Dr Farhana Safa is a doctor turned designer, fusing a passion for cars and finesse for the arts with a solid foundation in science to innovate a future vision.
She shares her wisdom on life and careers in this very inspiring interview, which took place in May 2014.
Dr Safa’s website: http://farhanasafa.com/
I used to be an eye surgeon. I got to year five of ophthalmology training and was at the pinnacle of my career when I left to become a car designer. At the moment I’m doing a masters at the Royal College of Art in vehicle design.
It was actually very difficult to come to that decision, and it happened in two stages.
I started by taking some time out of medicine to reflect and to think about where I was in life. I knew I didn’t want to carry on doing what I was doing, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, or how I would go about it. I had mentoring through the London Deanery with a Consultant Anaesthetist who took all the boundaries off and asked: “What do you actually want out of life?” She made me write these things down and in the process of doing that she did tasks with me that I think are quite conventional with mentoring and coaching, which really helped me figure out what I wanted out of life. That was the first place where it was OK for me to say what I felt, without that fear of judgement.
I had a lot of trouble in admitting that I didn’t want to do medicine anymore, because I felt like that was an admission of failure. The first thing was really admitting to myself that I wasn’t happy and that I wanted to leave. I had a lot of guilt because the profession that we do is incredibly giving, and everything you do is about improving people’s lives.
It took me 10 months to find out what I wanted to do. What I didn’t want to do was leave one career and then instantly latch on to another career – it’s akin to having a rebound relationship. What you need is some time and space to think and reflect, and that’s what I gave myself.
I gave myself six months of focusing on doing what made my heart happy, such as different courses and artistic things. I was hoping that along that journey I would find something –anything – that I would be able to think: “Hang on, that’s good!” The more courses I did, the more it led me through lots of different paths, and that’s how I eventually came to automotive design. I felt it was the right fit because it was creative which is what I was looking for, but it was also complicated and interesting, and a sort of ever-changing specialty.
My strategy was to be very open minded at the beginning. When nothing came to me after six months
and the clock was ticking, I started panicking. I needed to have more of a focused strategy, so I did
mind-mapping and wrote down all the careers that might be interesting to me, their advantages and disadvantages, spoke to people that I knew were doing those careers to get a real-life view. I
think with medicine, I really wanted to do it, but I don’t think I really realized what the ins and outs of
the everyday job would be, which you don’t when you’re 15 or 16. I didn’t want to make the same
The careers I was interested in were all creative, but they weren’t challenging enough. They didn’t have a definite career progression, which we’re used to in medicine. I wanted to be in a career where I can work my way up the ladder, to know that I’m progressing in that field. I wanted to do something where the subject matter is something that naturally interests me, that I can talk about it for ages out of pure pleasure and passion. One thing I’ve always loved for a very long time, since I was a little girl was cars, so I thought if I could do something with cars that would be fantastic because I already have a natural affinity and interest. I won’t have to try or struggle or sit myself down and force myself to read about it or learn about it. So, that was one thing – finding something that naturally interested me and engaged me.
The second thing was finding something complex. Car design for me had that wonderful mix of
creativity and technicality. The other reason why perhaps I didn’t like medicine so much was that
although you can never learn everything, you become familiar with the conditions and it becomes a little
bit rote when you go in and see the same thing every day, you do the same operations every day. It was
really important to me to find a career that was constantly evolving and changing. In design and with
engineering technology moving forward so quickly, our cars are changing very quickly, so what
you’re doing now is definitely not what you’re going to be doing in twenty years’ time, and that really
I’ve been very lucky. On the whole, 90% of people in my life who I spoke to about this have been
supportive. My friends have been amazingly supportive when I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a lot more critics at work right at the start. They were telling me this was a really big mistake, that taking time off work would show that I’m weak and that I’m not committed to my career and that it was definitely the wrong thing to do. These were from people that I respected, so it was very difficult to hear that. My response was to say, “That may be the case for you, but it’s really important to me to follow my heart. This is what is right for me at this time, and if it makes me look weak, so be it because I need to find what’s right for me. I am an individual and I don’t want to be on this sort of ant trail like everybody else.”
Some people when I told them I wanted to do car design were quite patronizing saying, “You know, that’s really difficult. You won’t be able to that. There’s not many women in that.” I had a few haters, I suppose, but I realized that there’s no reason for anyone to be negative about what you’re doing, unless it’s a reflection of their own insecurities. I’ve found that people who are telling me those sorts of messages are people who themselves felt they were in the wrong place in life and didn’t have the courage, or the tenacity to do something about it, so I felt that they were pushing a reflection of themselves onto me. So, I just think that it’s important when you are going through something like this to surround yourself with your supporters, with people who are supporting you. If there are people who are negative, try not to spend time with them because it will only set you back.
