So… what do you do?

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December is the prime time for this question, or versions thereof. With everyone getting together for Christmas and New Year, I knew I would be catching up with friends and relatives and meeting new people, so small talk would be abundant for a good two or three weeks. I have to admit, I was dreading it. I was afraid of their judgement and remarks. I suppose I was also afraid of how I would react to their reactions. I could hardly justify my situation to myself, so how could I justify it to others?

I have always taken it for granted that I could give people a satisfactory progress report. “I’m in year 13” turned into “I’m in year X at medical school,” which turned into “I’m working at such-and-such hospital.” The only variation to contend with was the inevitable follow up question: “Have you chosen your speciality yet?”

Traditionally, the responses I have given to these queries have depended largely on how I feel about the person asking them. With kindred spirits – the people I feel will really listen and might understand my point of view – I am honest, but mostly I’ve just been busy hiding my true feelings about it all these years, even from the people closest to me.

As Christmas loomed, everything seemed so complicated. What was I supposed to say when people asked me what I was doing now?

“I had a quarter-life crisis and quit my job with no plan B, so I’m now officially unemployed and relying on my savings and my fiancé to get by. I have no current certainty or prospects, and not much of an idea about what to do, except a vague plan to write a novel that I’m unjustifiably optimistic about.”

It sounded terrible. I almost wanted to avoid the festive parties altogether to save myself from this humiliating admission. I also felt bad for my parents – when people asked them how I was getting on, they would be having exactly the same problem.

Then, two things happened to me.

The first was deciding to locum after my little visit to the job centre. That gave me something solidly medical to say, and was a relief. “I’m locuming at the moment” is a brilliant answer for those you don’t really want to talk to, and who are just asking you for the sake of saying something. It’s satisfying for both parties and the perfect precursor for a swift exit line.

The other was this: at the start of December, in between dancing for joy and plunging into the depths of despair, I started job hunting on the Guardian website. I found an ad I was interested in for a managerial role in a charity, but being inexperienced with this sort of thing, I was doubtful. I worried that I didn’t meet the criteria in many of the job specifications, because a lot of them stated the necessity for formal qualifications or specific experience. But, as my fiancé told me, job specs are not hard and fast rules. They represent the ‘ideal’, and most companies would rather hire the closest match than wait for the perfect candidate. My career coach has also been helping me to realise the value of the skills and experiences I already have.

So I shot off my CV, not really believing anything would come of it. Then two weeks later, I got a call. The charity had said my application was certainly unusual, but they had loved it. They offered me a telephone interview, and after that, they offered me a formal interview. I’m going in for it next week. Whether or not I get the job in the end, it’s been such a boost for me just getting to interview.

It’s also nice to sing my own praises. It’s not something I got to do much in medicine – it was more about people assessing me. ARCPs are tick-boxing exercises and applying for clinical jobs requires more form-filling and exam-taking than knowledge of your true strengths, skills and weaknesses. It’s just the nature of the medical profession that everybody is presumed to have all the necessary skills for their level. As a result, the thought of doing a non-medical interview is scary. No longer can I rest on my laurels; I actually have to prove myself. It’s made me sit down and think about what I’m really good at, what suits me and what I really want – perhaps for the first time in my entire life.

As the Yuletide approached, I started to see my situation is a different light. Yes, there are things in my current situation that I don’t like, but there is also plenty of potential. This is a really exciting time for me, and I really need to give myself a break. It sounds cliché to ‘have faith in yourself’ and to ‘stay positive’ but these little things can be incredibly difficult to do. I still struggle sometimes, but I’m working my way towards another cliché where I see my glass as half full.

So now, when people ask ‘what are you doing now?’ I have an answer I’m proud of:

“Well, I’m planning to locum while transitioning into a new career. I’ve got an interview with a charity soon for a management role. In the meantime, I’m volunteering for Medic Footprints to help other doctors in their careers – a role that I got because the directors were impressed by an article about their conference on my personal blog. I’m also researching the British colonization of Asia to give historical accuracy to the novel I am currently writing.”

There. Sounds much better doesn’t it? And the best things are: it’s all true, and I can say it to everyone.

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Image from Malla.

