All boxes ticked. In search of a meaningful life (part 2 of 3)

All boxes ticked

(This is the second part of a 3-part story. Catch up with what happened first.)

So there I am looking through the glass of the door to the Registrar’s Room. I am about to enter to collect my bag before going home.  I hesitate. I stop. I observe curiously. It is eight o’clock on a Friday evening. Behind that door is my senior colleague, still in her theatre scrubs, sitting crossed-legged on the chair facing away from the door and staring at the computer screen. She is surrounded by multiple patients’ notes and numerous papers. She is doing an audit. Her phone rings. The thin glass of the door that separates me from her allows me to overhear the apologetic tone of voice, as she explains to her partner that she needs to continue with the audit. I can guess from their conversation that he really misses her.  It is eight o’clock on a Friday evening.  She says she is going to try to come back home soon…

In that moment, time stopped. A string of flush backs brought up in front of my eyes all the relationships that had been fractured by my frantic career pursuit.  After many months of soul-searching, I finally had my epiphany moment.  Eight o’clock on a Friday evening. Just an evening like any other for a high-flying Registrar that I am. In my bag is my fantastic CV with all the achievements that got me the dream job. In my empty flat there is no one waiting to hug my empty soul on a Friday evening.  Another week.  Another month.  Another year.  Soon enough will come the time for another audit. The all-star doctor gets no stars for the audit of her own life’s meaning, balance or purpose. The story I heard a few years previously about a senior registrar who left Medicine somehow no longer felt all that outrageous.  Thousands of people probably would kill for my job yet I didn’t want to die over it.

It was time to stop ticking boxes. It was time to break free. It was time to find something that would nurture the soul and inspire the heart, something to rekindle the long-lost creativity, enthusiasm and passion. I thought to myself “If not now, when else?”

But what was there to do for someone with eleven years of medical training and experience? Surely few eyebrows would be raised if I had to explain my career move during the job interviews. I did not for a minute believe that the “fluffy” self-reflections about finding a meaning and balance in life would suffice. Equally, I did not know what would.   Google searches for “alternative careers for doctors” were pretty unyielding. The general advice was “to think twice and more before contemplating a career move”. Amongst the possibilities for doctors were the Pharmaceutical industry, Management Consultancy, Medical Law, Academic research, Teaching, The Army and The Navy and getting involved in the humanitarian aid projects. Somehow none of that resonated with me. I struggled to define what a perfect job would look like yet there was that firm inner belief that “I will just know”.

Steve Jobs’ words were the light when I needed it the most: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”.

I started going to personal and professional development workshops, conferences and networking events. I bought the recommended books to prepare for the interviews at the Management Consultancy companies. I downloaded the apps to practice the skills of quick arithmetic and religiously trained my brain whenever I had a spare minute. I had been to the recruitment events of the big brands in Management Consulting. In my mind, there couldn’t be a better way out of Medicine: a well-paid job, a fantastic variety of business clients, responsibility early on in the projects, opportunities for travel, professional status. Somehow my heart was not in it. In my preparation for the Management Consultancy role, I did not feel excitement or inspiration. Hard work, mechanical, boring… I had never been work shy, yet what I was doing in the evenings and on weekends felt like swimming upstream. Few weeks remained until the job interview at the top Management Consultancy firm.

One evening I found myself sitting next to a lawyer in her thirties at one of the networking events. She told me her story of pursuing a career in Law for the reasons that felt right at the time. She was becoming increasingly disillusioned, unfulfilled and burnt-out physically and emotionally. She was looking for a way to step outside her box. I told her about the freak car accident I had two years previously when a deer threw itself at my car as I was driving along the motorway for a night shift in A&E. I was still too embarrassed to say that back then I had actually wanted something to happen to me so that I would not have to go to the place where I felt miserable. The lawyer shared her struggle with health and how work brought her right down to the ground. It was strange to finally be able to share my fears, my doubts, my hopes, my dreams with someone who had lived through a similar soul-searching experience. There we were the two young professionals who had their “dream jobs”. The same two people were also longing to move on and create a meaningful life.

During that same event, we were given an exercise that allowed us to explore our core values in life. I experienced my second epiphany moment when the exercise revealed what “helping others” really meant to me. I realised that guiding colleagues and friends through personal and professional development gave me the greatest fulfilment over the years. Even more than the “doctor” label I was proud to be the “go-to” person whenever someone needed help with preparation for interviews, exams, public speaking or career management.  My heart smiled every time I consulted someone about their job application or gave them feedback about their research article or a CV. My soul sang when a school student I mentored through the Social Mobility Foundation secured a place to read Medicine at Cambridge University.

I spent years beating myself up about feeling more emotionally connected to personal development and psychology than I was to reading the BMJ publications, performing surgery or doing clinics and ward rounds.  I know now that it was neither good, nor bad that prescribing essential medication or administering CPR did not give me as much personal and emotional gratification as did attending personal development seminars and reading books on psychology. I finally had an idea of how I can start creating the life of meaning and purpose, rather than doing something well but just making a living…

(This was part 2 of 3 of my story of transition. Continue reading what happened next.)

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