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Finding and Defining Purpose in Career and Other Perspectives

Getting back in touch with your previous reasons for choosing medicine and/or discovering new motivations can be a powerful tool to improve your professional fulfillment. Before I unpack all the amazingness that can come from crafting an individual purpose statement for your career, I want to take this week to relay a side-note observation.


I’ve noticed an emerging trend involving a small percentage of early-career physicians having an adverse reaction to phrases such as “Purpose in Career” and “Professional Fulfillment.” In this population, a small but growing number of physicians view work as “a job” and not “a vocation.” They are somewhat skeptical about finding fulfillment in their careers. It threw me for a loop the first time I unexpectedly encountered it. And after thinking about it, discussing it with some respected friends and colleagues, and coaching individuals around it, I’ve started to wrap my mind around it.


Potential reasons behind not wanting fulfillment:


  1. There is a shift toward emphasizing fulfillment outside of work. A shift, in my view, that was a needed pendulum-swing from the old standard of medicine. The old standard advertised medicine as a life of service and sacrifice – the sacrifice of personal needs, family activities, and other enrichment areas. I offer here that, as with most pendulum-swings, it often swings to the other extreme before settling in the middle. I honestly believe one can be in service without it being an all-encompassing sacrifice. I hope I have lived that out - being of service while weaving in my own needs, hobbies, and relationships. It’s looked differently over the years as I’ve tried to evolve with the needs around me and my own.


  1. There could also be individual standards of what “doing medicine well” would demand. The bar could be set so high that the individual cannot fathom hitting the mark without constant investment in learning and reading and being readily accessible after-hours by staff, specialists, and patients. Therefore, doing any less, they would feel they are not meeting the standard. That would feel worse than unfulfilling. Maybe they believe letting go of that standard means, it will not be rewarding. Here, I’d like to point out that we have been socialized to a very high standard. “Healthcare workers are heroes” type of standards. That saying gave many a momentary boost to get through the height of the pandemic, but it’s not a standard most of us really want to continue living up to. So, while I know some fantastic doctors who live out this caliber of practice – and do it well – they are the minority. I think each physician must learn where their level of flexibility is – How often do they want to invest in their medical knowledge and skills? How can they make that happen without infringing on non-career-related time? What are the boundaries that serve them best for after-hours communication? What things can they put in place to offer excellent care even with those boundaries in place? Losing some of the all-or-nothing types of thinking can really foster being proud of the physician you are while maintaining a wonderful life outside of medicine. And while one recent article lists fully integrated career and personal life as one of the qualities in thriving physicians, doing so is certainly open to each medical professional. Perhaps the study didn’t identify the nuances of those without “fully integrated” lives in which the individuals are proud of their practice and maintain healthy boundaries that work best for them. The non-fully integrated subset likely also included many more doctors who feel like a disappointment when they have instituted boundaries.


  1. It could be that many individuals that I’ve heard this from recently are simply seeing the future through their burnt-out lenses. This makes complete sense – one of the three components of burnout is depersonalization. The thing I can offer here is hope. I and many others know burnout firsthand AND have healed. We know that about 75-80% of burnout can be attributed to systems. That leaves 20-25% for which the individual has some agency. And that is enough to start feeling better – and then decide how they interact with the system (or not) or become change agents within the system.


  1. It could be prematurely believing that satisfaction as a physician isn’t realistic is a self-protective mechanism to guard against further disappointment or disillusionment. This is a common response. How often are we afraid to get our hopes up because we dislike feeling let down? It may be expected, but it’s not helpful. Not only do we rob ourselves of the joy in that moment of believing it could be great, but it can slant our experience to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hope is powerful. Beliefs have consequences.


  1. Maybe there could exist some other limiting beliefs. In one coaching session, a physician early in her career realized that the struggle with electronic documentation was the only thing that made her believe it was impossible to enjoy medicine. And with that realization, she is now on a quest – newer artificial intelligence technology vs. a scribe.  She will find a way to enjoy seeing her patients.


Do you have other reasons that the words and concepts could trigger some?  I’d love to hear them.


I leave you with this: Even for those who think professional fulfillment is not for them, maybe shifting what that term means a bit could offer a potential glimpse into how it could align with their goals. Let’s look for the middle instead of the extremes. What if you could enjoy something in your time with patients? What if you could feel good about making a difference in one person’s health? What if you could enjoy watching the staff caring for your patients? What if you realized you are good at what you do? Where can you find any joy in your workday? (If you’re burned out – it can be normal to feel “nowhere” is the answer. I know what that is like. Try it for kicks every day this week; look for one good thing.) Wherever you find some pleasure, however big or small, can we call that fulfillment? Can we call that part finding purpose in your career?  We can grow from there. Are you open to believing there is something between "a job" and "a sacrificial calling" that can bring you true joy?


As we walk through the next couple of weeks, I hope to offer you the many benefits of viewing your career in this manner and help you craft your own personal purpose statement. 

Have a joy-filled week!  Tonya

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