“After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I’m offering is the truth.”
– Morpheus from The Matrix
Many physicians submit to a life of sterility and dullness — a life where the days, months and years all look the same. You look ahead thinking: Is this it? Is this where my life is going to take me? Unappreciated, under-valued, burdened by administrative B.S., a cog in the corporate wheel — is this my life for the foreseeable future?
This was the internal dialogue going through my head a few years ago when student debt burdened me, and I was working more to pay it off left me with little time for myself. My life was quite similar to the one I had in residency. Of all the extra money I was making, the majority of it went to Uncle Sam and Sallie Mae (Navient). Did I mention I was still working a lot? Weekends, holidays, nights, etc. Life was supposed to get better after residency — wasn’t it?
They say time is money. This is false because money can be made and wealth can increase. Time, on the other hand, is fleeting. Every breath takes us a step away from our birth and towards our inevitable end. This realization hit me hard and led me to reflect deeply on my situation. I was at a crossroads and had a decision to make. I could take the blue pill and continue living a jaded and unfulfilled life. Or I could pull myself out of the matrix and try something different. But how?
I first needed time to think. My work schedule did not allow much time for reflection though. As I mentioned, in addition to my full-time job, I was working locum shifts to pay off my student loans. It was then that I noticed something interesting: I was making more working a week of locums than I was in a month as an employee.
After working locums for several months, it clearly made no sense to continue as an employee. I loved my job, but the lack of flexibility and time to pursue other interests outside of medicine forced me to make the decision to give my 90-day notice. Some thought I was crazy, while others said I was brave for venturing into uncharted territory. As much as I’d like to believe the latter, the truth is, it was a no-brainer.
One of the great things about being a physician is that there is extremely high demand for our services. Essentially, a good physician will never be out of a job. This does not hold true for other professions, as my non-physician friends like to remind me. Leaving a full-time job and going locums is perhaps one of the safest bets one can make. It is akin to diversifying one’s investment portfolio. Instead of investing all your time and energy into one opportunity, you are spreading your risk over multiple ones.
After reducing my clinical shifts significantly and now having complete autonomy over my schedule, I had time to reflect.
Undergrad, medical school, and residency — the journey to becoming a physician is so demanding that you can lose yourself in it. You dedicate almost every waking moment to reading, studying for boards or preparing for your next shift/case/presentation. What was it I liked to do in my spare time again? What were my interests before I embarked on this journey? To be honest, I had forgotten. I didn’t know — because I had always been focused on passing boards and reaching the next milestone — that I had to get to know myself again.
Randi Zuckerberg, a former director at Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, once tweeted:
“The entrepreneur’s dilemma: Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time with family. Staying fit. Getting sleep. Pick 3.”
In the world of medicine, this can be tweaked a bit:
“The physician’s dilemma: Maintain friendships, Be a great physician. Spending time with family. Stay fit. Get sleep. Pick 3.”
I remember reading this, and it struck me because I felt the same struggle as a medical student, as a resident, and as a young attending.
Leaving my employed position and becoming a locum doc was in a sense taking the red pill. I entered Wonderland — a world where I was in command and where I control my destiny. I could focus on myself again, like my interests, my passions, my dreams and what mark I wanted to leave on this world.
Ali Chaudhary is an emergency physician. This article originally appeared in Locum Guru.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com