What do you want to be when you grow up?
Eliane Chang, MD
It was a common question to be asked as children, as soon as we learned the meaning of the words “job” and “work.” By the time I graduate from high school, I am answering earnestly, “I want to be a doctor.” I am blissfully unaware that no one at age 18 has any inkling of what that means. And so emerging adulthood begins, as described by Jeffrey Arnett in 2000, pertaining to young adults between 18 and 25 years of age who do not have children, do not live in their own home, or do not have sufficient income to become fully independent.¹ It is the period of time when adolescents become adults by exploring the seemingly endless possibilities of life directions.What do you want to be when you grow up?
In college, my understanding of this mysterious guild guarded by the Hippocratic Oath does not grow much. I know that I want to help people, change the world, and have enough money for a comfortable lifestyle. Medicine still seems like a great career to accomplish those goals.What do you want to be when you grow up?
In medical school, I still want to help people and change the world; but in the meantime, I need to study, study, study; then choose a residency; and then match. I keep my head in the books because fear of failure is always crouching at the door. Selfishly studying sucks out the sense of personal achievement and feeds professional burnout, especially when nostalgia for the college days, when I used to help people in tangible ways, hits. I console myself and strengthen the delayed gratification muscle: “It’s just temporary. Study now, so you can be a better doctor and help people more effectively in the future.” Even after I start rotating wards and studying is no longer occupying the majority of my days, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole and not sure how to navigate my role. Confidence and the sense of personal achievement are at all-time lows. By the time I graduate with my medical degree, I begin to wonder, “When am I ever going to graduate from emerging adulthood and reach adulthood?”What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to help people, and as an intern, I finally can. Those moments, I think “I’ve finally arrived.” My new goal is to be a competent physician. Being a consistently excellent physician seems like an unrealistic goal on most days. I’m just trying to survive, like Cosette sweeping the floor, singing “Castle on a Cloud.
The only way to stay afloat is to figure out what my superiors want of me. But I start learning to tell stories, narratives that illuminate different perspectives of familiar situations faced by the medical trainees; that acknowledge and interpret the challenges common in our interactions with our colleagues, patients, and society; that absorb and interpret experiences in a way that shapes our character and how we see our role in the world.3-7 Stories become a modality for discernment: “Of all the things I do, which things matter? Which threads do I want to keep and weave into the narrative of my life? How do these threads give me hope for a meaningful future?”
What do you want to be when you grow up? Having miraculously survived internship, I am now a resident applying for hematology-oncology fellowship, after meeting several admirable attendings and thinking to myself, “They are great people. I want to be that efficient and effective, influence medical students and residents, practice fantastic communication skills, and show compassion to patients and colleagues.” By now, I’ve been in a rigorous academic environment for 20 years. The atoms of academic curiosity make up the air I breathe and are embedded in every cell of my soul, becoming the framework for an academic career.