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In pursuit of a life beyond medicine

If we wish to peak professionally, we need a matching valley for life outside of work, writes Dr Michael Conroy

I wanted to start with a question. It’s one that niggles and nags at me, one I’ve started putting to other doctors when the conversation flags. Imagine you have a first date tomorrow. First impressions are good, but too soon the initial pleasantries ebb, and a wave of awkwardness threatens and menaces, as it only can on a first date. Your date senses trouble ahead and tacks to the usual safe topics to settle the seas. ‘What are your hobbies?’
How does that make you feel? If your would-be answer is triangulated between a cold sweat, Netflix and the gym, then you’re in good company. Because if you start a trawl among the medical trainees you know for anyone who pursues a hobby with craving and commitment, you can prepare for a long journey. The sad truth is that the NCHDs I know, despite a love for the work we do, are extraordinarily short on die-hard pursuits outside of those hours. How did this happen?
We weren’t always like this. Most of the students in my college class, nudged along by loving, but sharp-elbowed parents, arrived to university with a hobby or two they pursued with practised gusto. Our cup ran over with footballers, harpists, debaters and tennis players. But with every passing year, we gave less to these passions that had gulped up our free time and half-defined our character, and more to study sessions, extra electives and practice audits.
By the time we started work, the hobbies had vanished into the ether (literally so, for my friends in anaesthetics), made impossible by a lack of free time and energy. Since then, as our careers advance, time outside work is increasingly dominated by exams, house hunting or family life. Faced with these demands, mere interests cannot compete. Those activities we embraced in the past increasingly resemble means to an end, bricks in the building of a CV, rather than ends in themselves.
But this Darwinian approach to free time, leaving to wither all but our most efficient engagements, comes at a sore loss to our character. Our interests are what add colour and depth and life to our personalities, are what ensure the story of us is written in italics and bold. They strain mental and physical muscles that we rarely stretch and give us the strength to pull ourselves out if work leaves us in a rut.
My teenage piano playing was a case in point. In calibre, it was distinctly unspecial (a short foray into jazz was particularly distressing for all around). But I remember my father nudging me along anyway. He reminded me that, even in Leaving Cert year, it was tending a part of me that trigonometry never would. Nightly scales and sonatas were a foil to textbooks, work that never felt like work and the balance they provided made all the difference academically during those years as well.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence, so, that some of the warmest, bear-hug friends I’ve made since entering the medical world are all people who have a swivel-eyed, near-unsettling passion for something alongside their job, whether it be a worship of Stevie Nicks, creating cartoon stories of Irish medical life, or breathing life into the Irish language.
If we’re looking for inspiration, Irish medicine has form, too. Oliver St John Gogarty improbably managed to combine being an ENT surgeon with being a compelling gossip, poet and author. Ronan Tynan has sung in the White House and won Paralympic golds. Even a cursory glance over my own seniors in recent years uncovers tennis champions, concert pianists and inter-county footballers.
This parade of elites marches still, to some extent (step forward Dora Gorman, playing inter-county GAA and international football and graduating top of UCD medicine in her spare time). But if this is not realistic for most of us, nor is it an excuse to step back from a broader, richer life. Even our most amateurish pursuits can bring sizzle and spark to our soul and remind us what it was like to love or be infuriated by something, rather than to see all around us as ‘fine’. Nor do these aspirations pose an obstacle to career ambition; rather, they acknowledge that, if we wish to peak professionally, we need a matching valley for life outside of work.
And so each January, maybe we should forget the usual New Year’s guff about being more disciplined or abstemious, or muscle-bound or virtuous, or (spare me) paleo. Maybe we should instead strive to be more interested and interesting. To embrace with a lusty roar and put indifference and banality and ‘fine’ firmly to bed. Because even if it doesn’t tame your burnout and awaken your inner Oliver Sachs, it might at least save you a few awkward silences.

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