It’s Hard

I am blessed beyond all reason to have a modest collection of friends that I have known for decades; no small feat considering I am only in my early thirties. Once a year, after Thanksgiving, we coalesce from across the country to share food, drinks, and stories. It’s like an annual school high school reunion, only amongst people who generally like each other.

As a group we skew professionally successful, but there are folks from all walks of life. Physicians like myself, attorneys, businesspeople, but also engineers, product managers, and grocery store employees. This engenders a lot of diverse discussion and often times a great deal of learning about how other people live.

One conversation in particular stuck out to me.

Two of my good friends were speaking to one another (though as it turns out I don’t think they had ever met before that night). One was a college buddy working as a software engineer. The other was a woman I have known since high school, currently working as a hospitalist in an underserved urban area in the northwest US.

The engineer had had a few drinks, and he was waxing philosophical about the hardships of his job, the lack of authority and responsibility, and the feeling that what he did never truly mattered. This crescendoed into what I suppose was his thesis of sorts:

“Doctors have it so good, they have an important job, get paid crazy money, and they don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks.”

I raised my eyebrows and buried myself in my glass of wine as I saw the hospitalist’s face scrunch up. And my initial response to preempt the threatened retaliatory tirade by my fellow physician was something along the lines of “Dude, you may want to Google ‘physician burnout'”.

This echoed an interaction I had had with an attorney friend earlier in the evening. I had been talking about strategies to max out tax-advantaged accounts (yes, even in person I stay very on-brand), to which my friend responded, “Do doctors even need to think about stuff like this? Can’t they just save a little and have more money than they would ever know what to do with?”

This post is not meant to highlight the layperson’s misunderstanding of the financial situation of a typical young physician (though evidently that was rampant). What struck me was the diversity of frustrations and fears present in this very-well-off-by-any-metric group of individuals, and how common the assumption was that one’s peers are doing better.

The following is a selection of worries either conveyed directly to me or overheard (as a disclaimer, this is not a particularly negative group of people, but rather friends close enough to feel at ease sharing these sorts of things with one another):

  • I don’t think that my career path will ever make enough money to pay off my loans
  • I don’t know how to even begin thinking about how to save money
  • My job pays well but it doesn’t make the world a better place
  • I want to scale back but it means missing out on a pension
  • I hate having to fire people
  • I’m afraid I may lose my job
  • I’m losing my hair
  • My hair is turning grey
  • I’ve gained too much weight
  • I miss having more than 6 hours of sunlight in the winter
  • It’s a struggle holding a job while taking care of my ill parents
  • It may be too late for me to have children
  • I don’t want to have children because I think the world will be a worse place for them than it was for me

I think many of us wonder if our lives would have been better (or easier, or more lucrative) if we had chosen something other than medicine. But the more time I spend with people of other stripes, the more I realize that anxiety and uncertainty are universal conditions, independent of income and social station.

I know that this post runs the risk of serving as First World Problems Exhibit 1. By definition my social circle comes from a prosperous part of a prosperous country. But I hope that my larger point holds up against that gut reaction:

We all have our personal battles to fight, and comparing our problems against others’ is probably neither productive nor well-informed. We should be grateful for what we do have, and know that the biggest problems in someone else’s life are just as likely to be something that has never even crossed our plate.

I am also reminded of a favorite quote:

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”

Be good to each other out there, because there’s no guarantee that life otherwise will be.

It’s hard.

6 thoughts on “It’s Hard”

  1. It is amazing how other professions think doctors have it made. It is no wonder society as a whole think we are paid too much. They don’t consider the years of sacrifice, the training to get there, the long hours, and the possibility of a malpractice suit (yet these same people idolize move stars and professional athletes who make at least an order of magnitude more than most docs).

    There are a lot of articles on the internet of janitors and teachers dying with a multi-million dollar portfolio all from simply living below their means and saving the rest. So it has been proven you can do it from professions that don’t make as much as physicians.

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    • For sure; I will say though that I’ve heard enough stories of the crap that other (less well paid) folks have to go through that it’s given me a healthy amount of gratitude even for the often-frustrating plight of physicians. We’re all doing our best and I’m just glad that I (finally!) have the means to make my best go really far.

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  2. Everyone thinks that their job is harder than everyone else’s. Or at least it seems that way to me. I ran a company and everyone felt misunderstood and overworked at times, including me. I do think doctors are just like everyone else in that respect. I know as a formerly high earner who made doc wages that you can righteously complain up the income scale to higher earners and that’s OK. But you absolutely cannot complain to people who make less, ever, at all, period. It comes across as condescending even among close friends. And many highly paid execs and doctors are pretty bad about talking about burn out, and over work and school loans, etc. etc. etc. to people making much less. And I can tell you it is never well received and for good reason. That conversation is only appropriate with peers and other high earners. In my experience most high earners, especially docs, don’t get this concept and alienate a lot of people without even realizing it. They don’t realize that nobody cares about the problems of 1% earners.

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    • Well said. And I’ve found that even when not complaining, there are lots of topics that simply hold no relevance to those making substantially less, even if they’re doing well in their own right. So now that I’m out of the training pipeline I’m trying to redevelop some hobbies, so I actually have something relatable and interesting to talk about…

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    • Wow, this happened to me just yesterday! An MD was going on and on and on about another MD and “how long it took him to get to $90K.” (He also has an MBA wife who works full time.) Since the audience was a PhD and an MA who make less (say, 80s and 60s), the rant was somewhat off-putting. Especially considering that the lesser paid people bring more value to the company than the MDs, both of whom come from privileged backgrounds.

      Just a few more years and I can retire on my company pension and Social Security!

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      • It goes both ways for sure. The further away I get from training, the less salient certain financial struggles will be. And likewise my non-medical friends will just never understand the time and sacrifice that this path demands. The best we can do is try to give each other grace and understand that we’ll never fully know someone else’s struggles.

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