"Do not let the mind be dragged along by the body, nor the body be dragged along by the mind." — Miyamoto Musashi, 17th-century samurai
Congratulations! You’ve just been accepted to medical school and are about to begin the most exciting time of your life. The long hours spent studying for the MCAT, acing college courses, and sexing fruit flies alone in the genetics lab on weekends was all worth it. Now, you’re going to take the first step toward becoming a physician.
Medical school is quite different from the undergraduate experience — a well-known fact to most. We have conquered our primary and secondary education as the biggest fish in the smallest ponds. We attended the best universities, where we survived and excelled in a grueling premedical curriculum.
But this time is different. All the biggest fish from the biggest oceans have now been distilled down to a single tiny swimming pool, where we, having trained for years in the dog-eat-dog world of premedical academia, all vie for dominance and recognition among 149 of our similarly high-achieving colleagues.
What was once a careful study of the structure and function of DNA over 10 to 12 weeks is now all that, along with innumerable genetic diseases, their pathophysiologies, and epidemiologies taught in the same amount of time or less. Grades alone won’t cut it anymore, and within months of beginning medical school, we frantically seek out supplemental research activities and other scholarly pursuits.
However, a key component of a medical student’s education and livelihood lies not in the classroom, but in learning (and sometimes re-learning) what ultimately brings our lives meaning.
I once mentored a student in the first few months of her dual-degree MD/MPH program who fit the description of a typical medical student: top 1 percent of her undergraduate class, prior leadership roles in various student organizations, and an excellent MCAT score. She came to me for help with finding a research project, which seemed to her that everyone else had already procured.
After we chatted about potential topics of interests and faculty contacts, she sheepishly admitted that she had been wrestling with another difficulty: figuring out what to do in her spare time. Oftentimes, she resorted to couch-surfing and binge-watching Netflix, but seeing her peers immersing themselves in extracurriculars and student organizations, and, more notably, enjoying themselves made her acutely aware of a rather large void in her work-life balance.
She racked her brain over what sorts of things she could do for pleasure and enjoyment, and came up with nothing.
I came to observe that this is not an uncommon trait among medical students, many of whom have spent the last several years doing little other than focusing all of their energies toward achieving a single goal. In the meantime, their ability to find a reliable source of personal wellness either remains underdeveloped or completely unrecognized.
I find that advising deans and upperclassmen frequently emphasize the importance of extracurricular activities, suggesting that a not-insignificant portion of students have either lost these vital coping strategies or simply lacked them to begin with. Many students come into medical school with established methods of escape from their daily stressors, and schools often further encourage student health with various wellness programs. However, others may take the aforementioned advice to mean that they should pursue these extracurricular interests to appeal to residency programs, so as to portray themselves as well-rounded human beings with normal lives outside of medicine.
While this tactic may help superficially connect with supervising attendings and residents, it is likely unsustainable and does not hold up well to extended conversation. I once knew a classmate who became SCUBA-certified when he heard that the Orthopedic Surgery residency program director was an avid diver, so that he would have some conversation fodder.
Others have gone so far as to flat-out lie on their ERAS applications. My mentor often recounts an Orthopedic Surgery applicant who was asked to demonstrate his guitar skills during an interview while not actually possessing any at all. Losing this gamble is a guaranteed rejection, and given the small size of some specialty fields, news of these fabrications can spread quickly. I have been practicing martial arts for the past 20 years, and I was asked about my practice at every one of my residency interviews.
Considering the vast amount of time and effort demanded from medical students, it is easy to lose track of activities that once brought comfort, an outlet for frustration, or a change of pace. With so much at stake, it is tempting to immerse ourselves in the books and tell ourselves that studying is the priority and that the afternoon yoga class can wait until tomorrow. Before long, several tomorrows have passed and the only new thing in our brains aside from a rudimentary understanding of antimicrobial pharmacology is a different level of mental exhaustion and a profound affinity for junk food. Without discipline in both academic and personal lives, our work-life balance is thrown off and each end suffers at the cost of the other.
It is vitally important to have a genuine interest in whatever activity one chooses, otherwise it is little more than a chore; a means to an end. Martial arts is an exercise in physical and mental discipline as well as an outlet to relax and vent my frustrations from my day; discussing it with others brings me joy and new ways of visualizing and adjusting my practice to fit my lifestyle. Hobbies should not be used for secondary gain — they are meant to keep us grounded and bring us back to our baseline human selves. Throughout our grueling professional lives, we must strive to recognize that we are people who happen to also be doctors, not doctors who happen to also be people. Take your hobbies at face value and enjoy them as such. Above all else, they should bring your lives meaning.
Jonathan Sheu is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Miami School of Medicine, originally from San Francisco, California. He continues to practice martial arts to this day and will take his skills to the University of Hawaii in June as a General Surgery intern. He has no conflicts of interest to disclose.