What Happened When I Recently Told Friends Why I Left Practice

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.


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.


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.


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.


Want to learn the exact strategies I used to leave practice on my own terns, land sought after jobs as an MD, and shave off over 1000 work hours per year? Just enter your name and email address to the right, and you’ll get access to my private email list, including strategies and tactics I won’t share anywhere else.


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