This year marks the tenth anniversary of my first sabbatical from clinical medicine. Most people know I left clinical medicine for good in 2010. Many aren’t aware that a previous bout of burnout led me to step away for 100 days just three and a half years out of residency training.
After spending my entire life in school and training, I had to admit I didn’t feel like the payoff was worth it when I finally got my first real job at age 29. It was embarrassing and somewhat disheartening to realize I had sacrificed freedom in my twenties for this.
I had physician friends who legitimately loved (and still love) their lives as clinicians. They totally didn’t get my deal. Somehow, we’d followed the same guidebook to vastly different places. They’d achieved the experience I’d expected.
I also had veteran physician colleagues who seemed bitter. It was as though they hadn’t properly dealt with their disillusionment earlier in their clinical lives. Now they appeared to be biding time until they could pay off their own school loans and get their kids through private school. They were not desirable role models for me on my search for fulfillment inside and outside of work.
Observing folks at both ends of the satisfaction spectrum left me feeling like there wasn’t a place for me to be honest about my concerns about how my life was turning out. I wanted a sounding board who could commiserate constructively without co-hosting a pity party. Absent that, the best solution I found was to regroup and reset independently.
Unfortunately, even with the sabbatical, it took me another five years to find the proper path toward satisfaction in my life full of apparent achievement. Here are some insights that would have helped me back then and may help others currently seeking the same thing.
It’s OK to question. When you aren’t sure YOUR life is THE life you want, it makes sense to question it. Questioning is not rejecting!
Sadly, many young disillusioned doctors have lots of anxiety about not being ecstatic. It leaves us with little energy to figure out how to remedy the situation. We either don’t ask questions or don’t ask the appropriate ones. This leads to one of two things:
1) We burn out over time as we try to convince ourselves and others we love our work as much as we think we are supposed to love it.
2) We begin a pattern of jumping ship to another situation that is different and not necessarily better.
No matter how altruistic our jobs, we need other ways to nourish our spirits. Those of us in jobs that serve the needs of others often think the work is all we need to feed our spirits. That isn’t quite true.
Just like the body, the spirit needs variety to remain properly nourished. When our jobs take so much time and energy they preclude getting that essential variety, it may be time to reconsider our approach to work.
We make the best decisions for our sustained success from a place of peace. Before I started my sabbatical in 2008, I had already plotted the itinerary for my break and the changes to implement on my return. Unfortunately, I was still fully burnt out when I concocted this comprehensive plan. In retrospect, taking the break was the only thing I was in the proper headspace to decide.
It didn’t occur to me to reassess my strategies once I had decompressed. Rigidly adhering to a plan that was developed in distress didn’t serve me in the long run. I needed to be open to adjusting it once I was functioning in peace.
My mission these days is to help other disillusioned docs feel more confident seeking satisfaction within their success. Specifically, I encourage early recognition of and intervention on dissatisfaction. This allows for the least drastic options before burnout hits.
The path from disillusionment to satisfaction varies by person. Of the numerous strategies I’ve implemented in the past decade, I’ve seen the best results when focusing on the well-being of the driver rather than the outcome. That is the mindset that brings success and satisfaction together.
Dr. Jattu Senesie is a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist turned physician satisfaction specialist and coach at Essence of Strength. There she helps early career physicians identify, implement and maintain the habits that promote personal and professional success with satisfaction.