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What Happened When I Recently Told Friends Why I Left Practice

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images-8By the time our plates of share-it-all appetizers had arrived, the four of us hardly noticed them at all.  The bustling Chicago gastro-pub we had walked to sprung to life, and its energized buzz of diners laughing and servers clanging and music humming had built to a crescendo.  WHEN ARE YOU DUE?--we yelled our happy question to friends seated across the 36-inch wide picnic table separating us.  The leaned in, smiling widely, and yelled back the nascent bits of news you can share when you are transitioning out of pregnancy's first 12 weeks.  Their daughter--the Big Sister to be--is a few months younger than our 2-year-old girl, and our kiddos have become pals.  My wife and I listened as our friends shared their plans: a DIY condo remodel to make room for the second nursery, a nanny-share with thoughts of daycare, a desire for life's scale to tilt toward time at home and away from time at work.  Life was about to change.

THE SURPRISING VALUE OF EMOTIONAL VULNERABILITY

Being a doctor is a funny thing.  Talk to enough people, and you soon realize that most oscillate between not being able to imagine a physician's life and not being able to imagine giving up a physician's life.  Although harm is rarely intended, these interactions can feel deflating.  The screen upon which expectations of others are projected, a physician wrestling with his own humanity can feel especially alone.  I certainly did.

I dreaded the crucible of explaining my decision to leave practice.  I created a list of people I would tell first.  To my surprise, as I tightened the sinews and summoned up the blood, I realized that it was not those closest to me whose reactions I feared most.  I knew instinctively that my wife would greet the news with grace and support.  I had confidence that my parents and my in-laws would offer understanding and empathy.  I trusted that my former residency chairman would give me his blessing.

The people, it turned out, whose reactions I truly feared were those who knew me less well: co-workers, casual friends, former colleagues.  The anticipatory anxiety I felt contemplating their questions--You've decided to do WHAT?  Why?  What are you going to do now?--dwarfed my airspace like a gray and terrible sky.  I struggled to envision tactful ways of concealing my vulnerability and explaining my decision with strength and certainty.

For years, conversations like these decayed into clumsy, ineffective back-and-firths that made me feel like I was being put through a grinder.  Finally, I became fed up with them.  The frustration I felt about my inability to communicate clearly led me to tear down my entire approach.  I challenged every assumption I had made about myself and about my listeners.  When I finally questioned the premise of my most fundamental goal--to conceal my vulnerability--my life changed instantly.

In that moment, I decided that rather than hiding my pain points, I would draw power from them.  The shame and guilt I felt about leaving clinical medicine were transformed into a sturdy weight-bearing foundation upon which my explanations would be built.  The strain and strife I felt while in practice now serve my listeners as the entry point to understanding why I left practice.

THE MIRROR EFFECT

Eventually, as the decibel level over dinner grew fainter, our conversation began to softly meander.  Topics turned from family to work, and our friends' tenor consequently changed from joy to resigned indifference.  These young professionals, both with MBAs and sought after careers, expressed a shared emptiness about their work lives.  I don't know what I'm going to be when I grow up!--one of them joked.

In the moments that followed, when they asked my wife and me about my leaving practice, here's what happened: the vulnerability that we shared, while not going to pieces as we shared it, supercharged the dynamic among the four of us.  It was clear from our friends' facial expressions and body language that our explanation resonated with them.

As if responding to questions that were never asked, our friends began to share some of their own work derived pain points: unpleasant co-workers, thankless assignments, atrophied skill sets, uncertain futures.  Then, as they began to discuss the passing thoughts they'd each had about new careers for themselves, a powerful catharsis had occurred.  For our friends, the Mirror Effect of discussing my leaving practice had reflected deep-seated feelings about their own careers, and our conversation proved to be uplifting.

HOW EMOTIONAL TRANSPARENCY CAN HELP YOU LAND THE NON-CLINICAL JOBS YOU WANT

It can be hard to appreciate the flesh-and-blood humanness possessed by hiring managers and decision makers.  It can be harder, still, to develop a comfort level for openly and honestly discussing the personal pains that inspired you to seek a non-clinical career.

