My life is absolutely ruled by to-do lists. “Read this,” "Clean that,” “Memorize this,” and “Write that” are phrases that bounce around my mind so often that I have to jot them down in the notes App of my phone just so I can keep track of everything I have to get done. As a college student, especially taking all online classes, it becomes almost natural to obsess over due dates, extracurricular involvements, scholarships, and grad school applications. Fellow premeds and other preprofessional students all understand the daunting task of landing their dream job, and all the random minutiae they have to complete to get there. Things can get quickly overwhelming when you are not on top of all your responsibilities, so being systematic and intentional in the way that you spend your time is the best way to succeed at school. When I’m particularly time crunched, sometimes I'll even itemize my hobbies, from hanging out with friends to keeping up with my favorite shows.
In the long term, though, I still find myself organizing my entire life into measurable, tangible accomplishments. My main goal from college is to get into medical school, while hopefully (and secondarily) having some fun along the way. After medical school, the goal shifts to graduating and becoming a surgical intern, then a resident, and finally, after years of study and dedication, becoming a fully-fledged surgeon. Having clear goals is a great way to organize your life and help you make important decisions, but for the more mundane, day to day choices that we have, you have to look towards something else – your values.
I recently had the chance to interview Dr. Martina Schulte, a primary care physician from Denver and the founder of Community Physician Consulting LLC, a company that coaches doctors on burnout, workplace environment, and career aspirations. We talked about a lot of topics, from HIV in less developed countries, to Covid and how can we better structure pandemic guidelines, but what stood out to me was what she said when I asked if she had any advice for a young and dumb premed like myself. Most of the time, when I ask a doctor that question, they’ll tell me something along the lines of “make sure you really love medicine” or “don’t do it for the money” and even “be ready to be in school for the next decade,” but Dr. Schulte’s response was something I had never heard before.
She told me to spend some time discovering what my values are, independent of my long-term goals in life. I may be striving to become a doctor one day, but what are some things I am not willing to compromise to get there, like having flexible hours so I can spend more time with my family and friends, and how will those values impact the choices that will lead me to my goals. For Dr. Schulte, working with the underserved and internationalizing her career were her values, and they lead her to working in several homeless clinics and teaching how to treat and manage HIV patients in Africa. For me, after reflecting from this conversation, entrepreneurship and innovation, being totally absorbed and captivated in my work, and having enough time outside my job to explore the world and pick up a few hobbies are some of what I value most. Now, I have both my long-term goal of becoming a doctor, and some smaller values that will guide the path that I take to get there.
It’s hard to find the time to really explore and grapple with your values when you’re a premed student. You’re already trying to balance so much, between school, research, shadowing, and volunteer work, and there’s already a somewhat standard list of values that medical schools expect out of their applicants – empathy for the patient, general selflessness, and philanthropy. Outside of these, however, students aren’t really challenged to consider what else they want out of their career in medicine, which, according to Dr. Schulte, leads to a lot of burnout among young doctors. When she sees physicians like these at her counseling firm, she has them go through the exercise of confronting their values and figuring out how they can start incorporating them more into to their jobs.
I don’t think this problem is unique to medicine. Society is focused on your accomplishments, awards, income, career, and other forms of tangible, conventional success, even at the expense of your personal fulfillment and your values. The purpose and reasoning for your decisions gets lost in the pursuit of honor, status, and praise. To highlight this in a simple way, we always ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but we never ask them “Why?” If you can, consider your greatest aspirations and figure out why you’re pursuing them and what values you might have to compromise on to achieve them. If you’re aspirations still excite you, then you found your perfect calling. With everyone still stuck inside right now, you might as well.