I write this having recently turned 37 years old (the blog is just over one month old). So it seemed a reasonable time to ruminate. While my birthday didn’t actually prompt me to think existential thoughts — I tend to space out and think about life all the time — my birthday was a good excuse to write about it. I will warn you now, this tour-de-force is pure stream-of-consciousness. So forgive the meandering road it goes down.
My wife has informed me I am middle-aged. I don’t know if that’s true. I said I didn’t believe it, and I trotted out some cliché saying it’s about how old you feel.
I wrote most of this from a hotel in San Francisco, attending a research conference, which is where I was when I celebrated my birthday. When I returned, I felt about 73. Rogue Three (the only child to travel with us and his first time in a hotel) did not sleep well in the hotel, and I became sick halfway through the trip. I wrote much of this on my phone while lying in bed, when I would have rather attended the conference or enjoyed San Francisco (I’m out of town again soon for a family fishing trip. Next post: Traveling with Children).
At this conference, I presented a bit of my research (which I am not promoting on the blog at the moment), while taking in the collective work of a huge number of people from around the country (and world) who have dedicated their lives to improving child health.
The conferences can be both daunting and inspiring (and yes, sometimes boring, but that’s when I go to the exhibitors to obtain free vitamin drops. It is a pediatrics conference after all). They can also be kind of fun. I enjoy seeing the individual and collective work, the chance to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t even know exist, and the enthusiasm of the people presenting their work. The chance to visit to a cool city with many of the expenses reimbursed is clearly a major plus.
Every profession has its stars — including mine. These conferences are a chance to hear their work and meet them, as well as a chance to build and develop some working relationships. I also run into the emerging stars, those close to my age (many who are younger, since I’m old now) who are doing great work and for whom the expectations of future accomplishments are great. I have a great deal of respect for those I meet and I enjoy learning from them. While I know others compare me against them, I’ve never measured my accomplishments against theirs, regardless of where they are in their career, even as I try to learn from their successes.
I do not compare myself to them for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I do not find direct comparisons meaningful. Comparing professional lives requires knowing private lives — the superstar researcher may have reached such heights by working 80 hours/week and letting the spouse raise the kids and do everything. Or maybe that person works 40 hours/week, volunteers 20 hours/week, raises their own organic vegetables, and still accomplishes more than me. It’s easy to assume that all wildly successful people do nothing but work on their craft, but I don’t believe that to be true. If you want to believe that “work-life balance” isn’t a myth, then it has to be true (though it may be a myth — something I plan to explore in a future post).
While in some cases I hear about life outside of their working lives (some are workaholics, some truly have a life unrelated to work), the comparisons I hear most are often about how many manuscripts someone has published or how many research grants they’ve obtained. In academia, that’s one measure of success — perhaps the biggest. Whether they consider themselves professionally successful is often an unknown, and whether they are content with the other aspects of their lives is even harder to discern.
As a sports watching fanatic, I’ve often looked at athletes of a similar age to me as a yardstick — it’s truly a terrible comparison to make. Professional athletes by definition have already achieved significant success — the worst major league baseball player had to be near the top of his profession to reach that level. Our career trajectories have no similarities, with them peaking in their 20’s or 30’s and then quickly having to find second careers. Yet since I pay attention to sports, even when I don’t have time to watch, that’s what is in my head.
As a sports fanatic, sporting events mark major milestones in my life, and occasionally they actually ARE a major milestone (watching my home town team win the World Series in person is a lifetime memory). The athletes I see are marked forever in my mind, and when I think back to different stages of life, I think of those athletes. The “Where Are They Now?” game for professional athletes can be but fascinating or morbid depending on how old you are.
While in the hotel, I saw headlines of a 37-year-old American gold medal winning bobsledder found dead in his room. That prompted a flood of sports memories, such as watching Michael Phelps (only 31 years old) win gold medals in Beijing in 2008 while I was on call as third year resident, and then coming out of retirement last year to win more medals. I remember watching the first epic match between Federer and Nadal at Wimbledon, also while on call in residency. I thought of one of my favorite baseball players — as a medical student I wore his jersey while watching my team get destroyed in the first World Series I was able to attend in person. I remember the excitement of watching Hakeem Olajuwon — a Muslim — be the best player in the NBA and beat Orlando to win the championship while I was a teenager. I remember my favorite football team, the Buffalo Bills, losing four straight Super Bowls, while I was in grade school. All of these athletes from my memories were younger during those moments than I am now.
At my university, they still call me “junior faculty.” I have a wife and three kids and a big mortgage, two graduate degrees, some research awards and publications and grants, as well as many presentations under my belt. I have treated thousands of patients in the ER, and delivered good news and bad news to many families. I think when I hit 40 I will no longer be “junior” — I think.
The label doesn’t really denote levels of success — there are people more “junior” than me who are considered more successful. Universities and academics still has a bit of a caste system, based in some ways on seniority. Perhaps it is a bit of a pecking order that results from the odd dynamic of cramming together everyone from 1st-year medical students to senior faculty under one roof.