But my willingness to do both of those things has proven to enormous tactical value when pursuing in-demand positions.  Sharing my vulnerability about leaving clinical medicine during such high stakes encounters as interviews has, over and over again, brought a decision maker's humanness to the surface, forged a bond of connectedness between us, and led to powerful results.  You can do it, too.  Here's how:

  • Discuss your emotional journey with transparency, but curate the emotions you choose to discuss.  Remember that for then lay community, the image of a physician is a very personal, very powerful one that invokes the Selfless Hero construct.  No one, including hiring managers, wants to have that image sullied with talk of paperwork headaches, insurance company fights, and unreasonable time demands--as true and as painful as those realities might be.  Instead, the personal pain created by those realities--forgotten anniversaries, missed birthdays, absentee table settings at holiday meals--are somehow more palatable.  Make those personal pains your focus, and you will convey your emotional journey honestly and effectively while keeping your listener's idealized image of a physician in tact.
  • Be mindful that your emotional vulnerability will make your story compelling, but it will be your emotional resiliency that will make you hirable.  This takes practice, since the bull's eye you are aiming at here is attached to a moving target.  Realize that each person you share your story with harbors his or her own vulnerabilities.  As a result, different parts of your story will resonate differently with different listeners.  In order to be flexible and responsive during the course of an interview or a get-to-know-you conversation, be prepared to expound as soon as you can tell that your listener has connected emotionally.  Their facial expressions, their body language, and their non-verbal cues will tell you everything you need to know.  Let them feel safe while going on this emotional journey with you.  Do so by emphasizing the optimism and positivity that guided your decision to leave practice.  Discussing your pursuit of a happier life will turn a compelling story into an uplifting one.  Having connected with you emotionally, your listener will now be rooting for your success.
  • Link your pursuit of a happier life to your professional strengths, and in so doing, make it clear what you bring to the table.  For me, a huge mental barrier to leaving practice was my fear of no longer being a doctor.  Or, put more honestly and transparently, my fear of no longer being seen as a doctor.  Any professional person, irrespective of their industry, can empathize with the incredible amount of time, effort, sacrifice, and commitment--to say nothing of debt incurred--that is required to become a physician.  Walking away from clinical practice is, therefore, understandably difficult.  My desire to remain a doctor even as I transitioned our of practice was the catalyst that drove me to translate my clinical strengths into non-clinical deliverables.  Once I did so, even before I began to search for jobs in earnest, I felt better--I felt happier--because I felt more certain that the fundamental traits that defined me as a physician would serve me as transferrable skills.  When I tell this story to hiring managers, I use it as an example to illustrate two things: first, my innate drive to problem solve; and second, my list of transferrable skills that would make me a great hire.  It's a way of bragging without sounding cocky.  You can use this framework when telling your own story about leaving clinical medicine regardless of the specifics of your story.  It will make you appear at once relatable and admirable, both down-to-earth and uniquely skilled.

HOW THE ART OF LEAVING MEDICINE CAN HELP YOU

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How I Left Clinical Practice at the Age of 36 and Created a Life I Love

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about-fgsc-2-250x166-2 Imagine holding your wife's hand, your thoughts turning to the earliest, sweetest stages of your courtship.  Her faces creases into an authentic smile.  Your heart skips, not palpitating from patients' worries, but beating with joy, as you share with her expressions of gratitude.  Close your eyes.  Can you see it?  Can you feel it?

In April of 2011, our bare toes were warmed by the Caribbean sun, our feet perched atop the railing of a giant, serene cruise ship.  When we breathed, exhaling felt twice the magnitude.  We held hands, long settled into lounge chairs, and smiled at each other.  Of course!  That's vacation!  But our exhales and our smiles had to do with something else entirely.

Just twelve hours earlier, following a cruise ship day and heading off to a night of cruise ship sleep, we had decided that I would leave clinical practice.

The list of reasons why my wife and I decided that I would make The Doctor Transition was not lengthy.  The ophthalmology practice that I joined fresh out of residency was nice enough.  My patient volume, both in clinic and in the OR was modest, but showing signs of perking up.  The patients I saw were often grateful, and that made me feel good.

But there was something else, bubbling just beneath the surface, that was making me unhappy.  I would come home from work feeling on edge, worried, anxious.  I found myself replaying certain scenes from the day over and over in my mind's eye.  And my retrospectoscope had grown judgmental, creating worse case scenarios that felt plausible, likely even.  My concern and vigilance about patient care had morphed into something mutant.  I had become worn down by worry.

But Ophthalmology?  Isn't that a 'ROAD' specialty?  Even with that lifestyle you fell to pieces??  Yes.  I did.  Did I feel a little confused, a little guilty, a little ashamed to even acknowledge being unhappy with my Doctor Life?  Absolutely.  More than a little.

But Ophtho…I'm in Primary Care.  How do you think I feel?  I hear you.  I'm a General Surgeon.  What I wouldn't give to have Ophtho hours…I still get to the hospital before 6 AM to round.  I hear you.  What would you say to a Pediatrician slammed with paperwork, working 60 hours a week?  I'd say you are my brother.  I'd say you are my sister.  Your Doctor Life can be painful.  You don't have to feel guilty.  You don't have to feel ashamed.

