Oliver Page

On deciding to step away from medicine

6 December, 2021
Why I decided to leave medicine featured image

As with any break-up, we grow from processing how and why the relationship came to a close. Fleshing out narratives can help a great deal when turning over a new leaf and creating the future from a truly blank slate.

This article summarises my own understanding of why I decided to leave medicine.

I see this as a ‘Living Document’ because it seems to keep evolving. As I keep learning about myself and expanding into who I truly am, my decisions make more sense. Insights come to fruition, having been buried for a number of years.

As far as possible, I’ve tried to describe the decision based on my internal landscape, instead of blaming external circumstances. I hope anyone who resonates with my story will benefit from reading it as much as I have from writing it 🙂

What’s on this page

Playing the Intellectual Olympics

I’ve always been described as ‘quiet’ and ‘reserved’. As a teenager, I often felt like the odd one out, leading me to explore my inner world and develop a love of learning.

I became studious, happily devouring the constant variety of subjects at school. I’m also a person who thrives when there are clear goals and targets, which helped me to perform well academically.

On some level, however, deep-seated feelings of intellectual insecurity were also driving my achievements. When leaving primary school, I’d been turned away by many of the secondary schools to which I’d applied, while most of my friends fared better. I remember being in tears one night, feeling worthless, and wondering why I wasn’t good enough.

This created within me a powerful hunger to prove myself. Not only to show people I was ‘somebody’, but also to show my parents I was worth the financial sacrifice of the private school they strained to put me through (for the record, they didn’t once guilt-trip me over this; for whatever reason, it was a burden I chose to carry).

To my insecure mind, medical school was a way to take this game onto an even bigger stage.

I remember thinking of medicine as the ultimate challenge to take on – it was the intellectual Olympics, and I was determined to play. It felt as if the choice alone made me worth something.

Stuck in the land of ‘should’

Understandably, my choice was only validated and reinforced by those around me. There were voices in school, clamouring to boost their academic reputation. There were voices at home, enthused by the prospect of a doctor in the family. But I was also tuned into our cultural romanticisation of the doctor as an upstanding, heroic (even god-like) figure.

The elitist in me put medicine on a pedestal. I didn’t want a morally dubious career. Many people are aware that if their job were to disappear, the world wouldn’t change much. This isn’t true of medicine. It’s a profession which tangibly improves people’s lives (not always, but certainly most of the time). I saw it as the epitome of a noble, morally unambiguous, utilitarian path.

For that reason, I expected medicine to provide me with a built-in sense of ‘calling’ – ready to go, straight out of the box. I’ve since learned that things don’t work that way. When it comes to work, the feeling of being engaged in something ‘meaningful’ or ‘purposeful’ is entirely personal, and it stems partly from motivation.

In the book Supercoach, Michael Neill lays out the only three motivations for anything and everything we do:

  • “I have to” – in other words, desperation
  • “I should” – in other words, rationalisation
  • “I want to” – in other words, inspiration

If desperation means resorting to ‘fear’ for the sake of self-motivation, then rationalisation means generating a sense of duty, obligation or even guilt in order to get something done (neither are sustainable states from which to create our future).

Applying to medical school came primarily from that latter place of cold, logical rationalisation within me. Not being well-acquainted with my heart at the time, I was more fixated on pragmatism, external achievement, and doing the ‘right’ thing.

This manifested in how I went about the application process. ‘Getting in’ became a brain teaser; a code to crack. Which A-levels will ‘look good’ on my application? What will interviewers want me to say? I also didn’t use work experience as the explorative, experimental exercise it could have been. It became a means to an end. I had stubbornly made up my mind long before setting foot in any hospital.

I had entered the land of “should” and got stuck there. Here was my thought process: I should go the most academically demanding path possible. I should do work that most people think is honourable. I should do something with a clear, stable job at the end.

Instead of checking in with “I want to” (inspiration), I chose “I should” and worked backwards from there. Whether or not I would enjoy the journey seemed secondary. While some degree of suffering is inevitable whichever way we go, when I said “no” to medicine many years later I did so knowing it had never truly been something I had wanted to struggle for. Rather, it had been something I thought I was ‘supposed’ to do.

Inside the mind of a ‘Scanner’

Nevertheless, to avoid being black-or-white about it, I did experience sparks of inspiration in medical school. Being someone who loves learning for its own reward, it felt like a giant playground. With the sheer volume and diversity of lectures, I loved the feeling of ferreting around for that next nugget of fascinating information.

