Staying Professionally Fulfilled: No One Can Stop You But Yourself

I believe some physicians tell themselves 3 stories that prevent them from assuming responsibility for their professional lives.  

I recently saw a greeting card that caught my attention. It said: “No one can stop you but yourself.” I paused and read the words again: No one can stop you but yourself. The card now rests on my desk at home, in plain view, for me to reflect on daily. I interpret those words to mean that I have the freedom to change my life if only I muster the courage to overcome the things that can stop me: my insecurities, anxiety, excuses, and fear. The wisdom of the card is not breaking news. And yet the words resonated with me in a novel and powerful way.

The belief that physicians have this freedom may not be so obvious to them as they grapple with government rules, insurance hassles, and electronic health record inefficiencies. These problems seem to be outside of their control. No doubt external factors are significantly impacting the health of physicians. However, unless physicians deeply understand that they have a choice in how they respond to the conditions of practice, they will have little chance to improve the quality of their professional lives.

This is not to say that health care organizations should not assume significant responsibility for improving the adverse conditions of medical practice—they absolutely should. However, there will always be bureaucratic hurdles to endure. I believe physicians who take more responsibility for directing their professional lives will experience greater professional fulfillment.

I am not referring to physicians who are presently burned out or depressed. These physicians likely need acute interventions to hasten their recovery. I am talking about engaged physicians who recognize the stresses of being a physician and who desire to proactively take steps to prevent burnout—actions that not only promote their own well-being, but also align with their values and strengths. Ronald Epstein, MD, puts it this way: “People shouldn’t wait until they are feeling burned out to reflect on what is most nourishing about their work.”1

In the last chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey shares how one passage transformed his thinking about personal choice and freedom2:

[O]ne day as I was wandering between stacks of books in the back of the college library, I came across a book that drew my interest. As I opened it, my eyes fell upon a single paragraph that powerfully influenced the rest of my life.

I read the paragraph over and over again. It basically contained the simple idea that there is a gap or space between stimulus and response, and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space.

I can hardly describe the effect that idea had on my mind. Though I had been nurtured in the philosophy of self-determinism, the way the idea was phrased—“a gap between stimulus and response”—hit me with fresh, almost unbelievable force. It was almost like “knowing it for the first time,” like an inward revolution, “an idea whose time had come.”

I reflected on it again and again, and it began to have a powerful effect on my paradigm of life. … I reveled in the inward sense of freedom to choose my response.

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