The Physician Philosopher Podcast

TPP #72: Finding Happiness in Medicine as a Doctor

Editor’s Note : If you haven’t already joined the wait list for Medical Degree Financial University (MDFU) – click here to learn more about MDFU! MDFU will consist of weekly live-content in addition to pre-created courses to help medical professionals find the financial freedom they need to live their life’s purpose, which is the topic of this post!

Physician Disability Insurance

The idea that “you deserve to be happy” has two parts to it. The first is the idea that it is your God-given, inalienable right to pursue happiness. On this much, most listeners will likely agree. In fact, this idea is written into the United States constitution that we have three inalienable rights as human beings, which are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, there is an underlying question here, which is this: What actually makes us happy? When we say that people are free to pursue happiness, the underlying assumption is that people know what makes them happy.

This is where a pervasive, yet dangerous narrative often creeps in, which is that the POINT of life IS happiness. And that this happiness is created by an easy-going life free of stress, concern, or struggle. When we think about happiness this way, it produces some pretty obvious results in our life.

When we aren’t happy in our job… we change jobs. When we aren’t happy in our marriage, we seek divorce. When we aren’t happy with our community, we find new friends. Why? Because we are supposed to be happy…that is the point of life, right?

Well, as someone who fell to this lie for a long time, I can tell you that the result of this line of thinking is perpetual disappointment when our life doesn’t produce the happiness that we wanted. This is attached to the idea we talk about so often on this podcast, which is an Arrival Fallacy (introduced in Episode 5 of the podcast) – or the idea that when you get “there” you’ll be happy.

…but what if the arrival fallacy is only part of the problem? What if the much more important aspect of this problem is that we think the purpose of life is to be happy?

Primary versus Secondary Outcomes in Life

We have talked previously about how hospital administrators and leaders have a choice, which is to either focus on people or to focus on profit. Like a research study, there can only ever be one true primary outcome. While we might be interested in the secondary outcomes as well, our focus can only truly be placed on one outcome at a time.

In fact, this is why in statistics there is something called a Bon Feroni correction when we try to have two primary outcomes. We must pay a statistical price for trying to focus on more than one thing at a time. Even statistics, which attempts to be as rational as possible, understands the Russian proverb that “when you try to chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”

It works the same way in life. As crazy as it sounds, happiness is a secondary outcome. Not a primary outcome. Happiness is a natural byproduct of when our primary focus is on fulfilling our primary purpose in life.

What brings the most happiness and fulfillment in life is not pursuing happiness itself, it is in living a purpose driven life where you feel you are accomplishing your deeper purpose.

Finding Your Purpose

This need to be attached to a deeper purpose should sound familiar. In the framework of the Self-Determined Physician that I outline in my upcoming book Determined: How Burned Out Doctors Can Thrive in a Broken Medical System, we talk about the three components of self-determination, which are autonomy, belonging, and competence. This comes from the work originally described by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.

The ABC’s of Self-Determination can be further broken down into five subcategories. (If you want to learn more about the importance of self-determination in medicine, go back and check out Episode #66 of the podcast.)

One of the three elements of self-determination, belonging, can be broken down into two components, which are feeling like a valued member of the team and being attached to a deeper purpose. Let’s talk about this second piece – being attached to a deeper purpose.

Self-Determination: Being Attached to a Deeper Purpose

In my own journey, it is this deeper purpose that I failed to focus on for so long. Instead, I focused on creating autonomy in my life, because this was the most obvious and glaring missing component in my life as a busy and burned out physician. Naturally, where the most pain is, that is where my focus went first.

Yet, after creating all of the autonomy I could stand through my business at The Physician Philosopher, it didn’t fix everything.

It didn’t occur to me that I could create all the autonomy I wanted in my life through financial freedom and mastering my mindset… but if I wasn’t attached to my deeper purpose, fulfillment was going to be hard to achieve.

In religious traditions, we sometimes use the word “calling” to describe this phenomenon of finding our purpose. As a self-professing Christian (not to be confused with being a good Christian… as always, there is a lot of work to do in my life to be more like Jesus)… instead of focusing on what I could do with the gifts and talents that I have, I started asking a very different question, which was what did I feel God calling me to do with this one crazy and awesome life I get?

Maybe it wasn’t about making money. Maybe it wasn’t even really about autonomy. After all, if you follow the Christian tradition or another religious tradition, this idea of autonomy is an interesting thing to discuss in and of itself… is autonomy really a thing if you aren’t living your purpose? Where does that purpose come from in the first place? Is it from some shared consciousness? From God? It surely feels like an external calling to me that speaks to my soul at the very core of who I am. In other words, it seems like something that I do not control… which is the definition of autonomy, right?

Living My Purpose

For me this led me back to my one very clear purpose in life … ending suffering in medicine. This is manifested in two very large and infinite goals which are to improve the broken culture of medicine and to empower as many individual physicians as I can until that system is fixed.

In fact, I often tell people that my biggest goal is for The Physician Philosopher to no longer be necessary in ten or twenty years when the culture of medicine is fixed. Now THAT is a goal that I can work toward, and when I realize that is my overall passion, it led me back to some pretty shocking realizations.

First, in order to truly fix medicine, it probably requires me to do work within the walls of medicine. If I think that one of the major problems medicine has is that administrators don’t work in the trenches with the doctors they serve, then it would probably be consistent for me to be in the trenches, too.

I did not want be one of the “cold and timid souls” on the sideline as Teddy Roosevelt so famously quipped in his Man in the Arena speech. No. I wanted to be in the arena. And though I may err. Though I may fall. Even though my face may be marred by dust and blood and soil… at least I am in the arena trying to improve the culture of medicine that burns so many doctors out.

Man in the Arena

With this focus comes some interesting observations. Most notable is the observation that my overall purpose may require me to experience pain, failure, and disappointment. Yet, if I am in the arena fighting, it can also provide a very real fulfillment as a byproduct knowing that I am in the arena. I am living my life’s purpose.

You’ll note that the fulfillment I am speaking about here is NOT about accomplishing my goals. My happiness is not a product of an arrival fallacy. In fact, the happiness and fulfillment that result from this focus on attaching to a deeper purpose only come from being in the moment. From being on my journey. It comes from being IN the arena. Not having won the battle.

This shift from the destination to the journey is something that we have discussed before on this show, yet it wasn’t until I really answered this question of my life’s overall purpose that the clarity I needed to actually be living that journey came to me.

That’s why I recently applied for a Master’s degree in Medical Management. It is the reason that I am actually increasing my clinical FTE in June when so many are decreasing their clinical FTE. Instead of running away from the dumpster fire that is the medical system, I am running toward the fire to help put out what seems like an otherwise unequenchable flame.

I may still be there fighting that fight 30 years from now, but at least I will have been fulfilling my life’s purpose. I don’t think this fight will be easy, but I do think it will be 100% worth it.

Finding Your Purpose

Of course, this all begs a single question. What is your purpose in life? What is your major passion?

Stop telling yourself the lie that happiness and fulfillment will come from an easy life. Or that once you arrive at your next accomplishment, accolade, or achievement that you will find happiness.

Instead, figure out your deeper purpose. Once you have done this, the what and the how will become clear. And that ever-elusive fulfillment and happiness you are looking for will be the natural byproduct of living your life’s purpose and calling.

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