt, bread-winning, black tax and student loans) or lifestyle adjustment, very few of us have the luxury of simply taking a break until we ‘figure it out’. It’s why so many don’t leave. It’s also why wandering off the beaten path gets scarier and less likely as the years (and responsibilities) pile on. Lately I’ve been seeing so many exciting conversations in health spaces offering new ways to leave clinical medicine. For those who need this new path out, I encourage and am happy for you. I also envy you.
Is there an option 5? What about people like me Who want to “stay”? Who understand that the non-choice (see option 1) comes with the following T&Cs: you will have to put your head down and endure. You may never thrive. It might cost you your sanity and internal well being. Once you decide, it will be said that “you chose this life” knowingly (and it will be true). That to live out your purpose (a job that is meaningful, often stimulating and of service) you have to drink the Koolaid and accept that toxicity is never far behind will forever be your bedfellow. Would you do it? Or can we do something?
This is where YOU come in. This is a cry for help though not a very traditional one because I’m not at the end of my rope (yet), I’m not in any danger and I know I’m not alone.
To my health professional colleagues, I’d love to start a dialogue here or at least encourage you to start some of your own. A real, raw and safe one: What have we identified that would make hopeful juniors and brilliant seniors alike want to run for the hills from a profession that they once loved (still do?). What can we do about it? #WhatShouldWeDo?
I know it’s been health-heavy but I’d love input from my friends and readers in other professions who have faced a similar crisis of faith. Solutions, suggestions, success stories. Did you get out? Did you change your environment? Did you find a mentor? Did focusing on the patients make the difference? Did you take a break? How did you do it? Who do you know that tried? Did they fail? Was it worth it? I’m genuinely looking for answers.
I’ll leave you with my favorite poem’s favorite poem: If by Rudyard Kipling.
Fun fact : The Script is still my favorite band despite decidedly peaking with their first two albums.
Next: the Sequel An Education