All training and experience levels are interacting with each other all the time, all-year round. The trainees are trying to prove themselves (and sometimes think they already have), and the experienced ones are teaching and working while occasionally lamenting what’s wrong with the younger generation. It would be akin to Major League Baseball having all levels of minor leaguers not just taking batting practice with those in the Majors, but having minor league players in games with the major league players year round. It generates many interesting conversations and some great relationships. Such is life in academics.
Conferences such as the one I am attending give me pause — I forget about comparisons to athletes. I still try to avoid a direct comparison to my peers, but it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the dedication it takes to achieve certain goals. The highly successful people in my profession work as hard (or harder) as a highly successful athlete, but it takes longer to achieve that success. Once they reach it, most keep doing it until they literally can’t (perhaps similar to a top athlete), but that could be 30+ years.
I work hard, and while I’ve had some success at work, I have no idea if people have ever compared themselves to me (without laughing) or attempt to emulate me. I would rather they don’t attempt a serious comparison. As mentioned earlier, comparisons are impossible without understanding motivation and luck and skill and sacrifice and family and a million other things that don’t fit on a resumé and which you can’t glean from a quick conversation in a hallway.
I write this at a time where I’ve spent a great deal of time understanding the benefits of Financial Independence and Retiring Early (FIRE). Just using this word makes me different than most at the conference and my work colleagues. I enjoy my work and our family has not set a target date for FIRE — I haven’t actually used this term with Rogue Mom, though we’ve certainly discussed the concept. I plan to work for many more years — I have many things I want to accomplish and I want to continue working in the ER. I am, however, intent on us saving money and managing our expenses, as I know there will be a point where I want my career to be a choice, not a requirement. Yes, sometimes I get carried away with the money saving thing.
I do not compare myself to the leaders in my field, though I’m often told that I should be emulating them. Given that I seem to have a different outlook, emulating them may be a doomed strategy. I would rather understand how their strategies for success can be adapted to my life, not learn how to live their life.
I also look at the sacrifice. I’ve had scheduling flexibility the past couple years that has let me be more available to be with the kids than most physicians normally have at this stage of their careers. Essentially I’ve had less time in the ER and more time working on other things, but on my own time. So I often finish up work after the kids are in bed (so far that’s also my only time for blog writing, hence the once/week pace) so I can be available before and after school/daycare.
That’s relevant, because while I have a lot of room to improve as a dad/husband (I’m sure Rogue Mom can provide a list of things to work on, such as the laundry thing again), if I die tomorrow, my family will be impacted more than my work colleagues or any patient in the emergency department. Someone will pick up my open ER shifts; someone may even take over my research projects. There won’t be anyone waiting to take over my role in the family (unless my wife has someone on the side I don’t know about :).
I’ve had department chairs as well as co-workers my age stricken with serious illnesses or die when they had many good years left, and I’ve had friends who are phenomenal at their job simply leave for better jobs elsewhere. Gone but not forgotten, all had to be replaced — work life moves on no matter why you left. I don’t consider this a morbid or depressing thought — it’s the reality of being an employee.
I want to teach my kids the value and purpose of hard work, and to demonstrate it by working hard and making sacrifices for the family. That desire is balanced by the desire to spend time with them (depending on their behavior). So what is the balancing point? The work is always there — great for job security. At some point the kids will grow up and they won’t be kids anymore. That time only happens once.
I do have to work weekends/nights and have a couple days/month where I really do not see the kids, but it doesn’t generate feelings of guilt. My main concern is ensuring the Rogue Kids don’t overwhelm my wife, because handling all three by yourself for a weekend is exhausting. American cultural norms makes many working parents feel guilty for working (this is far worse for woman than men, though I think men are feeling it more than in the past); Pakistani cultural norms shoo away that guilt (like old-school American culture, men work all the time). I am fortunate that recently I have been able to see my kids a great deal, so have not really dealt with guilt. My schedule and theirs will only become busier over time, so we’ll see what happens in the future.
Having a job I enjoy (most of the time) makes me somewhat lucky in many ways, but also a better person and parent (when I adequately control job stress). Having this blog for the past month has made me happier, even having only spent a little time on it, as writing is a fun new hobby.
I know many of those pursuing FIRE do not enjoy their jobs or find purpose in their work, and many others just have stronger feelings of guilt or more difficult to tackle issues with work-life balance. Others perhaps just do not see a reason to work when they could be doing things that are simply more enjoyable.
There are many reasons why so many pursue early retirement or financial independence or leave their professional jobs at a young age. I applaud anyone who is able to make dramatic changes in their lives to reach their goals — it’s scary. Miserable is no way to go through life, and the idea of missing out on important moments because you are locked in a miserable job is a scary proposition. While we aren’t close to FIRE or miserable, Rogue Mom will be going part-time at her job at the end of the month. We’re hoping that brings her more flexibility (as my job is becoming busier), and provides her more opportunity to enjoy the Rogue Kid moments that are all too fleeting.
How do you measure where you are in life? What life changes have you made to meet your goals?
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