Since I was a child, I have been a part of an educational system that rewards being well-balanced and multi-talented. Through various stages of learning, my classmates and I have been encouraged to check off many boxes by participating in a wide range of activities such as playing sports and/or instruments, building leadership skills, participating in community service, and becoming worldly, all in addition to being terrific students.
This was all part of an effort to plan a roadmap to success. Doing the “right” activities and creating an impression of being “perfect” enabled us to build long, impressive resumes and attain opportunities to continue up the ladder – to universities, to grad schools. The more competitive the landscape, the greater the pressure we faced to do more and to be better.
It was not until I started medical school that I realized being a part of this culture had led me to lose sight of what I truly wanted and enjoyed. While it had led me to try many activities I would not have had exposure to otherwise, I had lost to ability to ignore what society would want from or expect of me with everything I considered doing, which obscured where my true passions lay.
For instance, when planning activities or hobbies, I found myself inevitably thinking about how they would be received by others instead of just following my inner compass. Would these choices ultimately be productive? Would they lead to accolades or disapproval? Did they have any potential to tie into my overall career aspirations?
The more hours I spent pondering these choices, the less authentic my choices were. Thinking more only led to more elaborate plans.
Ironically, it was not until starting residency that all of this began to change for the better. Of course, it certainly wasn’t the case that residency provided more time or headspace to learn more about myself. Rather, it would turn out to be that what I needed all along to discover my true interests was scarcity.
During my second year of residency, I was on a rotation for six months that consumed nearly all of my time and energy. I came home each evening and barely had enough time to eat and take care of basic chores before falling asleep.
I no longer had the luxury of time to come up with elaborate plans or to participate in many activities.
Instead, what I had was a few hours on Sunday mornings to catch up on what I had missed and to be who I wanted to be. I didn’t care for checking off the right boxes. I needed to be honest with myself about my passions because if I was not, I would risk losing them for the years to come.
Residency has been an arduous process thus far, and most days I wish I had more time and energy to do everything that I want to do and feel that I ought to do.
However, I am simultaneously grateful that being in this state of utter scarcity has taught me more about myself than any amount of contemplation could have. In moments of scarcity, there is no room for vanity, redundancy, or dishonesty.
To all aspiring medical professionals, listen to yourself in moments of scarcity. Find out what you crave doing during your one morning off per week. Whatever it may be, it is likely something that will replenish your body and mind throughout your entire busy careers.
Jason Han, MD is a thoracic surgeon and a 2018–2019 Doximity Author. He tweets at @JasonHanMD.