Graduated from residency of desired specialty? Check. Bought the house? Check. Married? Check. (Or single and loving it? Check.)
The 30s are typically a time that the checklist of a doctor’s life actually starts getting accomplished. Some things, such as professional goals, can be concretely achieved in a certain timeframe. Other things, like meeting the love of your life and/or having children, depend on many favorable factors and maybe some good fortune. But the question is, if all is going well and you are on track … what are you going to do next?
Imagine you’re an attending, working your full-time gig. Maybe you are also doing research or teaching. Maybe you are single or married, with or without children. Maybe you’re making headway on (or have paid off!) your loans. Maybe you attend your religious services weekly. Maybe you volunteer and donate to your favorite charities. Perhaps you’re working on burning off those “dirty 30” pounds you’ve accumulated. Possibly, you’re a bit emotionally or mentally burnt out. But if all in all, you’re professionally, financially, socially, emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually doing okay: what’s next? Will you continue down this current path and see where life takes you — or do you have a plan? Not just for the next year, but for the next five years, 10 years, and beyond?
As I very happily turn 35, I’ve started thinking: where am I going? I know what I’d like to do in the next one to five years, but medicine is changing and I’ve got to keep up. These days, doctors don’t stay with the same companies or practices their whole lives like they used to. Telemedicine, robots, artificial intelligence, and new providers are changing the future of medicine as well. Already, we are seeing a great number of advanced care providers take on roles doctors used to fill. Lastly, we are notoriously a generation that seeks happiness and fulfillment in what we do. But does that entail doing the same thing for the next 30 years? Here are some things to consider:
- If things are going well as they are, will this still be what I want decades from now? Or is there something else in store for me? What is that? How do I get there?
In order to tackle these questions, it is helpful to write out your goals for the next year, five years, and 10 years in the categories previously mentioned: professional/career, financial, social, emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual. Some of your goals may not entail actual “goals” per se, but think of them more like mission statements. For example, a goal of being 130 pounds in the next year would be a goal in the physical category, and “love thy neighbor” would be a mission statement in the spiritual category. Further elaboration of the goal or mission statement would entail the “how.” People get frustrated with making life goals because they don’t have a plan for how to achieve them. So, for example, under the weight goal for the next year, you might make a detailed schedule for intermittent fasting on a weekly basis, and for your spiritual mission statement, you might sign up to volunteer at a free clinic once a month. This way the goal or mission is not ambiguous; you actually have a plan of attack. It is also crucial to review these goals weekly, monthly, and yearly so you know that you are driving toward what you want.
Another way to motivate yourself relative to your future is to draw out your vision of your life. It is helpful to draw it out on a poster board or other medium. Want to have two kids by 45? Draw yourself and your significant other holding hands with two little children. Want to travel to Europe? Draw in a passport with stamps or the Eiffel Tower. Make it fun! Add in foods you’d like to eat, the house you’ll buy, or whatever strikes your fancy. When your artistic masterpiece is done, put it up somewhere that you can see daily so you remember that every day is a step toward the life of your dreams.
- Next, consider: Am I fulfilled by what I am doing every day or am I tiring of this and want out? How do I change my life if the latter is the case? I’ve got bills to pay!
If you are happy with what you are doing and will continue for the next few decades, awesome. Keep doing what you do! But if you are not content with your current life’s work, then it is time to review your options. Of course, not everyone can get up and quit. Student loans may be looming, or you may have other financial commitments. However, if you want to make a career change, then figure out how to be financially stable in order to take the risk. Start saving up to cover several months of cost-of-living expenses for when you do decide to leave. Figure out what your true calling is and what makes you want to wake up every morning with passion. Is it working a 9-to-5 in an outpatient clinic, or is it being a nocturnist? Or is it something totally different like being a wedding photographer? If you want to leave medicine, then learn skills in your time off to make that happen. Life is too short for “what ifs” and living without fulfillment in your work. No one is forcing us to be only doctors. If that means quitting or working part-time instead, then go for it. Doing so will benefit you and others around you — and you’ll never know the outcome until you have to courage to take a chance.
- Now, consider: Am I balancing the important roles I play in my life as I’d want, or will I look back and regret that I didn’t spend more time in a given area? For example, I am a mother/father and work a ton of hours, but will the work, pay, and dedication to patients outweigh the need to be there more for my family?
Don’t use being busy in medicine as an excuse to be away from the other things you are meant to be doing. We are many things to many people — doctors, but also: parents, daughters, sons, and friends. Those roles are also important, so make time to wear all of your hats. Life can pass quickly and you’ll wonder, why didn’t I make the time for that? Figure out what means the most to you outside of work, make an ordered list of those things, and schedule your agenda to prioritize what you treasure most. A soccer game on Saturday? Pen it in now so you don’t miss it when your little boy scores that goal!
We will always be doctors, whether we are practicing or not. But sometimes we need to step back and look at the bigger picture of our life to make sure we have a vision for where all this is going. When will you ever get to do Doctors Without Borders? Or will you ever write that book and attempt to be the next Michael Crichton? There is so much to do and sometimes so little time. It can be done but there has to be some organization, discipline, and motivation to make it happen. Be careful the years don’t just fly by without getting what you want out of life. Visualize where you’re going next, after taking the time to ask and answer your own questions. Write down or even draw out your vision for your life, and use it as your guide and motivation for finding what is next. You can plan your life! It may not turn out exactly the way you want — but it’s much more likely that it will if there you have created a roadmap that you can hold yourself to. Here’s to the next 30! God bless!
Nicola Sarohia is a board-certified Family Medicine physician and mother who has worked in both urgent care and family practice. She enjoys reading, writing, and the arts in her free time.