Hobbes: “Um, has Stupendous Man ever won a battle?”
Calvin: “Well, they’re all moral victories.”
Hobbes: “One can’t be too picky.”
Calvin: “Oh, and I flunked the test, too.”
-Calvin and Hobbes (Bill Watterson)
I can’t remember where I heard the story, so I sure as hell I hope that I’m not making this up.
Shortly after Phil Jackson took over as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, he was trying to get a message across to Michael Jordan that he can’t do it all himself. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team!’”MJ was apparently having none of it. He responded, “But there’s an ‘I’ in ‘win!’”
I like the attitude behind the response. The confidence. The self-assuredness. But that’s not reality for most of us (let’s not even discuss the self centered nature of the retort.) Taken in stride, it can be as valid as Mr. Jackson’s point. But most of us are not as financial “successful” as MJ. We operate in a different reality. To make this point, I would tell my kids the “There’s no ‘I’ in team” line. I would follow it up, very much with a wink and a nod, “But there’s an ‘I’ in ‘quit!’”
It’s funny. It’s self-deprecating. It’s probably a little more accurate than “winning” all the time. But I never really followed it. That is, until I left medicine. Then it wasn’t quite as funny as it had been. It was suddenly the scenario I was living.
To this point in my time off, I don’t miss my old career as a whole. I miss aspects of it, for sure. But if my next 20 years were to be like my first ten, that’s a sobering thought. I’m nearly cradling myself, shaking in the corner, and sucking my thumb just considering it.
Another sobering thought occurred to me as I started 2017. Once the initial “I’m free!” left me, I had time for more reflection (analyze past results before moving forward). I kept coming back to it, and only now have something resembling a semi-coherent answer. The question is simple: “Did I fail?”
Before I continue, anyone who might actually talk to me need not worry. The only way we get anywhere in life is in part due to open and honest reflection. Since I’m now working with a career coach, the timing seems right. As I see it, there are three possible answers (& a corollary) to this question. I’ll start with the one I think has the least veracity and end with the most likely.
-“Yes, I failed.” This is true on some levels. Medical school is EXPENSIVE. Residency, while I earned an income, is time consuming, and a lot of time & money went into training my brain. I shudder to think at what the “cost” of educating my brain was (and I expect there’s an app for that). To leave after a decade was, on some level, short changing those whom had trained me. On a philosophical level, did I reach every family that needed my help? Probably not. Did I win all the situations that someone was hoping I would win? Not in the strictest sense. Are the children I was caring for now in the care of some physician as good, if not better, as I was? I can only hope so. Would someone else have done better than I did? Well, it’s possible. Failing is a part of trying and caring, but in some very real ways, if I’m to be honest, yes, I failed. And when you work in health care, failing has consequences.
-“No, I didn’t.” At some point, I don’t owe the larger system anything back. Yes, I was extensively trained, both in time and in cost. However, maybe length isn’t the only deterrent factor. For ten plus years, I worked hard. I tried to uplift children and families, and advocate for them. I worked extensively with a select group of nurses to make things run better and more smoothly. Furthermore, if I hadn’t been around, maybe things I worked on wouldn’t have been addressed for even longer. No, I didn’t win every battle, but my winning percentage was pretty good. Not Nick Sabin good, but I didn’t have SEC Football funding behind me. In the macroscopic view, I succeeded.
-“I’ll never really know.” I have checkmarks in the “yea” & “nay” columns. There’s a limit to what one person can do. A person can plan, be guided by ideals and overarching principles, and work hard with good intentions. After that, well, that’s it. These things happen in real time. We don’t get an “easy button” from Staples. We don’t have a director yelling “cut!!!” We can’t restart old scenarios. We have to deal with situations as they arise.
Would someone else have been better at serving their patients than I was? Maybe, but they weren’t there. Could have there been a stronger, more effective advocate for patients and my nursing colleagues? Perhaps, but I was the one who showed up on a daily basis. Maybe another physician could have outlasted me or had a better “save percentage.” But I was there. At some point, without trying to sound like a damn hippie, I did my best, it has to be enough. And I have to learn to live a little more ambiguity.
The corollary, which I somewhat stole from an old pathology professor: does it really matter? The question is posed to me. I hope I mattered to patients, families, and colleagues. But that’s not the point. What matters is what happens NOW. Past successes and failures are in the books. It can’t be improved. At this point, the question of whether career #1 was a “success” or failure might be best answered with the second question. Does it matter? Maybe it only matters in terms of future growth and improvement. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter at this point. Period.
I suspect, much like story telling is to Tim O’Brien, all of it is true. Maybe it just depends on the optics that I use to look at the macro and micro scenarios. Maybe I’ll never really know. Maybe the goal is just to keep wrestling with it while not being consumed by it. But as I’m working with a career coach on career #2, I’m beginning to realize that I’m taking parts of career #1 with me, regardless if the “I” is for “win” or “quit.”