I want you to do me a favor. Pretend we’re meeting each other for the first time. You have to describe who you are in 10 words or less without mentioning any relationship to another human being. You can’t cop out and say: I’m Anne’s husband, Paul’s mom or Mike’s oldest child. Who are you? Who and how do you identify yourself?
For most doctors, a few of those ten words would include their medical career. It’s no coincidence. Compared to most jobs, being a physician is a key feature of our identities. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just telling you that whether you realize it or not, being a doctor is a big part of who you are.
Here’s a few reasons why your job has grown to define you.
The long road to attending
While all of your undergrad friends were goofing off in between underwater basket weaving and ultimate frisbee practice, you were cramming organic chemistry, physics, biology, histology, and physiology into your brain. While your buddies went to Europe for spring break, you were sitting in a library studying for the MCAT.
If I had a dime for every time the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation came in handy, I’d have as many dimes as I had in undergrad.
Then while your friends were starting their families and careers, you went to medical school where the workload made undergrad look like a cakewalk. When your friends’ jobs really started taking off, you spent another three to eight years working 80+ hours a week making minimum wage taking care of patients as a resident. When it was all said and done, you spent 11-16 years preparing for your first day of work. I’m not trying to sell you on the sunk cost fallacy. I’m just saying that anything that intense you spend doing in your youth is going to leave a permanent mark on how you identify yourself.
You may feel like patients don’t respect your opinion, consultants dump on you constantly, and hospital administrators see you as a replaceable cog in the machine, but the rest of society really respects you and what you do. How many times in your life has someone treated you nicer or with more respect once they found out you were a doctor?
I’m the most low-profile guy you’ll meet. My wardrobe could be best described as “homeless beach bum.” I never volunteer that what I do for a living. Getting me to admit I’m a doctor in public usually involves a game of 20 questions. Nonetheless, I realize that people hold doctors with higher regard than most careers. On some subconscious level that makes us feel good about who we are and what we do.
No one should become a doctor for the money. It’s not worth it, and there are easier ways to get rich. Just about every full-time physician is comfortably in the top five percent of income. And with a little hustling, most of you could be in the top one percent. If you are wise, you are living on a small fraction of that income and saving/investing the rest.
Money isn’t everything. But it sure is important to a lot of people. I’d be willing to bet that the kind of person reading a physician finance blog with their spare time is someone who is a fan of money. Even if you don’t identify as “rich,” you will eventually identify yourself as someone who is financially secure and able to provide a comfortable life for your family.
Time on the clock
I consider myself lucky. Even though I work a lot of crappy hours — think 4 a.m. on Christmas or every other weekend of my life — I don’t work a lot of total hours. Most full-time emergency physicians I know work 30 to 40 hours a week. Most of my surgeon and OB friends work 60 to 80 hours a week.
There is no way that the thing you do more than anything else during your waking hours isn’t a big part of your identity. It’s just simple math.
Our job is a privilege
Being a physician becomes so routine that it is easy to forget how cool it is. Some of you deliver babies, cure cancer or perform complex surgeries. Others prevent diseases from ever occurring and help patients navigate the complex medical system. My fellow emergency physicians routinely bring people back from the dead!
Sure, this job has its headaches. There are patients you can’t help, patients who don’t need help and patients who don’t want help. There are mountains of bureaucracy that seem designed to prevent you from doing your job. But at the end of the day, you can say you have a job that helps people. What you do matters. Don’t forget it.
This post is not intended to be a career pep talk. You are more than your job. We are put in this world to do more than work. The physician blogosphere is jam-packed with stories of docs dreaming of retiring ASAP and leaving medicine behind. We should be allowed to choose whatever path we want. We aren’t beholden to society to keep working a job we don’t enjoy or continue earning money we don’t need to buy stuff we don’t like to impress people we don’t care about.
If you love your job — great! You have a job making a positive impact in people’s lives while earning incredible money and unparalleled respect. If you are burnt out or dreaming of early retirement, just realize that being a doctor is a big part of who you are. It would be naive to think the thing you spent a decade or more training for and thing you spend the most waking hours doing isn’t a key aspect of how you see yourself.
It is OK to want to be done with medicine. Just make sure you have a plan for what is taking its place. By the way — my ten words would be: “hard-working, dark-humored, beach-loving, family-oriented, emergency doc.”
“Side Hustle Scrubs” is an emergency physician who blogs at the self-title site, Side Hustle Scrubs.
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