I had quite a few, actually, and they were all people I met along my journey and this is where
networking came in to be something really important in what I was doing. In my job as a medic,
I’d never networked with anybody. There is no need for you to have the skills of putting yourself out
there, like you have to do in a lot of other careers. In my entire medical career, I think I’ve had two
interviews: one was for getting into medical school at 17, and one was getting my ophthalmology
training number, and that’s it.
I knew what I wanted to do and I had no contacts. It forced me to really go out and find people, whether it’s through the Internet, LinkedIn, Facebook, just stalking, finding out about people on the internet and trying to contact them.
One of the very first things I did was go to talks. I signed of up to all the museums because they often
have interesting talks about creative things and there was one about car design. I went along to it, and the keynote speaker was Ross Lovegrove, a very famous industrial designer. I got talking to
him in the break – he was so amazed by my plight and what I was doing that he took me under his wing,
introducing me to more people. The fact that somebody else from outside of your circle had appreciated what you were doing, supported and encouraged you was important.
I believe that what you put out is what you get back. If you’re putting out determination, drive, positivity, people pick up on that and they want to help you, even if it’s for no gain for themselves.
Pretty much everything. I think going from medicine to car design is the biggest leap you can imagine.
None of the skills that I needed for designing cars were the skills I knew in my previous career. I
needed to learn how to sketch, which I’d never done before. Picking up a pen and learning the drawing is very difficult. Apparently, it takes two and half years to learn how to sketch cars and I had to learn how to do it in 3 months, so that was a massive mountain to overcome, and I’m still
trying to overcome it now. Photoshop was the other thing. When we design cars, we render them on
Photoshop to create life-like images using computer software, which I’d never done. There’s also 3D
software that needs to be done for 3D modeling of cars. Again, never done any of that stuff before. The principles of design, I’d never learned or done before, but thankfully my critical thinking has really helped, as well as natural interest. On the whole, I’ve had to learn from scratch.
At the time when I took time off, I hadn’t had this big idea that I was going to change careers. If I had, I would have spent some time saving money. I did have savings, because I was saving for a house at the time, and I ended up falling back on that cushion. I was lucky to have the savings in the first place, but they did run out eventually, and I’m afraid I’ve had to enlist the help of the Bank of Mum and Dad, and they’ve been amazing in supporting me. I don’t have time for a job, because the amount of what I have to learn and do is 18 hours a day, so I am lucky to have that support.
I actually made a conscious decision to not do locum shifts. Doing those a couple of days a week would put me right back into the environment that I am trying to leave. I didn’t want that to be a barrier to stop me finding what it is I wanted to do. If I’m surrounded by my colleagues, self-doubt will start to creep in. The most important thing for me was to not let that happen, so I tried to find other ways of earning money, such as journalism.
I think doctors are far more resourceful and skilled than they think they are. We operate at a certain
level surrounded by people who are incredibly competent, smart, intelligent, capable, and we see that as
the norm. I don’t mean to say that not everybody else around you is, but that’s what we’re used to. I
think when it comes to changing career, you start to worry that you don’t have any skills, you start to
worry that “The only skills that I know are my job-I’m a G.P., I’m a dermatologist, I’m an
ophthalmologist-I don’t know anything else.” As doctors-have so many skills that we’re unaware of.
When you put yourself out into a different environment, you find that you are incredibly good, if you
put your mind to it, because you have all these skills that you won’t know you had: confidence, tenacity,
resourcefulness, a natural drive and determination. I think they come from years of studying and the
sort of patience that we have of committing oneself to a really long career. We’re not people who give
up very easily. If you’re going into a completely different career like I did, those skills help you
I’m a completely different person. I’ve gained new skills which I didn’t have before. The most important one for me is the ability to network – speaking to people, going out there, being resourceful. We were already resourceful before, but not in a wider context. What I’ve noticed happening is that other people have started contacting me, saying “I’m really inspired by what you’re doing”, so I find myself back in the position where I’m able to help people – just not in the same way as medicine.
I miss aspects of medicine. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Every time I walk into a hospital I really
feel it. When I hear people talking about things, or mentioning words that I used to use every day, I feel
a pang. It’s like a mourning feeling. It’s very strange, because medicine has a language all of its own that the general public don’t use, and most medics have lots of medic friends. We get together, I hear them talking about things and I feel a stab, but then I remember that I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t fulfilled.
The thing I miss the most is the actual surgery, because that’s one thing I loved doing – using my hands
and that buzz you get from somebody then being able to see. There is nothing that beats that. I miss people telling you how much you’ve helped them. That’s a very different feeling to get in any other profession. What I don’t miss is the politics.
Am I likely to go back? If I’m really honest, I have no intention to go back. People do say to me:
“Well, you’re really lucky that you came from medicine, because you’ve always got something to fall
back on.” I think I decided at the moment I left that I was never coming back. I haven’t made any
provisions to make sure that I can still come back, because I know deep down in my heart that I don’t
want to come back. So, if I’m always keeping that in the back of my mind as a Plan B, as a fall back, it
will stop me from pushing as hard as I can in my career. I’ve always said I’m not going to go back; I’m
only going to move forward. So, if I get to the end and this car design career isn’t what I thought it was
going to be, I’m just going to change direction but I will always keep moving forward.