Back then, however, I also saw learning which doesn’t always serve an obvious practical purpose as being basically a waste of time (I would later appreciate the enormous inner conflict this created).

As graduation drew nearer, and the course became more hands-on, something dawned on me: I was bored. But I was also ashamed of feeling that way, and wondered what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I keep my eyes on the road ahead? I take pride in my conscientious work ethic, yet the prospect of qualifying as a doctor seemed to suck all the energy out of me.

I started reading all kinds of books to quench my hunger for learning. One week it was index fund investing, the next it was existential philosophy. At the same time, powerful creative urges were trying to escape from within. This carried me onto weird and wonderful tangents. At one point I became obsessed with building a YouTube film review channel, the next I was destined to be a photorealistic pencil artist, and the next I was planning to launch a home food business selling vegan deli meats.

I remember lying in bed one sleepless night, fantasising about penning my first novel. With my final exams not far off, I found it odd that my mind was instead swirling with complex world-building exercises and character development arcs!

I look back on that confusion with a knowing smile. Some people, often called ‘Scanners’, are driven to keep exploring many possibilities rather than sticking to one professional identity their entire lives. This rings true for me. At a certain point in any endeavour, I feel ‘fed, and carrying on after the fact leads me to feel overstuffed and eventually, ‘fed up’.

I now see that I’m wired to keep moving, keep learning, and keep creating things that align with my heart (you’re reading one of the fruits of those labours). And as stimulating as it was to learn about medicine, I realised that unfortunately, I never had much interest in practicing it.

The strength of sensitivity

I’m also wired to be highly sensitive. Always the calm, placid and observant one, you’ll usually find me wearily avoiding the centre of attention. And as much as I love adrenaline-fueled, dopamine-spiking activities, my sensitive nervous system gets overloaded very easily.

For the longest time, I saw this as a critical weakness. I hated how much loud noises could drain my energy, and that I needed so much downtime after social occasions in order to avoid feeling frazzled (this is largely because I process emotions at a deep level, without consciously choosing to do so).

As you might imagine, my first years as a junior doctor were stimulating. I found myself in an unpredictable, chaotic world. One which could be slow and lethargic one moment, then tumultuous the next. The constant task-switching and interruption made it almost impossible to drop into a flow state for very long. And on some days, I’d have to work at breakneck speed for 12 hours non-stop, then somehow try to switch off and get some sleep at night (I would lie in bed for hours, re-experiencing events of the day).

In short, I felt like a fish out of water.

My nature as a quietly reflective person – one who longs for deep, intimate connection – often felt like an obstacle to efficiency on the job. Especially in faster-paced environments like the emergency department.

My sensitive nature is also lit up by thinking deeply about the more nuanced, abstract realms of the psychological, the philosophical and increasingly the spiritual. This just felt like another set of brakes in this highly concrete, objective world of pharmacology, physiology and medicine.

Then again, I’ve recently realised something: ‘weaknesses’ and ‘strengths’ are two sides of the same coin. It’s all perception. Weaknesses in one environment are gifts in another.

“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

~ Albert Einstein

Unable to bring my whole self to work, I started to feel stifled and confused. I wanted to thrive in work, which I realised would mean finding somewhere my unique blend of strengths could be leveraged, rather than swept under the rug (research shows that doing so can cultivate the subjective sense of ‘meaning’ and ‘calling’ I mentioned earlier).

I wanted to find somewhere my authentic nature would become the strength I knew it to be. I wanted to expand into my purpose and grow exponentially. I wanted to come alive.

Deciding to come alive

I had experienced this ‘coming alive’ a few times before: in Design Technology classes at school, during a postgraduate philosophy module, and over the course of an intercalated psychology degree. The latter was one of my best and most successful years; I found myself reading way beyond the curriculum and proactively branching out to researchers – my enthusiasm for life was ignited, and it’s no coincidence I met my amazing wife in that year.

As a doctor, on the other hand, I wasn’t that same person. I started flocking between various psychiatry placements, trying to kindle more joy. But I was chasing a mirage.

