Everyone I talk to who hears of my plans to be financially independent in my 30’s always gives me a sideways glance. Then they get really flustered when I mention that I may even go part-time or, worse, retire early.
“But you worked so hard,” they lament. “Why spend so long studying just to throw away the qualification!”
“But you always say how much you love medicine! You’re so passionate about it.”
“That’s really selfish, the country’s healthcare system is already losing enough doctors to emigration!”*
Then they start analysing every complaint I ever raise about workplace drama and assume that I only want the option to escape my job because I hate it.
Everything Is Not As It Seems
So far in my internship, I’ve been really fortunate to only rotate through one discipline that I mildly disliked. Even then, it wasn’t the work that bothered me (that was the interesting part) but rather the dynamics of the types of people that tended to gravitate towards and occupy that field. Most days I was annoyed and was counting the hours before I could leave, but then I’d be so drawn to patients of that discipline if they presented to casualty after hours.
At first I chalked it up to a dislike in structure or an aversion to ward work. But that didn’t fully account for it, since I’d already done one of the most ward-work intensive rotations and loved every second of it.
Then I thought that maybe the problem was that my peak productivity is at night when all the action happens in casualty. But that was silly too because I’d managed to get through relatively more mundane day-intensive rotations and I’d done many day-calls in casualty that I’d enjoyed.
When I realised that I just disliked the discipline-specific workplace factors, an interesting thought occurred to me, which I’ll get to later.
And Yet Everything Is As It Should Be
The clincher for me was when I started the casualty-only subdivision of a different rotation. Each day seemed to fly by, I would walk in and walk out with a spring in my step, a song in my heart and a deep appreciation that this was what I got to wake up to everyday.
The hours were longer and more labour-intensive than anything I’d ever been exposed to since even before internship, and yet I felt fresher and more well-rested than I’d ever felt. I finally knew where (one of) my place(s) in medicine was, and I actually started considering protracting my career through (*gasp*) specialisation.
Even without the prospect of further study, for the first time since I’d started working towards Financial Independence I could actually picture myself still working in some capacity long after not needing to!
Bye Bye FIRE?
Finding a part of my purpose and passion in my work was such a revelation to me, one would expect it to have made a drastic difference to my plans. Why save aggressively when I had such a long road with even better remuneration (eventually) ahead of me? Why not let loose and live it up since there’s no burning desire to free myself of some of the constraints of a full-time medical career anymore? Why even bother for financial independence when I can just do what I love until I die?
Well, because nothing’s really changed.
I still live and work in a country where most of us are just two major life events away from poverty. I still work in a profession where requests for sane working hours or things as basic as lunch- or bathroom-breaks are regarded as signs of weakness. I still have no control over what medicine will look like in fifteen years.
And what about future me?
Will I still love getting up at the crack of dawn and leaving work long after the sun has set? Will I still want to dedicate my best windows of energy and creativity to this form of art–a form where patients and their relatives scream at me and manhandle me when they don’t get what they want exactly how they want it and when they want it, while admin simply says ‘how unfortunate’ and things continue as if nothing happened? Will I always be young and energetic enough to go from a full work day to a full evening in persuit of my other creative endeavors? Will I have the patience for the ever-growing body of administrative work being crammed into medicine, despite the fact that we are already overworked and the system in stretched to breaking point in the public sector? Will I still be tolerant of the fact that inhumane basic working conditions (e.g hours on duty without sleep) are allowable and infact encouraged like some sadistic torture tactic to “break us to make us”? Will I be able to stomach the increasingly litigenous nature of modern-day practice? Will I have the good humour to joke about not having urine bags for our patients who require catheters or guaze for our patients with septic wounds or a functioning bloodgas machine for our critically ill diabetic ICU patient…?
Will I still be able to maintain a positive attitude throughout a sixteen hour shift where we are working in the dark because there is no electricity and the generator is also not working, but the hospital CEO couldn’t be bothered because at least the patients haven’t called her to complain? (True story.)
Maybe I will…but what if I won’t?
Love What You Do
Work is so much more enjoyable when you love what you do. But you don’t always have the say to cherry-pick which things you love and do only those things. Generally, that’s not how life works. Loving what you do could be a gateway hallucinogenic to believing that you’re doing what you love.
However, if you can have the security to make certain reasonable demands–part-time work, exemption from the non-clinical aspects of a job, dropping overtime work and calls, locum tenens work to suit your personal schedule, even choosing where you work, leaving an unsuitable workplace in order to take a stand–why not aim for that? Why not create the option, even if you end up not entirely using it. FIRE is about more than just hitting some arbitrary number and then calling it quits. It’s about being the co-author of the terms and conditions of your life instead of just the proofreader.
So maybe I’ll hit FI and feel completely content to carry on slaving away for the state. More likely, though, I’ll want to spend more time with the people I love (family and friends), doing the things that I’ve always loved (creating) at the pace and level of involvement of my choosing. Having the leverage of choice is really what Financial Independence is about to me. And it’s what I wish for every person with a decent salary coming in each month now.
If I can arrange my affairs in such a way that I never have to put up with work that depresses me, that’s a goal well-set. If I can find a line of work that I love enough to do despite not needing the money, that’s just a bonus.
*By the way, this one really irritates me. I refuse to be held hostage by other people’s life choices. I don’t believe that doctors are machines obligated to give service at all costs, even at the expense of our own health, sanity or well-being. We have to think of ourselves first. The first H in any resuscitation algorithm is “Hazards” and you don’t do anything else until you’ve protected yourself from possible harm. If that’s selfish, then I’m more than happy with the trait.