Adding Value and Other Shifts in Thinking

Roughly two months ago, right around the time I started medical school, I created this blog and sat down to write the first entry. I figured I would write about my path into medical school — that seemed like a logical first entry for a blog titled “Mr. Med Student”. I got about 500 words deep into this project before I realized that my path into medical school makes a very uninteresting story. There were no great adversities to overcome, no crises or spectacles, no theatrics and no drama. I was blessed to have a straightforward path into medicine, but this left me with nothing to write about. My sole idea deflated, I discarded my plan to have a blog and resumed life as usual.

I’ve now been in medical school for nearly three months, and I realized today that I’ve managed to learn some things. I don’t mean just the medical curriculum — which goes without saying — I mean that I’ve learned things about life. I’ve detected two shifts in my thinking. Both shifts represent things that I should have figured out long ago, but alas I can at times be a bit slow on the uptake on these matters. Teach me about chemistry or immunology and I can learn that fairly quick; teach me about life and… well, good luck to whoever tries. Those lessons apparently need be drilled into my head with quite a lot more vigour and repetition before they begin to stick.

The first detectable shift in my thinking is that I now view my time in a completely different way. With the demands of medical school, time is at a premium like never before, and I find myself respecting my time in a way that’s new to me. I find I no longer have a willingness to participate in activities that don’t add value to my life or the lives of others. The things that don’t confer value in some way are excised without hesitation. I don’t mean to be grand about it — it’s not as if I’ve become some paragon of productivity with no time for trivial matters and no need to ever relax. Value comes in different forms, and everyone appreciates certain forms more than others. There’s value in relationships — the right relationships, that is — and spending time with loved ones. The act of helping others can add value to our own lives as well as those helped. I find value in creative engagement, so I tend to spend some time producing music and reading about things that interest me. Of course there’s value in our own happiness, so sometimes finding value is as simple as binge-watching a Netflix series or pouring yourself a considerable portion of wine — arguably not “productive” activities in the typical sense of the word, but stress-relief is an important contributor to mental health, and mental health can only decline so far before productivity begins to wane.

The pursuit of value will look different from person to person, but there are some commonalities. Dull, tasteless relationships have to go. Living for others more than they would live for you has to go. Wasting time on things you don’t care about has to go. The philosopher Sam Harris wrote “We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy.” I think Sam’s right, and I think it often has to do with failing to realize and/or act on what’s important to us. Respect your own time by filling it with the things that matter, and be courageous in the pursuit of value.

The second shift in thinking is less self-centred than the first, and something I think I knew once upon a time but forgot somewhere along the way: always remember that every person you meet is going through things you know nothing about. I entered a time of personal difficulties a few weeks back, and mental health became an issue. Fortunately, my classmates and I have a crew of highly-trained mental health professionals at our disposal to help us get through such times with minimal disruption to our education. Unfortunately, the majority of this crew was on strike at the time due to failed contract negotiations. I was left to navigate these murky waters mostly on my own, although the remnants of the mental health team were able to help me defer a midterm exam by a few days, and this proved very helpful.

When life is going well, the pressures of medicine are an enjoyable challenge; when life goes poorly, they become a crushing burden. It occurred to me that I, two months into the term with a strong science background and a relatively easy life (no children to care for, no debt from the previous degree, a healthy family, etc.) was probably not the first person in my class to feel crushed by this burden. I realized that many of my friends and peers had probably felt this way at some point over the last several weeks, and I couldn’t help but wonder — who? When? Why had I failed to notice? Were they doing better now? Who among my classmates was suffering at that very moment? What could I do to help? I began paying more attention to the emotional conditions of my classmates and realized that an easy life was the rare exception. Not everyone was going through a crisis at that moment, but everyone I talked to had problems and seemingly everyone was stressed. I took this realization as a firm reminder to try to be nicer to people. I also resolved not to pass judgment on someone for struggling with what I thought should have been within their capabilities. You never know what disadvantages someone is working through — play it safe and treat them well.

A boring exposition about my path into medical school didn’t seem like the sort of thing that could add value to anyone’s life — I thought this topic stood a better chance. I’m not sure what future entries will be like. Perhaps I will continue to learn new lessons (slowly, no doubt) or maybe medical school itself will inspire some new topic. I’m not sure. In any case, thanks for reading. Hope to see you back!

– GM

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