“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This question always confounded me when people would ask me this as a child. What is this “growing up” you speak of? And why do I have to be something? I’m so content with my LEGOs, books, and video games.
I was born in the United States to South Korean immigrants and raised with expectations to excel in school (which I did), follow the rituals of my surrounding society and culture (which I did), and believe in others’ definitions of success (which I did). Since all of these things were not a big deal to me, I pretty much did what I was told. I was such an introverted child with my own interests that satisfied and fascinated me that I did not really care much about more. When people asked me what my favorite sport was, I said it was baseball. I did not really know any other sports, and even though I had pretty much zero interest in baseball and had barely touched a bat, glove, or baseball, it seemed like a safer answer than saying I did not care about sports.
So when my family pressured me to become a physician, and I did not really have anything else I really wanted to be, I basically went along with their wishes. It always fascinated me when a medical student or physician would have the opposite story. They would say that they always knew they wanted to be a physician since they were quite young; this definitely was not me.
This is the context in which my struggle with meaning and identity in my teenage years started, perhaps like many others. But it strongly persisted throughout undergraduate and medical school, residency, and my early career as a physician. My first job out of residency was full-time employment in corporate, clinical medicine in a hospital. I later picked up roles in graduate medical education, hospital leadership, quality improvement, and more. I was great at my work and my colleagues, hospital and clinic staff, and patients liked me. However, my soul still churned with questions and concerns like, Is this really me? and is this life meaningful for me?
And then I realized I had plenty of meaning in my life, but it was everyone else’s meaning and not my own. My work, how I did my work, how I presented myself to others and even to myself, my significance in, connection to, understanding of, and philosophy and view of the world; everything in my life, were excessively concerned with others’ expectations at the expense of my authenticity. My wellness, wholeness, and fulfillment were suboptimal. There was nothing in my years of education and training that taught me how to search my soul to find and manifest my meaning for my life.
My existential malaise that started in my teens motivated my pursuit of meaning and took me to western and eastern systems of psychology and philosophy, typology systems of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram, ancient and modern wisdom texts and traditions, esoteric breathing, and spiritual perspectives, and entertainment with entrenched ideas and development. As I continued learning throughout my training and early career, it eventually became obvious that being the doctor everyone else wanted me to be was not the answer to my pursuit for meaning in my life. When I accepted that I had sacrificed my authenticity to satisfy others’ expectations and meaning, I realized the source and cause of my duress. School taught me everything I needed to know except my soul and how to manifest meaning for the sake of my wellness, wholeness, and fulfillment.
So I took the risk of leaving my salaried job searching for and later expressing my meaning by being in the world with my own soul’s expectations. I decided to build a private practice where I could integrate and use all of my education, knowledge, and training to practice my medical and healing arts and science in a way that would maximize my enjoyment while giving my patients wonderful results. I decided to pursue business ventures where I could apply my continual learnings and experiences with meaning to help others and consider ways to incorporate my interests in video games (especially Japanese role-playing games), Japanese anime, and in playing the electric guitar.
No one else can live your life, and no one can live their life for someone else. If we do not search our souls and manifest our own meaning, it will only lead to a lack of wellness, wholeness, and fulfillment. So I challenge you to check whether you have deep, authentic meaning in what you are doing in life and how that connects with your wellness, wholeness, and fulfillment.
Francis Yoo is an integrative medicine physician and the author of Physician Freedom: Living Your Authentic Physician Life and COVID Contemplations for Self-Awareness and Personal Development. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Francis Yoo.
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