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The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP 39: Is Death the Greatest Teacher for Trapped Physicians?

Have you noticed how it takes a profound moment in our lives for us to realize that we need to make a change? We can wield this realization to help us figure it out all before it is too late! Many physicians are what I call trapped physicians. This means they feel undervalued, unheard, unappreciated, and overworked. I want to help doctors live their ideal life!

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Trapped Physician

As a trapped physician, you may feel like you can’t change anything without making it worse. Maybe you have considered going part-time or considered leaving medicine completely because of these feelings. There are a lot of things that make physicians feel trapped. These include non-competes, student loans, debt, conflicts of interest, and more. It all boils down to the physician needing financial freedom!  I offer the Three Pillars to Physician Freedom Masterclass to help you reach the next level and find that freedom, but for now let’s focus on what you value in life. 

Like the World is Going to End

I am a big music fan who listens to his radio really loud with my windows down, and one night I was leaving my last night shift ever and a Ben Rector song came on called Like The World is Going to End. As I was driving home, I was thinking about how I was going to master my schedule instead of letting it master me. Most people, including myself for a long time, are barely keeping their heads above water and just going through the motions where their schedules are always busy, there is always stuff to get done, and then we look up 20 years later and realize that all the stuff seemed to happen without really considering where our life was going. 

It seems like we rarely have control of our time, and everybody says they don’t have enough time…but we all have the same 24 hours in a day. This is the biggest reason I started the Hell Yes Policy I discussed in Episode 20. The idea is to say no to anything that doesn’t make you say hell yes. This requires clarity on what matters most to you, and here are two of my favorite questions to get you started. 

Clarity Question #1 – The Tuesday Test

The first question is based on Ben Rector’s song. The amazing question at the very beginning of the song says, “If you found out the world was going to end on Tuesday morning, what would people do?” When you think about that, you start thinking about what you would do and what’s important to you. It also can show you what seems less important, and even worthless. So, think about what you would do if the world was going to end on Tuesday morning.

Another part of this is what if you went to the doctor and found out you are really sick and going to die tomorrow? Looking back on your life so far, what are you really glad that you accomplished? What are your regrets? Think about it from a very large, big perspective lens. What changes? When faced with your own mortality, what thoughts are going through your mind? 

This is a great exercise to really get clarity on your life priorities. I sometimes do this as a group exercise for our medical students and my Financial Literacy and Resilience Education Program and sometimes use some kinder questions. It is interesting that as you go through your priorities and list all of the things that are important to you, most of the items you spend the most money on aren’t even on the list! 

Clarity Question #2 – The Tombstone Test

When you die, what do you want written on your tombstone? Will you want it to say that you worked an extra shift? Or maybe you attended an extra committee meeting. Probably not. You would want something that defines you. You want it to be about who you are, your identities, such as dedicated mom or dad, spouse, physician. This is what is meaningful to you. When you bring mortality into the picture, the focus cannot be ignored. Your tombstone will read something different because you have different identities and different things that are important to you. 

What’s Important to You?

As I was working nights, I came across a lot of death. I am an anesthesiologist so I basically bring people as close to death as they will be outside of their actual death. I am by nature a very emotional person. I cry at everything. I was on vacation one time and had to intubate a young person who I knew was going to die. All I could think about was that I hoped he made it to the hospital in time to donate his organs. Then I went back to my family and continued reading the book to them like nothing happened. I had lost my touch with humanity! I had compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD and wouldn’t even get sad about the stuff normal humans should be sad about! 

After I found my humanity again, I started asking myself these tough questions and found my clarity. I started designing my life around this ideal life I wanted. I started thinking about the legacy I want to leave behind. I thought about my kids and questioning the status quo in medicine. I got a true grasp on what is important to me.

What is important to you? What is on your list of things you would regret? What about your biggest accomplishments? It turns out that death can be one of the greatest teachers if we are truly honest about our answers. Dive deeper and really focus on what you would do if Tuesday morning the world was going to end. What if you found out you were going to die? How would you change your life to start living your ideal life?

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