Why it’s important for physicians to have hobbies

During medical school, professors advised us to “have hobbies” and to “do stuff outside of medicine”:

  • “It’ll give you have something to talk about with patients.”
  • “It’ll help you maintain balance as you go through your training.”
  • “It’s important for self-care.”

Medical students, as a population, tend to be compulsive and there’s always more to read and learn. (Medicine, like many fields, entails lifelong learning, even when you are tired of lifelong learning.) It’s easy to drop other activities and study all the time.

As I’ve aged, my understanding of their advice has changed.*

When I’m not at work, no one calls me “Doctor.” I have hobbies, sure, but not solely to provide balance to my work in medicine. Working as a physician is an important part of my identity, but it’s not my entire identity.

And that’s where the value of hobbies come in. Physicians spend a lot of time in school and at work. Our jobs can easily become our entire identities. So if we have a bad day at work — maybe because we saw more people than usual with severe illnesses; maybe because we learned that one of our patients died; maybe because we’re frustrated with all the things we have to do that seem unrelated to actually taking care of people — we can feel terrible if that’s the sole lens in which we view our lives.

If I view myself only as a physician, then a crappy day at work means I will be in a foul mood for the rest of the day. And the only thing that will change that is a “better” day at work.

The importance of having hobbies is to experience growth and success outside of medicine. Maybe a patient said terrible things to me today, but I made a delicious soup from scratch. Maybe one of my patients died, but I was able to write about the loss in a meaningful way. Maybe the system isn’t broken; maybe it was built this way… but I finished a half marathon without stopping to walk.

Similarly, maybe my coconut-and-vegetable rice dish didn’t come out quite right, but one of my patients who has been psychotic is getting better. Maybe my hamstring is strained from running long distances, but I was able to help a nurse practitioner improve his clinical skills. Maybe blog posts I am proud of don’t seem to impress anyone else, but I was able to help nudge a policy to help improve patient care for a particular population.

Those are binary pairings, but it works across multiple spheres. I finished a book about a murder AND one of my patients isn’t getting better AND that new soup recipe turned out better than I thought it would. Life has its successes and failures. If we’re able to look back on the day and the sum of events is greater than zero, we are lucky.

So, for any medical students who are reading this, yes, make an effort to cultivate hobbies. Yes, hobbies make you a well-rounded person. More importantly, though, when you practice cultivating your hobbies now, you’ll be better at both the cultivating and the hobbies themselves when you’re a resident and an attending. You will have terrible days while you’re in training and when you’re working. You have a front seat in the theater of human drama. These other hobbies will help you remember that you are a multifaceted person, that you are not your job.

And while you may take pride in being a physician, the reality is that you will not practice as a physician forever. You will one day retire from the practice of medicine. And, indeed, this will all end one day, and you will die. While people may remember you in your role as a physician, people may remember you even more for your talents in cooking, your boundless knowledge about sports, the curious pieces of art you crafted, and your perspectives as a person who happened to work as a physician.

* Even before I chose to enter the field of psychiatry, I was skeptical of the reason that hobbies “will give you something to talk about with patients.” While I believe that physicians should present as human beings at work, patients also don’t visit doctors to talk about shared hobbies. There are plenty of other shared topics to talk about, such as the weather, regional sports, etc. As physicians have limited time with patients, it seems self-indulgent to talk about MY hobbies when my role is to help the patient. Some may argue that my stance results in too rigid of a boundary, though I don’t think patients want to learn about our hobbies during medical visits. That’s what social media is for, right?

Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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