A while back I received an e-mail from a very nice woman who was contemplating a change in direction, moving from a long and successful career in sales to a new position as a Life Coach, using her experiences and insights to counsel others on, appropriately, making life-changing decisions.
Part of her process involved interviewing other people who had made definitive career changes, and she wondered if I might be willing to talk to her about my 'doctor-turned-artist' experience.
Of course I would.
I get these questions a lot, usually from a general sense of curiosity, sometimes out of a genuine concern for my mental health. Either way, it's not a subject that I shy away from. In fact, I tell just about everybody. After all, the 'doctor' part of my life continues to exert a huge influence on my artwork, and knowing about it helps explain much of the humor and the technical complexity of my drawings. And it makes a good story.
Here are a few selections from the interview that might be of general interest:
In giving up medicine for art you must have done a tremendous amount of introspection. What kind of questions did you ask yourself?
How can I afford this? How will I explain this? How do I replace the one dream I've had since age five? What would my mother think, if she were still alive? What will my dad think? (Okay, I already didn't care what my dad thought. Or, more accurately, that he would disapprove. He routinely disapproved.)
This will be something to tell the grandkids.
How can I afford to have grandkids?
In making the decision, was it a gradual process or did you “just know?”
The handwriting was on the wall long before I looked up high enough to read it. The process of deciding was really more of a process of realizing what I already knew: That I was not built for life as a surgeon, and I had no interest in being an internist. I probably knew by my third year in med school that eventually I had to do something else. I just didn't know for sure what that 'something' would be. By then it was important to me to finish the journey I had started, graduate, and get a license, more as milestone, a badge of completion than anything else. Even that early in the process, I never seriously considered setting up a practice.
One day in the hospital a nurse asked me if I could remember the last time I was happy. I could. It was five years earlier, in college, in the art studio.
My last year in med school, and the following year of internship were as close as I can imagine to a prison sentence. Once that period of my life was over, it didn't matter what activity or occupation would replace my previous calling, so long as it was unstructured and creative. I didn't know what I would do, how I would earn a living, or how I was ever going to pay back my school loans. And I didn't care about that, either. By then, medical training had very nearly beaten the compassion out of me entirely.
Once you knew what you wanted, did you have to overcome any internal resistance to actually doing it?
Leaving medicine was easy. My residency contract was renewable year-to-year, so long as I performed well enough, and wanted to re-up. I simply chose to let it lapse. Then I had to face the tougher questions: How do you make a living as an artist? They sure don't teach you any business or career planning courses in the art department, and even less in the hospital. Thought I might try to be a writer. Tried to be a model for a while. It was amazing how many jobs I was NOT allowed to do, because I was overqualified. You can't sell shoes if you have a medical degree. Eventually I fell in with a bunch of graphic designers and learned their craft, which helped pay the bills until the drawings took over.
Even so, it took me more than a year to get comfortable 'being' an artist. It was hard to stop being privileged, too. This was not an ego thing, though I had plenty of that, for sure. It was just hard to realize that as a doctor in a hospital, your words meant something. They carried real weight. You spoke about important things, and people acted on your ideas. As a regular person, your informed opinion suddenly didn't matter all that much – even if you knew from nine years of training exactly what you were talking about. It took a long time to get used to that.
The hardest part, though, was dealing with the rage that I carried around inside of me regarding the medical system. It was impossible to fight the inherent unfairness of residency, especially the foolish incompatibility that an impersonal, sometimes brutal training program was expected to produce compassionate physicians. I kept to myself for a long time, mulling over my feelings about that experience, trying to reach some sort of equilibrium. Nowadays they might call it PTSD.
I remember that it took me six months to stop jumping every time I was near a microwave. The machine would beep, and I would impulsively slap my waist, looking for the pager.
It took me years to get over my anger, and let my humor take over again. Not surprisingly, once I was able to draw a funny medical picture, my artistic career took off.
How would you guide someone else who might want to make that same kind of life change?
Jump. Wings grow fast.