Burnout is common to teaching violin and practicing medicine

by Lisa Chu, MD

I went to medical school and know something about what it’s like to work in clinical environments.

I’ve recently started reading blogs and articles about “physician burnout” and I can’t help but notice that there’s a lot of blame being placed on “the system”. Doesn’t this kind of storytelling just reinforce that physicians are victims? I’d like to see physicians adopt a way of thinking that will enable them to create the desired changes in their own lifestyles, levels of satisfaction, and ultimately patient care.

In 2001, I made the choice to graduate from medical school but not pursue a residency. I benefited countless patients by making this decision. The key realization I made as a third-year medical student on my Vascular Surgery rotation, was, “I don’t have to do a residency.” So much of my suffering up until that point was based on the single erroneous thought, “I have to do a residency!” I also thought, “I don’t want to live this way! But I have to! These are my only choices!”

Well, none of those thoughts was true.

After graduating from medical school without a job, I ended up starting as an unpaid intern at a venture capital firm, getting hired six weeks later, and eventually getting promoted to partner. I then moved to California to follow my dream of creating my own violin school, and now am a life coach, helping people untangle their minds from the kinds of thoughts that lead to feelings of helplessness, burnout, and stress.

I’ve also lived through burnout myself. As a violin teacher, I acted like I had been trained to do as a “caring” professional. I invested heavily in each student’s outcome, identifying very closely their success with my own sense of competence, self-worth, and professional identity. At the end of each day, the only thing I had energy left to do was to tell stories of all the people who I believed were “not responding” to the intense efforts I had put in, only to get up the next morning and do it again. I saw myself as a victim of other people, and I had no knowledge of self-care. And this, my friends, was supposedly me “following my dream”!

It was my body that finally gave me the gift of forcing me to slow down. What began as mild neck and shoulder pain escalated to debilitating back pain. This was not part of my dream. And it made me look at my life with new eyes.

Over a period of a year, I regained my own sense of well-being, joy, and clarity, through a gradual process of deep self-care, self-reflection, and formal training as a healer and coach. I learned that our thoughts create our reality. No circumstance – no matter how unbearable it seems – can ever be the cause of our burnout or suffering. It is our thoughts about the circumstance that create our suffering.

The theme of my story is that I didn’t look to a system to reform. I found a way to reform myself, by listening to my body and seeking training from people who were already exemplifying the qualities of life I wanted. I pieced these together, and I pursued them proactively through a training process just as disciplined as any medical residency. The difference was, I was training myself to be who I wanted to be.

Thanks to this process, I now have a new career AND most importantly a new way of life that I know I am responsible for creating every day, through practice and continued learning.

Now, I’m no longer attached to stories of blame, rantings about the economy, or lack of options. I know now that freedom is available inside each and every one of us. It is just one thought away.

Lisa Chu is the creator of The Music Within Us violin program.

Submit a guest post and be heard.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • http://fertilityfile.com IVF-MD

    I realize that this is anecdotal, but I can attest that it is absolutely possible to be a doctor for 20 years and still have great passion and excitement about ones medical practice, still look forward to going to the office or the OR, still be amazed by how fascinating it is to talk with patients and learn about their insights and their lives even if it occupies over sixty hours per week. I am also sure it is possible to integrate ones life so that being a doctor is just a supplement to the many wonderful experiences that we have access to in life by virtue of being born into this blessed era of cultural opportunities and technological advances. Sure, you never know if you’ll approach burnout someday, but if you were to ask me specifically, I don’t predict I’ll be near burnout any time soon. In fact, life seems to get more interesting, more peaceful and more fun each and every passing year and this is in spite of the changes in our country that have the potential to threaten all that. Everyone’s life is stressful and everyone’s life is a blessing. How you choose to view it determines what you get out of your limited lifespan here on earth. In addition, I’d like to support Dr. Chu’s comparison between teaching music to practicing medicine. Nowhere do I read her as saying that the two are absolutely positively exactly the same level of stress nor qualitatively the same level of threat to life. Comparing and contrasting different things is a healthy way of communication and inspires me to think open-mindedly in new ways. Thanks for the post and good luck with your adventures.

  • ninguem

    So the way to deal with physician burnout is to leave medicine?

  • Rowan

    Um, as a violin teacher, you don’t *have* a system the way doctors do. You don’t have third-party companies setting arbitrary rules for your practice; you set the terms and then negotiate them directly with your customers, the parents of the kids you’re teaching. You don’t have the huge paperwork burden either. Your point is well taken, but the comparison is a little shallow.

  • http://twitter.com/roycamp John

    This is difficult to read. My first response is , so much in terms of societal resources goes into educating a physician. May it be wasteful not to put those skills to societal benefit. I’m a grad from an earlier era
    Looking at it in a longer term perspective I guess I assume some of the healing the author is offering is based in disciplines and perspectives learned and gleaned during those med school years. Just being honest.

  • http://nostrums.blogspot.com Doc D

    It’s late in my career, so memory gets a little shaky, but my overall impression of the early years as a student, resident, and practitioner is one of steady satisfaction, but mostly a sense of duty. When that 10,000th call came during dinner or late at night, it was the need and sense of commitment that kept me going.

    But I do remember being tired most of the time. After working for 24-36 hours, I didn’t have the energy to do much. Four toddlers wanted to play, but I frequently needed to re-charge my battery with quiet and solitude. That’s a shame.

    If I had it to do over again, I can’t see doing anything different. It was a combination of the difficulty and honorability of the profession that drove me to it. That, combined with being very competitive–seeking out the toughest rotations in school–is a good formula for eventual burnout.

    [Actually, it was probably the Dr. Kildare TV show that got me going.]

    So, I agree, it’s not “primarily” the system. We make choices in life that have consequences.

    You can try to change the system…or change yourself.

  • Melissa

    It stuns me that someone would compare the pressures that physicians encounter leading to burnout with those of violin teachers. If you don’t teach violin well, no one will die or be permanently injured. You won’t be sued. I’m pretty sure that you are not on call frequently and miss family events because of patient needs. Medical school was easy compared to residency training.

    I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy being a physician, but the stresses are enormous and will lead to burnout one day, I’m sure. Quitting after medical school wasn’t an option because I actually like practicing medicine. Now I’m nearing the end of my residency and looking forward to entering the private world but I would never presume to give advice to someone who is already out there practicing.

  • Chris

    Just a thought… but how is it possible to be a life coach if you quit multiple prior careers?

    I tend to think of burn-out as when you STICK with a career for decades and than quit rather than quiting before you even start a career or spend only a few years in a career.

  • http://www.emrandhipaa.com John Lynn

    Great story. Life is what you make of it and you always do have a choice. Lessons we can all learn from. Thanks for sharing it.