If you're still reading this, chances are you're either a physician thinking about leaving practice or you're someone who loves a physician thinking about leaving practice.  Here's what I can tell you: when you know it's time to leave, you know.  If you think you could still be happy seeing patients, it's absolutely worth doing anything you can to modify your work life so that staying in practice becomes more appealing.

But if, like me, you know it's time for something else, please know, too, that the blaring horns you hear now--the fear and confusion and guilt and shame--WILL give way to joy!  And excitement!  And passion!  Your Doctor Life can transform into your Dream Life as a doctor.  It happened for me.  If you want it, it will happen for you.  Here's how.

WHAT JOBS ARE OUT THERE?

Before I could even think about the realities of leaving practice, I had to convince myself that there were viable non-clinical options out there.  The first day I started to look--Google search: leaving medicine, Google search: getting out of medicine, Google search: non-clinical jobs--I felt incredibly energized.

Simply seeing right there on my computer screen the depth, breadth, and variety of non-clinical jobs alleviated so much of my fear and worry.  Pharma, Biotech, Consulting, Medical Directorships…I knew nothing about them.  But knowing what options existed--knowing that options existed--was my gateway drug into The Doctor Transition.  I never looked back.

I can't tell you how important it is to take this first step.  You don't need to find the perfect fit immediately.  But you need to start taking action immediately.  And searching online for non-clinical jobs absolutely counts as taking action.  Don't wait.  Start now.  A good search now is better than a great search later.

Become a tactical user of job boards like Indeed, Monster, and even Craigslist.  Mine as much data as you can from postings that look interesting to you.  Eventually you will find a job posting that gives you goose bumps.  Follow your goose bumps.  This is your first step toward learning what's out there.

Utilize content from SEAK, Inc.  Information provided on their website, nonclinicalcareers.com, is free and a lot of it is very high end.  This helped calibrate my expectations about the job market.  I went on to read their book Non-Clinical Careers for Physicians.  Solid.

Find a mentor.  If you can't find a physician willing to engage with you who has made The Doctor Transition, you might want to consider hiring a consultant.  I did.  I worked with Robert Priddy at Third Evolution (thirdevo.com).  My wife and I really liked working with Bob.  The added accountability that hiring him created was critical to my success.

HOW DO I TELL PEOPLE I'M LEAVING PRACTICE?

The stress that this single question caused me was immense.  But it was a codified question.  Code for: How do I deal with the shame of leaving practice?  Does this mean that I'm not a doctor anymore?  What will I say now when people ask me what I do?

Realize that leaving practice is not giving up.  It's not a sign of weakness and or a crisis of character.  In fact, it takes moxie to make the move.  My realizing this was the crucial step toward mitigating my feelings of shame, guilt, and confusion.

There are two truths that you must know: 1) you are not alone in feeling ashamed and guilty; and 2) there is absolutely no reason for you to feel ashamed or guilty.  Leaving practice is an enormous decision that reaffirms your commitment to love your life.  You have been met with an obstacle.  You will stare it down.  You will not be intimidated.

In terms of tactical advice about telling others that you are leaving practice, recognize that the negative reaction you may get from some colleagues, family, and friends is very likely not about you at all.  Your decision to live a more positive life will hold up a mirror to their own compromises, and they might resent you for it.  Remember: it's a them problem, not a you problem.

Speak your truth.  Such a huge part of this process is starting to feel not simply better but GREAT.  Own your pain.  Say it out loud to someone whose opinion matters to you.  My life in practice had become awful.  I'm determined to find joy and peace at work again.  You'll respect yourself for saying the hard thing and start to remember the Kick Ass Beast that you are.

HOW DO I GET HIRED?

This was totally foreign to me, and it scared me to death.  What I found was a direct correlation between being offered highly sought after jobs and doing three things very well: taking  deliberate and methodical approach to feeling great; becoming adept at translating clinical skills into non-clinical assets; and learning how to network effectively.  Interesting, I had preconceived notions about all three of these skill sets, and a key to my success was tearing down those preconceived notions.

The Feeling Great tear down: "Feeling great can't be learning."  What a crock.  Personal development books, videos, and audio recordings were instrumental to my personal transition from feeling defeated to feeling unstoppable.  My only regret now is that I committed merely half-way to the Feel Great Movement when I decided to leave practice.  Had I fully committed to it, as I have now, my path to achieving the Work Life I Love would have been accelerated by at least two- or three-fold.  There is no shortage of options to choose from, but a few that made the difference for me include The Art of Exceptional Living by Jim Rohn, The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, and The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.