Malla is a small business coach and expert at answering this question!

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The Dangers of Ego: how medicine became my self-esteem

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The other day, I was on my way to the Royal London Hospital to discuss my resignation with the Dean of my Foundation School, when a man going past on a bicycle stopped next to me.

“Are you lost?” he asked, with an accent that I recognised to be Sri Lankan. I turned away from the map and looked at him, and his features confirmed our common heritage.

I explained I was looking for the hospital, and he pointed me in the right direction, but before I could get very far, he began to tell me all about the amazing pastor at his church, who apparently had died, visited hell and heaven, had a chat with Jesus, and come back to earth again. I suppressed a smile as he asked me if I had time to chat, and said I was in a hurry. He then asked me why I was going to the hospital. I obviously didn’t go into my real reasons, but the moment I said the words ‘I’m a doctor’, he looked at me with such awe, as if I were the one taking return journeys in and out of the afterlife.

It’s not an uncommon reaction. Although the medical profession is much less revered now than it was twenty years ago, people are generally still impressed when you tell them you’re a doctor. “Wow! That’s incredible! You must be clever,” they say, or “I couldn’t do what you do.” As for my Asian relatives, particularly the older generations, I represent the ultimate achievement.

When I think about how hard I’m finding it to leave medicine, I can’t help but admit that part of it is losing that massive ego boost. The moment you qualify, you are seen almost universally as intelligent, selfless, noble, caring and respectable. Another bonus is the fact that people have a basic understanding of what it is you actually do – as opposed to the non-vocational folk like my fiancé, whose job description of ‘business consultant in macroeconomics and econometrics’ is vague at best, and downright confusing at worst. I don’t have to justify myself as a good person because my occupation automatically confirms that. I save lives. I help people. I took an oath to devote my life to healing the sick. What kind of person breaks that promise?

The “Bristol Promise”

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When I think of how amazing and necessary the work of a doctor really is, it’s hard to validate my existence without it. If I am ever one day shipwrecked on a desert island, I’d have gone from being someone you’d definitely want to keep alive to someone who can be eaten without any great consequence.

The funny thing is, when I step back and look at it objectively, I can see quite clearly that Medicine is not the only ‘noble’ thing to do in the world. Our intricately connected society relies on the collective effort of many, and we all can influence the world around us for the better in our own way. The problem is, these things are not always recognised in the same way that being a doctor is. In this world where money and fame is more celebrated than anything else, medicine is still holding on to respect and value by the tips of its fingers, whilst the actions of good teachers, parents, farmers, legal aid lawyers, emergency service personnel and countless others fall by the wayside.

I used to dream about working as a doctor in Africa or Asia with Médecins Sans Frontières, providing healthcare for the poorest and most vulnerable. When I started to become unhappy in Medicine, this dream was the only thing that kept me going, but I realise now that my desire to be of service had become tainted with selfishness. I wanted to make a point, to show that I am a good person, but there’s something paradoxical in the truth about this: if you do something you hate for the sake of being good, resentment will poison any happiness you gain until you can’t do it any more. But if you use something you love to do something good, the happiness you gain will motivate you to keep doing it, and the good you do will be tenfold. The line between selfishness and selflessness suddenly doesn’t seem so clear.

These next few months are not going to be easy, I know. I have already experienced the sneers and sometimes just plain disbelief that I would ever dream of giving up Medicine, and I’ve barely told anyone in my family about it yet. I dread my next trip to Sri Lanka, as there the judgement will be even more severe.

However, I am coming round the idea that my self worth isn’t quite so dependent on Medicine as previously thought. As my best friend once said, “I don’t love you because you’re a doctor – I love you because you’re loyal and kind, and always there for me.”

I am still determined to help people, but perhaps being obsessed with the goal is actually more of a hindrance than a help. After all, my literary inspiration, Jane Austen, didn’t write her books with a view to helping me, but she has. Her books have been my joy and comfort in many a dark moment – one of many unexpected echoes of her quiet, modest life that she will never know. I’m sure if she were alive today, she would tell me to chill out and take myself less seriously, albeit n more Austen-y language!

Perhaps she’d tell even me to listen to Bertrand Russell, who I believe once said:

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”