Did the future turn out the way you expected it to be?
When I was 17 and about to enter college, I remember myself to be an awkward kid who was nevertheless fairly optimistic of the future. I was certain and determined. I had the future all laid out. I had done well in high school and had expected to do equally well in college. I had my eyes set on joining an illustrious and honorable profession — a choice that was celebrated by my parents. I was going to study the sciences. I was going to earn top marks and get admitted to medical school. It was going to be a Great Leap Forward. I was going to be the first in my family to go to graduate school. I was going to one day have a white coat emblazoned with my name and earn my keep as a physician. I had fully expected to feel accomplished at age 30.
‘The future came and went in the mildly discouraging way that futures do.’
I did do well in college — earned latin honors, participated in student politics, and got into medical school. Medical school itself was a breeze as if some intrinsic steam engine was propelling me inexorably to the future that I had imagined for myself. Going through medical school, I had never been happier. Everything had been going according to plan. But everything came to a crashing halt when the future came to be.
Being a physician gave me a unique perspective on death. Death was not a distant concept that could be put off and swept aside. It was real, certain, and present. In a way, learning the craft of medicine had taken the exuberance of youth from me. The hospital was full of harrowing sights — a patient’s last breath, lifeless limbs hanging from stretchers, the bereavement of the ones left behind — that reminded me of life’s temporal nature. The truth that no one had told me was that life was always going to be a losing battle. Life was always going to be a curious fragile thing that could fall apart any time. An idea took hold in me. Everything began to be framed in the context of my own mortality. Achieving future goals became less important as to achieving something some sort of satisfaction in the present.
‘Yesterday is History. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift.’
Taking medicine, to some extent, had always been about my pride and ego. I had been sustained by the accolades I earned from friends and relatives. The bubble had to burst. The gruelling work hours, the all consummating devotion that medicine expects, the emotional burden in taking care of patients, and the culture of bullying among physicians shook my resolve and lead me to bolt from residency training. It was a difficult choice. Medicine was a hard life but it was certain. The rewards of clinical practice were a certainty as were the sacrifices. But it was not the life I had wanted for myself. I wished for a better compromise in my life-work balance, to be able to rejoice in the present as I build for the future. I thought I could do better than sacrificing all present happiness for a future that might not happen. Also, I had not met anyone in their deathbed who wished they had worked more. In my salad days, I foolishly wished for people to sing praises of me. As the future unraveled, I turned out to be a modest failure with little to my name and little to show to the world.
‘Not all those who wander are lost.’
I had always been hesitant to change. I often sided with the status quo and liked the certainty of things and of ten-year plans. The flight from clinical practice had thrown my life into disarray. I was confused and left to wander. I found comfort in the knowledge of peers who found roles outside the hospital (in pharmaceuticals, insurance, public health, etc). I was consoled as well by the idea that the knowledge I have accumulated would never be lost. Exploring an old interest in the social sciences, I put myself into graduate school to take up the dismal science of economics. The model of the utility maximizing individual who balances present and future consumption subject to an income constraint immediately drew comparison to my own experience. Not having the requisite background, it was a tall and arduous order to understand the economic models. It was a struggle, but having had my share of failures I was neither easily discouraged by setbacks nor particularly enamoured by success. I had learned that everything that had happened to us are half-chances. There was no need to be excessively haunted by the past nor to be obsessively fixated with the future.
So here I am, less interested in what others have to say about me. Having reconciled to the fact that I have become a modest failure, I have freed myself for a reinvention. I am exploring my interests. I am hopeful that I’ll still make a difference and contribute to society at large. In some ways, I have embarked on the dying process before the age of thirty and in fullness of health. I am living a more balanced life. For my numbered days, I wish to see my loved ones more, read more fiction, learn to ride a bike, perform a headstand, climb to the roof of Africa, and swim cross the English Channel. I have come to think that life is never about the destination for there’s only death at the end of the road. It’s the journey that counts. Enjoy the ride.
It’s the quality of life, stupid!