I often remember one particular conversation with a medical school classmate. It was early in our training and we were all trying to get to know each other better so he asked, “What do you like to do?” The answer that innocently and honestly slipped out of my mouth was: “I used to like to read, and I used to like to play music, and I used to like to run…” For most of us in the medical profession (and many other professions as well), studying and working had to come before playing. There was no other way to learn all that we had to learn in order to become the professional we dreamed of becoming. Unfortunately, in the process, we became estranged from what we really wanted. For so many years it just didn’t matter what we wanted, and acknowledging what we really desired was more painful and frustrating than simply going along with what we thought we had to do.
Often when I’m coaching clients, I’ll simply ask, “What do you want?” Almost every time, the response is, “That’s a great question!” My reply is always the same – It’s THE question.
That part of us that knows what we want has been buried for so long that many of us feel disconnected from the knowledge of what would make us happy or fulfilled. But as the amusing and wise Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” This makes it crucial for each of us to spend some time asking ourselves the question, “What do I really want?” And then listening for the answer.
Journaling is one way of opening the conversation with ourselves. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests that we write 3 pages each morning, before our day begins. Dreams from the night before, thoughts that may have filtered through our unconscious during the night, as well as leftover concerns and ideas from the days before all have an opportunity to rise to the page and be acknowledged. As busy professionals, many of us don’t have time for three pages – but perhaps we do have time for one. A regular practice of writing can help us discover many of our wantings with just one page per day.
During a recent presentation on Balancing Your Interests Inside and Outside of Medicine at the meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges, I asked the medical student attendees to imagine their perfect life. The room became quiet as they closed their eyes and visualized themselves fifteen years in the future. There were many surprises, as some students realized that they valued a traditional, stable family life and others felt the excitement of a career filled with cutting edge research. What fills your own vision of your perfect life – in 5, 10, or 15 years?
We spend many hours trying to save the lives of some of our patients and improve the quality of others. Shouldn’t we also dedicate some time to our own life? To making sure we are living the life that we want to be living? A life filled with activities we enjoy, relationships that nurture us, and work that is meaningful and fulfilling? The first step is to ask one question – “What do I really want?” And then listen for the answer.