I often receive messages from people who are discouraged by not being where they want to be on this medical training journey. I like to tell them a story. I am writing this post so that I can point people in this direction when they are needing someone to tell them everything will work out just fine.
The story is about my parents. They are both college drop-outs. And now, they are both physicians.
First, my mom. She is an artistic, creative mind who grew up in North Dakota. She started college but hated it, so she packed up her car and began driving south on a mission to “find herself.” She thought her final destination would be Santa Fe—somewhere warm, artistic, and in general different from what she had known. Along the route she got stopped in Colorado and needed to find work so she took a job as a truck stop waitress. When she heard the truckers and men who worked on the oil rig talk about how much money they were making, however, she traded her apron for some overalls and took a job on the oil rig. She was the only woman.
So there she was: working manual labor on an oil rig in Colorado after dropping out of college. You wouldn’t think this trajectory would lead to becoming what she is now: A physician and executive leadership consultant for hospital systems around the world. But what’s cool about life is that it can always change.
Next up, my dad. Again, he started college and hated it. He was initially pre-med, but couldn’t get through organic chemistry so he switched his major to business. That wasn’t fun for him either. He dropped out, and with his skills at juggling and his general athleticism—he joined the circus. He traveled and juggled, performed opening acts for bigger shows, and lived the life of an entertainer. He was eventually convinced to go back to school and get his business degree. When he graduated, he had no idea what to do so he moved back in with his parents and took a job at a box factory. Assembly-line work. Folding boxes as they came down the conveyor belt. The monotony of that job inspired him to finally pursue medicine, so he spent a few years taking the required classes (while living at his parents’) then began applying for school.
It’s hard to imagine his trajectory would lead him to become a physician and business owner in a neurological subspecialty, but again, what’s cool about life is that it can always change.
Of course, I want to be wary of survivorship bias, i.e., “I made it so other people can too.” But it is easy to get caught up in the archetypal stories of success in medicine to the point where we begin to doubt ourselves if we do not fit that particular storyline. It can be reaffirming to hear narratives of irregularity and uncertainty that still end successfully.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that success is a jungle gym, not a ladder. There is this “upward” mobility fallacy that we fall into, thinking each move we make must be a step “UP” from the last, and if it is not, then we feel discouraged. We think our life isn’t working out how it should be. But that entire concept is self-made. Instead, think of your journey as a jungle gym. You’ll go sideways, you’ll go down, you’ll get lost, and there is no inherent “end.” You just have fun on it, as long as you keep moving.