Giving Up on Golden Rings

At a certain point, the idea that you do ambitious things so you can grab that next golden ring and make it into the next prestigious opportunity – that has to stop.

I was raised by pop culture.

Not because I had lousy parents or LA parents or was raised 1,000 miles away from proper civilization – it was just because I was in love with good stories.  I obsessed over good stories.

But I don’t mean “good stories” in a faux-embarrassing “haha, I was a bookworm, how nerdy!” way.  Sure, I read a lot of books – but I mean “good stories” in a truly-embarrassing “I watched every episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys at least three times” kind of way.

I liked watching Labyrinth and A League Of Their Own on repeat .  I liked dressing up like Alex Mack and religiously tape-recording every second of TGIF long after Boy Meets World and Sabrina The Teenage Witch were off the air.  I liked memorizing the entirety of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode and dramatically singing the lyrics in the shower.

And I guess I accidentally learned a lot.

At some point, you have to say, “This is the point I was trying to get to. Now I have options – so what do I want to do?” Because there’s always going to be another golden ring you could grab if you only wanted.

The weird thing about cultural expectations is they’re so deeply ingrained you don’t even notice.  There are countries where the notion of “Honor Your Elders Above Everything” or “Suffer Indignities Without Complaint”  is such a typical moral in their culture that the occupants never even question its virtue as a Clearly Correct Decision To Make.

In America, though, we’re not any different.  We can’t judge.  A story here is a little out of left field if it doesn’t honor the All-American ingrained morals of “Think Big”, “Take a Chance”, and “Go For That Dumb Dream, No Matter What”.

And I grew up in America, damnit.

So between my love of stories and America’s love of committing to truly insane ideas, I grew up believing 100% in “it doesn’t matter – if you want it, you’ve got to go for it” – and as a consequence, I suffered the unfortunate statistic reality of what that statement really meant.

In high school, I waited hours after school just to ask out a hot guy in a cringe-inducing, totally misguided way. I lost competitions, I lost races.  I lost all my worldy possessions in a foreign country. I bombed important auditions. I went to music festivals where I was sweaty and lonely and didn’t understand any of the lyrics and just wanted to go home where I could at least be tragically uncool in comfort.

But I also farmed goats in Ireland.  I chased errant llamas through a castle.  That hot guy from high school said “yes”.  I got some unexpectedly cool roles and started a tiny theater company.  I worked 70 hours a week of manual labor in a city under martial law, made friends with professional skateboarders, had boozy dinners in London with professional jugglers, and ended up at my dream medical school, with a dream scholarship.

So my total lack of understanding of reality has worked out surprisingly well, overall.

My crazy-hopeful side has always been on the same team as my crazy-ambitious side, working towards the same crazy goals.  I’ve had a lot of decisions to make, and I’ve made a lot of bad ones, but it’s always been about moving forward.  Onto something objectively and emotionally better.

There’s never been any question.

At some point, you have to be content and accept that not grabbing the next ring – whatever it is – doesn’t mean that you’ve “given up”.

But now I’m looking at pediatric residencies.  I need to do an away rotation, and I need to pick one very soon (long story for another post), so I’m trying to pick a goal residency.

And it seems pretty easy.

But for the first time in my life, my crazy-hopeful and crazy-ambitious sides really are on opposite sides.  And it’s giving me the weirdest, most unsettled feeling – like when you’re walking downstairs and you try to take one step too many.

I don’t want to be Dr. Action Potential: the fellow from Big City Program who sleeps in a tiny apartment because she’s interested in X and researching Y and gunning for her research money so she can end up being a world-class specialist in god knows what – all assuming the current world-class specialist dies in a timely matter.

And if I can’t be Dr. Action Potential, the world-class specialist – I definitely don’t want to be Dr. Action Potential, the just-plain city-class specialist who sees the same 5 diseases daily until retirement

Honestly?  I want to live in the middle of nowhere.  I love the middle of nowhere.

In my current fantasy, I just want to work at a small hospital, be the person who’s there for the deliveries, who explains the Monospot test to worried parents, who has to recognize the terrible things in order for the big-city specialist to even see the kid.

Even though that means giving up any residual hope that I’d skate my way into immortality on the sole point of Being The Best.

There won’t be any Action Potential Criteria for Diagnosing X Disease, or Action Potential Disease (which there wouldn’t be anyway, because we’ve given up on eponyms thank god and also, I’m incredibly awful at research – but shut up let me dream for just a sec here guys GOD) or first author papers.

I know I’ve never explicitly wanted any of that.  But “not wanting it” is one thing – definitively choosing a general-practice-focused residency over a shot at a top tier research one?  That’s a different level of choice altogether.

Especially when (I like to think) I really could have that shot.

But one of our deans said something that I quoted in a post 2 years ago, and I still remember.  It’s the quote I’ve been scattering through this entry.  I think of it every time I have to make a professional choice, which – thanks to the way medicine is set up – isn’t often.

The best college can be followed by the top medical school, then the prestigious residency can be followed by the prestigious fellowship, then the research grants, then the academic appointment – and if that’s what you want, fantastic – but if you don’t, when does it end?

