In the fall of 2013, during my two-year research fellowship in the middle of my clinical training, I went back to school. I had been accepted to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where I would join the prestigious Health Care Management program. Pretty much everyone – my soon-to-be husband, my parents, my co-residents – had the same question: why, after years of formal education and now hands-on training, did I want more school, and what was I going to do with an MBA? My answer was always the same: I wanted physicians like myself to lead the “health care” industry rather than non-clinicians, who didn’t know what it was like to care for a patient.
Two years later, I had my degree. I had learned the basics of finance and accounting and marketing and strategy and operations. I knew the lingo, had heard what motivated individuals in a variety of fields (or, in business school-speak, “spaces”). But the most important lessons I learned over those two years were about what motivated me, and how I could shape my life and orient its direction.
In medical school and then in residency, we focus on checking off the boxes on our to-do list for success: get good grades, match into a great residency program, learn how to take care of patients, learn how to operate, do some research, match into a great fellowship program. The theme running behind all of that is simple: work hard. We don’t think much beyond these desires – we are too tired, and too focused on achieving our next milestone. No one makes us stop and take stock of our career goals and our lives outside the hospital, or how one affects the other. But our lives and priorities change over time, and the choices we make at age 25 may not be good for us at 27, or 30, or 35. When you pause and step back to get a larger perspective, this makes sense. But when you are in the grind of residency, it is hard to envision anything beyond the next day, much less the next year.
I stumbled onto this line of thinking when I enrolled in a class at Wharton entitled “Total Leadership” (there is a book of the same name based on the class). I thought it would be a class about being a good leader: how to inspire others, how to make hard choices, things like that. But instead the class was entirely about integrating the different domains of your personal life: work, family, self, community. Being a “total leader” means thinking deliberately about the choices you make and how one aspect of your life can enrich the others. Where do you see yourself in each domain in 5 years, and how do you get there? What is important to you and how do you prioritize? We are used to thinking about our career goals, but how often do we think concretely about the type of partner or parent we want to be, or our goals outside of the hospital?
I’ve made some tough choices in the years since I took “Total Leadership,” and my life has changed radically. I am now a parent, have finished my training and recently started my career as an academic surgeon. In many ways, these choices were facilitated or strengthened by the lessons I learned in the Total Leadership class. I credit those lessons for giving me the strength of conviction to get through the hard times: I had long-term goals in sight and a plan for how to achieve them. And it is now time to work through the “Total Leadership” exercises again to help plan the next phase of my life. It is an iterative and evolving process, and is never truly finished. But in an era focused on improving personal well being, we could all benefit from taking a moment to think about what truly is important to us in all aspects of our lives.