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“.