I think – for me – that attitude will end with residency.

It’s just strange how easy it is to look at the 25 years of the culturally-ingrained “take the chance on the awesome, 1-in-a-million opportunity” expectation – and just let it go.

It’s strange how, for 20 years, “following your dream” has meant “don’t ever quit” – but then one year, without any warning, it starts sounding suspiciously similar to “time to give up“.

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11 thoughts on “Giving Up on Golden Rings

  1. I am very happy in my 1 person dinky anonymous practice. I will never do research, or publish, or have anything named after me. My patients like me, and generally I like them. I have a job that lets me make a difference in the lives of others and help people. I’ll never be rich, but my family is clothed, warm, and fed.

    And I’m perfectly happy with that and don’t want anything more.

  2. 8 year residency. 20 years of practice. using a skill set to take care of people. what i told the rolling eyes of the interviewers. what i do.

  3. So, you want to be a pediatrician? As a parent, let me attempt to offer you some reassurance that you will definitely be a hero even if you aren’t widely recognized as this ground-breaking researcher or wind up having a hospital wing named after you. My young sons (under 5) have had 2 pediatricians in their lifetime. They’re just “plain ole doctors” but to my and my sons they’re everything. They’ve reassured me when my kids have been sick. It’s obvious they love children and babies. My 5 yo talks about Dr. B. and how he wants to be just like him when he grows up. Clearly, Dr. B.’s doing something right.

    God forbid my children ever become critically or chronically ill and if they do, we’ll consult with Dr. B to determine which specialist is needed, but until then we’re exceptionally satisfied with out own little hero Dr. B. because he makes a difference in our kid’s lives. We wouldn’t want it any other way!

  4. You are in SUCH A GOOD PLACE right now. A mentally healthy place to be. If you go on grabbing at gold rings you wind up missing a lot. Which I found out when (without my consent) the gold rings were taken away…
    Yes, there are times that I wonder “what if” but those times become less and less as I explore other interests…
    Like a few years back having the time and energy to devote to a children’s theater program. I can’t tell you how much it meant the other day to have a young college student approach me saying, “Ms Christie Critters! Do you remember me? I’m Lacy!” Yes, she appeared in several of my productions when she was much younger. From her happiness at seeing me now that she is all grown up, I know that I made a difference then.
    Like right now, my “urban mini-farm” – it is so satisfying and rewarding and it wouldn’t even be a possibility if I were still going in at 5 AM to “get an early start” and then catching a quick nap before the 7:30 PM research meeting…

  5. Ditto petopa.

    Also, just because your dream (or what you /do/ want) takes a 90 degree turn from what you think you /should/ want doesn’t mean that you aren’t still living YOUR dream. That is a hard, but also very liberating realization. Good luck.

  6. The most courageous thing you can do is to define yourself on your own terms. It is also the most terrifying because, for the first time in your life, you will feel responsible for the outcome.

    The sooner you can stop even thinking about the words “giving up”, the better.

    Onwards!

    -TS

    PS. For the record, I made a diametrically opposed choice for the exact same reason. Go figure…

  7. I think there are heroes of many different kinds, and to be honest, I think it’s worth infinitely more to be a hero to people you see regularly, who sing your praises to your face, than those who would laud your first author paper in a lecture hall you’ll never be in or who suck up to you so they can get experience.

  8. I’m not a medical type person. I’m not even sure how I stumbled on your blog – it probably has something to do with Ireland, because I went there three years ago for a six-week internship and never left.

    I’ve given up on my original plan to become a classical architect – one of my lecturers spoiled it for me when he said that if at the end of your career you’ve not built a skyscraper, then you’ve not made a monument to yourself. I realised I don’t want a monument to myself. I just don’t have the ego to be an architect.

    Instead I’m working in an open air museum, in a castle – a job I got not through my degree, but because I can drive a horse and carriage. And you know what? I’m happy. I have plenty of time to see my friends, I get out into the fresh air a lot, and there are lots of interesting people to talk to and kids who think you’re the coolest person in the world. I’m now doing a degree in heritage conservation instead, so I can stick to old, interesting things instead of designing glass and steel monstrosities.

    So I think I know what you mean. You are not alone.

  9. You know, you can go on to work at a community practice even if you train at an academically oriented residency program. Just make sure your program offers rotations at smaller hospitals (I’m told not all do). It’s easier to go that way than to start off doing community if you later decide you want to switch into academics. Just saying.

  10. My only advice is to think carefully about the non-career side of “middle of nowhere” medicine and if it’s something you’d truly be happy with. I have a friend who was a doctor in a middle of nowhere situation for several years in rural America. She felt like a complete outsider the entire time. She wasn’t originally from the area, she was a doctor in a place where most of the inhabitants didn’t go past high school, and most of her out of the office conversations consisted of patients trying to talk to her about medical things. People also thought she had a lot more money than she did because “doctors are rich” and that created some problems. There are things she could have done to navigate the situation more happily, but it just wasn’t the right environment for her from a non-career standpoint. I don’t know whether a place like that would or wouldn’t be better for you, but it’s something to consider.

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