Focus on what you want to do, not what you want to be

I didn’t receive an offer to study medicine after graduating. Despite my best efforts, I’d fallen short. But what happened next made me realize the mistake I’d been making.

For a while, I thought I wanted to be a scientist.

After graduating from high school, my thirst for knowledge was at an all-time high. And without an offer to study medicine, I enrolled in what I thought was my next passion, science.

Studying science at university allowed me the flexibility to choose electives from a broad range of disciplines whilst pursuing my passion for human biology. I took courses in economics, psychology, and statistics while studying alongside people from many other degrees.

Over the summer breaks, I did research in science labs. I spent a few months in Canberra working with rats to understand why weight gain leads to high blood pressure. But during my time in the laboratory, I never saw how my work translated to the lives of everyday people. I craved working at the intersection of science and humanity.

So I decided I wanted to be a surgeon.

I’d first thought of becoming a surgeon in middle school while dissecting the ventricle of a sheep’s heart in science class. The teacher stopped by my desk to compliment me on the quality of my dissection and suggested I consider a career as a surgeon. I apparently took that complement rather seriously; it sparked a deep interest in human biology.

When I got into medicine some years later, I realized that it was the antithesis of my science degree. There were around 180 students in our year, mostly school leavers. There was little scope to customize your degree. Everyone studied the same subjects.

While working alongside a surgeon in Port Augusta, I realized that I didn’t actually enjoy doing procedures like the surgeons. Instead, I much preferred seeing patients in clinic or on the hospital wards, ponding diagnostic dilemmas with the physicians.

So after graduating, I decided to train in internal medicine. I work to positively impact the lives of my patients and their families. But one morning, I realized I wanted to do more.

I was working in the intensive care unit during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. During the first wave, with the elderly avoiding the hospital and elective surgeries canceled, the demographics of the unit had changed.

One morning, I arrived at work to take handover from the weary night staff, and they introduced me to the patients I was caring for that day.

A young Indigenous man whose heart was failing from alcohol brought into his community

A refugee who’d experienced unthinkable trauma whose liver was failing as a consequence of drug addiction

A middle-aged man who lost his job, became homeless and had been assaulted whilst sleeping rough.

And as we walked around the department, I realized it was full of people I couldn’t help. Because the problem was social inequality.

Too many of the drivers of health lie outside the health care system. Instead, it relates to where you were born, the education you receive, the job you do and the place you live.

I want to advocate for health equality in our nation, I thought. And if the answer isn’t in medicine, it must be in policy.

So I considered being a politician.

During university, I’d taken advocacy roles in the medical students’ society. The pinnacle of my time was organizing a convention for 1000 Australian medical students. My role was to convene the academic program, and we flew in politicians and personalities – influential people of all sorts.

And although we heard from many prominent people, the ones who inspired me the most weren’t famous. It was my colleagues who I saw being leaders and making small changes in their communities.

I studied with a trio of doctors who founded an outreach program to a remote Indigenous community focused on healthy living. Another started a non-profit organization that delivers medical aid to countries in need using leftover luggage space.

And eventually, I came to realize that I didn’t have to be a politician to influence change. Because I can enact small changes from within my own profession.

And so, when I’m not caring for patients. I research how we can better harness technologies to improve patient care, I lead a group of hospital doctors passionate about improving our organization, and I take opportunities to teach the next generation.

Looking back, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be … a scientist, a surgeon, and a politician.

But over time, I’ve realized that I was overlooking a more important question – what do I want to do?

So my advice to you is this. Focus less on what you want to be and more on what you want to do. Because it’s what you do that really matters.

Adapted from a speech given at the International Baccalaureate Diploma Awards Ceremony in Adelaide, Australia.

Joshua Inglis is a physician in Australia and can be reached on Twitter @inglisjosh.

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