As a doctor, I was fortunate enough to learn from some incredible mentors.
These were the people who lived and breathed medicine – they knew exactly what they were on this planet to do. I looked up to them.
Maybe you’ve been around people like this. People who ooze positive energy and unshakeable optimism, inspiring those who they come into contact with. Let’s call this group the Angels.
Then there are people who suck energy out of the room. Their cynicism is palpable and they seek to negate rather than appreciate. When I’m on the same team as such people, work can be a grind. Let’s call this group the Vampires.
But there’s also a third group, and it makes up the overwhelming majority. One whose defining feature is indifference. Their indifference can fluctuate, bordering on total malaise at the low end and mild interest at the high end. However, they’re usually going through the motions without feeling much of anything. Let’s call this final group the Zombies.
Are you currently an Angel, a Vampire or a Zombie?
While I aspire to become an Angel, for most of my life so far I’ve been in Zombie mode.
I would head to work each morning with a sense of unease, working diligently while feeling almost numb. From the outside, I had a lot going for me. Not only was I in a position to help others, but I also had job security, reasonable pay, and the respect factor of being a doctor.
But on the inside, I was slowly dying.
My solution at the time was to go hunting. I looked for something outside myself to spark joy about being a doctor. This strategy had me flitting from one hospital to the next in search of passion. And when I came across Angels, I wished I could somehow absorb their passion.
But I was chasing a mirage. I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t enjoy the core essence of what it means to be a doctor. I realised that sticking around in medicine – whether for 3 more years or 30 – would turn me into a Vampire.
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Plotting my trajectory
The above realisation came from going back in time and plotting my trajectory.
I reflected on who I was at the beginning of my studies. Had I started out as a passionate Angel and lost touch with myself? Or had I been a Zombie all along? After turning this question over, I realised the latter was true.
How could that be possible? How could I have gotten this far without passion? It was painful to realise, but I had chosen medicine thinking it would transform me into an Angel. Yet I didn’t truly possess that inner spark of enthusiasm for it.
I was a Zombie then, and I was a Zombie now.
This brought my past behaviours into sharp focus. For instance, it explained why I was never quite able to bond with my peers over medicine. Instead, I found myself connecting with people who were cultivating a fun life outside medicine. I was also interested in counselling – I loved to help people, but not using the tools/relational framework of a doctor.
At the time, however, I didn’t have a clue I was in Zombie mode. Maybe that’s because of how common it is (there’s a great book on this called Zombies in Western culture).
I think most of us fake being an Angel. But underneath our forced smiles we’re disengaged, disembodied, and on autopilot. Being someone who longs for fulfilment and alignment with my core values, this was an agonising place to be.
What was I supposed to do?
Should I maintain course and double down on my search for the path to Angel status? Perhaps, for example, I just needed to become more accomplished? Would that lift me out of Zombie zone? This played into my assumptions about fulfilment at the time – chief among them, that grinding one’s way to mastery is a precursor for passion.
But my inner skeptic didn’t like this: hadn’t I been doing this all along? Sure I could up the ante, but wouldn’t I be throwing good money after bad?
What’s more, I would I have to accept the risk of remaining a Zombie (or worse, deteriorating into a cynical, worn-down Vampire later down the line).
Mirrors and crystal balls
Human beings don’t develop and grow as isolated units. We are porous. We grow in unison with the people we spend time with, people who shape our futures.
Given this, I’ve found it useful to reflect on those people. We can look at someone as a mirror, and ask: What about myself do I recognise in them?
Mirrors may reveal something exciting and encouraging. Or they can show me something I’d rather not see.
As a case in point, I found it very painful to recognise that I lacked enthusiasm for medicine compared to some of my colleagues. I saw in them the spark of an Angel, which acted as a mirror for the absence of that very same spark.
It was tempting to let jealousy and resentment take over, if not for the realisation that such people are a gift. Mirrors show us who we’re being, what we value in life, and much more.
Then there are people in later stages of life than us. Taking them as a prophetic crystal ball, we can ask: What is this person telling me about my future?
In a flash of insight, we see who we could become.
Expectation creates reality – if we recognise ourselves in the worn-down, jaded manager, then that’s probably because we’ve found a match for our current trajectory.
This was the case for me. Looking to some of the more senior Zombies (and Vampires) around me, I felt an uncomfortable twinge of familiarity. It was all too easy to relate. Did I want my future to become as dysfunctional as their present?
Yet when I looked to the accomplished Angels around me, and projected forward 10, 20, 30 years, I realised something: I simply didn’t want the version of success I saw in them.
They were brilliant, but I didn’t aspire to their mode of brilliance.
Without making a change, I sensed I would forever remain in the disconnected land of the Zombie. Neither personal growth nor changing my circumstances was going to improve the situation. So I decided to step away.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Who will I become?
Through this insight, I came to understand that no amount of achievement was going to make me a happy doctor. Because life isn’t about what I accomplish, how many qualifications I obtain or how competent I become. It’s about who I become as a person along the way.
For each decision, I now consider who I might become through it. Does it align with my vision? In fact, does it align with who I already am today?
Maybe one day, through living these questions enough times, I’ll notice that I am no longer in Zombie zone. And maybe, in my corner of the world, I’ll even learn what it means to become an Angel.