Spend an hour every day consuming information from resources like these, and you will optimize your confidence for upcoming interviews with decision makers.

The Transferable Skills tear down: "I'll have to learn new skills in order to be hirable."  After all the training and debt I incurred, I initially felt as though I had no other monetizable skill and therefore no choice but to stay in practice.  Once I learned how to reframe some of my clinical strengths, I realized that gaining entry into arenas like Pharma wouldn't require learning any new skills at all.

Have detailed and focused chart reviews become like second nature to you?  Then reframe that strength as a Quality Control deliverable.  Have patients and colleagues been impressed with your bedside manner?  Then reframe that asset as a Training or Corporate Education deliverable.  Is critical thinking under duress a regular demand of yours?  Repackage that strength as a Management deliverable.  The possibilities are limited only by your creativity and desire.

Take an inventory of what you consider to be your greatest clinical strengths.  Better yet, ask a few people whose opinions you trust what they think your greatest strengths are.  Then, as you mine data from job postings on sites like Indeed, Monster, and Craigslist, review the job descriptions with a specific purpose in mind.  Figure out how your strengths can translate into non-clinical needs.  Be creative and think outside the box.  Before you know it, you'll have a list of 5-10 deliverables you bring to the table that you can emphasize during interviews.

The Networking tear down: "I'm going to look desperate."  You gotta network to get work.  Period.  This particular reality made my stomach turn.  I hated the idea of being at a cocktail party, grinning nervously and handing out my business card to masses of judgmental and disinterested corporate types.  Fortunately, that is an image of bad networking.  Effective networking, on the other hand, is nothing like that.  Focus on brining value to the person you're engaging, and they will think that you're a rock star.  Here's how.

Find healthcare startups in your area.  Even better, look into startup incubators around you--Google search: your city + healthcare startups, Google search: your city + startup incubator.  You will find entrepreneurs seeking to make a splash in the healthcare market.  This is your opportunity to engage with them and add massive value to what they're building.  Although they may not be able to offer you a position in their startup, there are people who, almost invariably, come from the corporate world and have connections that could be helpful to you down the road.  How do you offer value to them?  By serving as their Physician Sommelier.  Offer your expertise for free and help them make difficult decisions with confidence.

Turn commonly held stereotypes about doctors on their heads and use them to your advantage.  You'd be amazed how many people in the non-clinical world will want you to think they're smart.  It's as though you're the college professor they always wanted to impress.  Validate those you encounter when you like an idea of theirs.  Learn their first names and always, always, always refer to them as such.  Better yet, learn their kids' names, too, and ask about them.  Share a bit about your own life--stories about your kids, your spouse, your parents, etc.  Being seen as Normal Dude, MD is very powerful, and goes a long way toward helping people see how well you would fit in a corporate, team-oriented environment.

I DID IT…AND YOU CAN DO IT, TOO

It's been three and half years since I left clinical practice.  I'm 39 now, and I love my life.  I work Monday through Friday, putting in less than 35 hours per week. Weekends are mine.  Evenings are mine.  Taking call doesn't exist in my life anymore.  I find my professional roles stimulating and gratifying.  There is still some work related stress, but nothing like the stress that being in practice created.  My compensation is very comfortable, allowing my wife and me to pursue every financial goal we have.

We have a 2-year-old daughter who is the greatest joy of our lives.  My work life allows me to spend quality time with her and my wife every morning before I leave.  I pick our daughter up from daycare in the afternoons and then we have more family time together every evening.  I have my Dream Life as a doctor thanks to the action steps I described above.  If you want it, you can have your Dream Life as a doctor, too.  A few final tips.

Be consistent.  As you start the process, there will be good days and there will be great days, there will be bad days and there will be awful days.  Don't let emotional fluctuations throw you off course.  Slow and steady wins the race.

Do more than you're expected to.  When you start to make connections with potential influences and decision makers, wow them by over-delivering.  If you told a healthcare entrepreneur you met that you'd provide feedback on some concepts he was working on, incorporate your feedback into a Powerpoint presentation and email it to him.  It will highlight not only your expertise, but also your attention to detail and willingness to work hard.  There are no traffic jams on the extra mile.  The benefits you'll reap can be enormous.

THINKING ABOUT LEAVING PRACTICE? DON'T REINVENT THE WHEEL!!

Want to accelerate your elite career change? Get access to my highest yield strategies and tactics, as well as my blueprint for avoiding critical mistakes, so you can find and land the non-clinical jobs you want! Just enter your name and email address to the right and click "sign me up!".