Fight burnout by following your fear


Three years ago, I left the only path I had ever known to pursue uncertainty on the other side of the world. But let me back up. In July of 2011, five years into my career as an academic hospitalist, the residency work hours changed. Although the intent was obviously to benefit the well-being of the residents and the safety of patients, it took a tremendous toll on attending physicians at my institution. It was such an abrupt and dramatic change, and it didn’t take long until I was on the brink of mental and physical exhaustion, unable to handle even minor setbacks. I’ll spare you all of the details, because you probably already know what burnout looks like. I eventually managed to get some time off for ‘self-care’ and spent the week on a truly relaxing spa vacation – the ultimate remedy, right? But when I went back to work, there was my burnout, waiting for me and stronger than ever.

Then, something changed. I met someone who meditated twice a day. I became fascinated. I was the biggest skeptic ever, and who has time for that? But I went to listen to his teacher speak, and then I took his course. The practice immediately had a profound effect on my reactivity to stressful situations, my overall sense of happiness and well-being and my levels of energy and creativity. I was frankly amazed at the ease and immediacy of the benefits I received from this easy, effortless activity.

Meditation helped me regain my compassion and empathy, and it helped me let go of my need to control everything. I enjoyed my colleagues, my patients and, in general, my job. I learned that I didn’t always have the right answers, that I shouldn’t always have the right answers, and that when things went against my expectations, they often turned out for the better. My career was soaring, as I became the director of education in the division of hospital medicine and the director of faculty development in the medical school.

Things were good, but after a few more years, I began to have thoughts about waking up when I was 60 and wondering what else I could’ve done with my life. On a 10-day meditation retreat in India, I decided that I wanted to become a meditation teacher. It took two years of planning, but I made it happen. I was going to spend three months on my teacher training in India, then return to Chicago to teach meditation while continuing to work as a hospitalist part-time.

The universe had other plans. I met someone who had left medicine to become an artist. He just stopped practicing medicine completely. Until that point, I didn’t even have a paradigm to process the concept of leaving medicine! Then, I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move overseas to China. China! Feeling ready to embrace some major life changes, I left the only path I had ever known for a world of uncertainty and opportunity, in China and then India.

While I was in India for my meditation teacher training, I reflected on 21 years of working tirelessly to get to, and continue, a career in medicine. For over 2 decades, immersed in the medical culture, I felt this constant pressure to be “right” all of the time, to stay up to date with knowledge, to live up to unrealistic (and often conflicting) expectations with metrics such as length of stay, readmission rates, patient satisfaction scores and resident and student teaching evaluations. And, of course, the constant threat of lawsuits. I had been out of clinical medicine for six months, and I didn’t miss it.

Instead, I was finding what I had never had before — something I was even more passionate about than traditional internal medicine. I knew that I had learned a tool that could reverse stress-induced damage, and that if I could focus my energies on treating the cause of illness (stress), rather than the symptoms of illness, I could help people make huge changes in their health. And, with my medical degree and years of clinical and teaching expertise, I knew I had a platform from which I could really reach people and make a difference. I could do work that really mattered, and really fulfilled me — a perfect match.

And so it happened. It seems to many like an “overnight” and “fearless” move to leave a successful academic career to study meditation in India, and then to come back to the U.S. to be my own boss in a career more rewarding than I thought possible. But really, it was one step at a time, and it wasn’t so fearless. I felt the fear, and that fear is how I recognized the important life decisions and felt inspired to act. Connecting with inspiration isn’t always dramatic — maybe it’s speaking up at a meeting, applying for a leadership role, or negotiating with our boss. It might be a step up, a step down, or a step across. And these inspirations can be easily drowned out by fear of uncertainty and failure. But it’s our intuition about what’s right for ourselves that can give us the power to embrace inspiration and not be afraid to fail. Listen to the little voice inside, which is often a whisper, and then take the next step. Feel the fear, and then move towards it. You may end up somewhere completely different from where you started, from where you always thought you wanted to be. But it will always be worth it.

Jill Wener is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jill Wener, MD.

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