With my interests outside medicine growing even faster, I resented myself for feeling like one person at work and another at home. An internal conflict was gnawing away at me, which manifested in a few different ways:

  • The work became twice as draining
  • I felt a growing sense of apathy
  • I become inexplicably grumpy and impatient at home (especially on the topic of my job)
  • I resorted to bad habits as an escape

This was a bit of a crossroads moment. Was I going to just ‘grin and bear it’, plowing ahead into an exhausting career not deeply aligned with who I was? Having to suppress my nature was already causing bitter feelings – how much worse would that get?

It came down to a burning question: who was I going to become?

I sensed that many more unhappy days lay ahead. I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t enjoy the core essence of what it means to be a doctor, and knew in my gut that by sticking around – whether for 3 more years or 30 – I wasn’t going to become someone I could be proud of. As much as my heart ached about that, it also felt liberated.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

~ Howard Thurman

How many years of unhappiness was I going to risk for the sake of future fulfilment that might never arrive?

I’ve heard it said that success built on unhappy action is like opening a birthday present, except there’s nothing left inside. The mind is a nifty thing. It can generate a million reasons for why you should stay on your current trajectory, even if that looks like more malaise, disappointment, and a life not fully lived.

Many voices in society also clamour for us to stay the course. Starting from a tender age, we’re indoctrinated to achieve today, and enjoy life later. Perhaps one day we’ll have more time, more money, or more freedom, and then life will be great, right?

Culturally, many of us are divided into two seemingly opposite camps:

  • The ‘master your craft’ camp: these people believe that passion emerges from years of toil, and the development of mastery. We hear that mastery “takes at least 10,000 hours”, which in turn breeds a sense of fulfilment. To these folk, not enjoying your career early on needn’t matter – happiness will come when you’re more accomplished.
  • The ‘follow your passion’ camp: at the other end of the spectrum, these people are die-hard enthusiasts for the idea of ‘doing what you love’ from the start. To them, passion is a prerequisite for mastery. Follow it, and you’ll feel compelled to perfect your craft and expand in competence.

Where do you fall on this spectrum? I’m somewhere in the middle. Although I value mastery and commitment to one’s craft, should I always persist just because I can? If I also value joy and fulfilment from the start, then the answer would seem to be no.

I’ve recently arrived at a compromise of sorts: my ideal scenario is one where mastery and passion grow organically from the seed of something deeper – owning my truth and living with purpose.

With this approach, going the extra mile to perfect my work becomes the fruit of heartful devotion, rather than stoic discipline alone. And while surface passion might ebb and flow, a deeper sense of meaning will be at work within me – my endeavours will feel worth it.

I was fortunate enough to have learned from some incredible mentors – people who lived and breathed medicine, and were willing to make personal sacrifices to go above and beyond. They knew exactly what they were here to do. We all know these people when we meet them – they ooze positive energy, navigating life with unshakeable optimism. It’s inspiring to watch them work, and learning from them is a joy.

Amazing and transfixing as those people were, I didn’t really aspire to become like any of them. I feel guilty even saying that. They were brilliant, but I didn’t aspire to their type of brilliance. But they did inspire me in many other ways. They inspired me to find my own avenue for helping people, perhaps not using the tools of ‘doctor’, but using different tools – including my interests, core values and strengths, along with skills and knowledge yet to be learned. When we live this way, who can predict the positive ripple effects?

As a doctor, I saw people getting struck down by illness in the prime of life and dying before their time. I felt deeply affected by that. We all know how precious life is, but I really started to feel it in my bones. I realised there simply isn’t time to waste doing something I’m not truly and deeply inspired by, contributing in a way that doesn’t light my spirit on fire and make me come alive.

Final Words

That about concludes the story of why I left medicine. I could keep going, describing how chronic understaffing, organisational inefficiencies and poor work-life balance took their toll. I also harbour frustrations about the reactive nature of modern medicine. But I won’t indulge on these topics here, because they’re ultimately secondary. I think when you’re passionate, inspired and aligned to begin with, these kinds of factors can be transcended.

Going your own way isn’t supposed to feel easy or ‘sensible’. Deciding to live a fulfilling life from today is sometimes a radical act. The more I walk to the beat of my own drum, the more resistance I feel (both on the inside and the outside).

“When the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” 

~ Joseph Campbell

I do miss many aspects of being a doctor. The team camaraderie, the patients, and the privilege of bearing witness to a wide spectrum of the human experience. I regularly catch myself wondering if I’m absolutely bonkers to leave it all behind.

But as a sensitive soul, my tender heart is still processing all the impactful experiences I’ve had. It’s time to take them forward and carve out some meaningful next steps.