I struggle with this question. A part of me wants to say I should have left earlier, because I’ve had the
feelings that this wasn’t right for me for a long time, but I just kept going. Then I think about it, “Well, actually, no – because by staying in medicine and by every day that I worked, I have
become who I am today.” I would not be as successful in trying to transition if I hadn’t stuck around so
long and learned the things that I’ve learned. I’m very spiritual and do believe that everything happens
for a reason. I’m not really someone who looks back and says, “Oh I should have done this, and I
should have done that.” I don’t have “what ifs”. That’s why it’s so important for me to make this
decision now and move forward, because I don’t want to look back and have regrets.
I‘ve had a few people saying to me that, “How’d you know that this is not going to be a mistake like you previous career?” This really upsets me, because I don’t consider my career to be a mistake; it’s made me everything that I am. I’m honored to be able to have served the public the way I have. Perhaps if I’d have known after medical school that I wanted to leave and left, I might just be the same as everybody else now, as a designer. But, hopefully now I bring something fresh and different. So, I would tell my twenty-year-old self to trust your instincts and go with your heart. Whenever something feels right, do it. That’s what I would say.
Yes, I think it makes my job a lot harder, because not only are doctors like that by nature, but surgeons
even more so, and eye surgeons even more so. You work by the micron, so there is no space for
mistakes. Ever. If you do, they have grave consequences, so you get used to being like that; you almost
don’t realize how risk adverse you are. Going into the creative profession, and even something like
business where you really have to weigh out risks and take them, I think it works against you. I’ve
found and had feedback from other people saying that I’m a little bit rigid in my work and need to loosen up a little. I need to experiment and make mistakes more, which I find to be hard. The thing I struggle the most with in my current profession is kicking and stamping out those perfectionist traits, because they do hold back the creative process. On the other hand, later on down the line, once you’ve figured out what you want to do, those kind of traits give you order and discipline which other people lack, so it actually gives you an advantage. So it’s an advantage and a disadvantage.
Yes, and it’s very difficult to unlearn something in your personality, because I’ve always said that
medicine is not a career; it’s who you are. It becomes who you are, so it’s not just a job. It becomes a
part of you and your character. You do have to unlearn some aspects, which is quite difficult.
Yes -I won’t lie. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. You get used to it. It is a status thing, and not from an arrogant point of view. It’s more that you are a pillar of the community. People respect you and look up to you. They tell you things that they would never tell anybody, because they trust you. It’s
hard losing that. Generally if you tell someone that you’re an eye surgeon, you always get a reaction from people and it’s always positive. So, there is a part of me that thought, “How am I going to handle what I say?” I won’t lie: when people ask me what I do right now, I always tell them what I used to do, because I’m proud of it and I’m proud of that achievement.
Money and status didn’t make me happy and I knew it. What was missing from my life was fulfillment. What keeps me motivated is chasing that fulfillment. A lot of people do say to me, “Well, what happens if you get to the end and it’s not what you thought it would be?”
I say that’s fine, the point is you need to be versatile enough to know that fulfilment is liquid; it’s not a definite thing. It’s not getting this job with this company and earning this much money. It’s about how you feel, and the way you feel can change. I’m going to keep going until I get to the point that I thought was going to fulfill me. If it fulfills me, brilliant. If it doesn’t, keep moving and find something within that field that does fulfill me.
I have just finished an internship at Jaguar Advanced Design, which is my first time in a working environment in a design studio, which was incredible.
The very first time I stepped into a hospital, the first time we started clinics in year three of medical school, I knew I didn’t like hospitals. I knew it, and I carried on, knowing I didn’t like it. Going to Jag and being on a project and doing my own proposal for one of the production costs, standing up and presenting it to everybody – this time it felt right. There’s that feeling, that sort of click. I got to see the good and the bad side, I got to see the long working hours, I got to see the difficulties and the struggles in the job, but they were all acceptable. I was happy that this is what I want to do.
I’ve just been chosen as a finalist for a car design competition for a car show called Salon Privé Syon, which is going to be judged in September 2014. That’s where I started last year, as a nobody – just wandering around the show and being inspired. It is very special to me to go back to the show a year later, having learned and taught myself all the skills and competing in a competition that I was watching in awe last year.
[Note from OOfD: Farhana won the first prize in the Salon Privé Concours D’ elegance car design competition on 4th September 2014]
I would say be true to yourself, be open-minded and take the time to explore what makes you tick. When people have professional success and they feel like something is missing in life, it’s because they’re not doing what makes them tick. They’re living someone else’s dream, and that’s how I felt. I advise my own friends who I know are on the same path as me: “Just take some time off and find what it is that makes you come alive. When you find that, harness it.” Trying and failing to me is better than not trying at all.
Thank you very much for your time Farhana!