While reflecting on an extraordinarily busy yet rewarding career year of 2019, I thought of my resolutions for 2020. I’m exceptionally bad at keeping new year resolutions, so I only made one: to be happy.
The concept of Ikigai
Happiness can mean different things to different people, and each of us, particularly medical professionals, is on a personal journey. There is a cool Japanese concept that encompasses multiple spheres of happiness, called Ikigai. Meaning “a reason for being”, it is well-depicted at the intersection of a quintessential Venn diagram that is really doing the rounds on the internet.
Fundamentally, it encompasses aligning one’s personal and career goals by combining the things one loves, is good at, what the world needs and what one is/could be paid for.1 Applied to physicians, it’s essentially the pinnacle of work-life balance.
While much is being discussed about physician wellness and work-life balance in recent times, for fellows in training and early career physicians, achieving a good work-life balance can be formidably challenging. In a formative and critical stage in your career, you want to maximize on all opportunities to learn and demonstrate competence. Given that conventional wisdom in medicine has always assumed that working harder and taking on more responsibilities is what makes one a better physician, you find yourself in a precarious position, and unable to say no, perhaps to avoid being considered “irresponsible” or “disinterested”, among others.
Thus “having it all” is way easier said than done. Thinking long and hard about this resolution, I went back to the concept of Ikigai. Seemingly, in order to discover your Ikigai, you must first find what you’re most passionate about, then find the medium through which you can express that passion.2
As cardiologists, or in fact medical professionals in general, I’d like to think that we’re already halfway there, having discovered our passion for the work we do. This got me thinking that a great part of my sense of happiness and fulfillment, my ikigai, could actually be achieved simply by getting better, more competent and efficient at my job, thus paving the way (and time) for doing the other things I also wanted to do.
While cardiology can be one of the most rewarding and emotionally fulfilling careers, it does come with significant sacrifices. In my sometimes unrealistic attempts to maintain a social life and achieve the so-called “work-life balance”, I recall doing exam revisions with my study buddy until midnight, forcibly satisfying a respectable quota of daily reading and “rewarding“ myself with a game of Settlers of Catan with my non-doctor friends late into the night, only to have to be present at rounds by eight the next morning. Especially during my initial years of training, in a pursuit to achieve work-life balance, I struggled trying to exclusively “slot out” time periods for work and leisure. As a result, my laptop became a mandatory accessory, finding a place at hangouts, parties and even vacations, where I’d squeeze in that little bit of work if I found the time.
P-squared: Matching passion with purpose
So, how do you effectively ensure time for other things in life, without compromising on expectations and quality at work? I found myself picking up handy tips from Morton T. Hansen’s fabulous book Great at Work: The hidden habits of top performers.3 One aspect that really resonated with me was the concept of P-squared, i.e. matching passion with a strong sense of purpose. He writes about how passion at work is not merely taking pleasure in the work itself, but can come from success, social interactions, learning and competence. In short, pursuing activities that are personally meaningful.
Working smarter over working harder
One way of ensuring one’s focus on meaningful activities is to prioritize and decide what work you will pour your heart and soul into.3 Naturally, each task is not guaranteed to trigger your interest to the maximum. While the “chores” that are one’s professional responsibility absolutely need to be done (and prioritized), it’s important to pick and prioritize ancillary projects, thus ensuring one’s full focus and ultimately better seeing it to fruition. Given professional hierarchy in medicine, it can sometimes be difficult to say no early on in one’s career. A piece of brilliant advice I’ve been given in such scenarios is: If it’s part of a project you happen to land but which can (and should) be done by someone else, delegate it smartly and oversee the work. The advantages are multiple: you facilitate an opportunity for someone else to gain that experience, you gain the experience of overseeing a job and most importantly, it reduces an unnecessary load on you, allowing you to make the time for the projects that matter.
Also, focusing on doing fewer things but doing them better, means that you have more time left over, which you can spend on your private life, effecting towards some degree of work-life balance.3
Share the load
A roster has a purpose and it’s important to share the load. Accepted that we all have our unique personal challenges, some more than others, I found myself chronically covering another person’s roster, stressing out and compromising on my own private time that I could very well have spent with family and friends. While mutual cooperation within a working unit is vital to good work-life balance, particularly in medicine, it should certainly not be at the expense of one’s happiness.
Doctor Hansen also writes about the importance of keeping one’s passion in check, and not allowing it to consume you.3 Grossly translated, it means making the time for one’s private life, be it travel, working out, reading or playing a sport. Thanks to a wonderfully supportive spouse, I might have gotten away with amalgamating work and life on most occasions, but I appreciate the necessity of making an effort to keep work passions in check, and actively make some quality time for family and friends.
“Work on how you work, not on protecting your life from work” – Morten T Hansen
All things said, I’m extremely grateful for being able to do something that I absolutely love, would hope I’m good at (!), get paid for and certainly what the world needs, neatly satisfying the central convergence of the multiple dimensions ikigai. One’s ikigai.is a deeply personal journey, and not one a mentor can spell out for you. However, actively making an effort to being efficient at work, being less stressed out and more balanced would certainly make one better at life too, translating to happier social and private lives. Achieving an Utopian level of work-life balance may not be possible, but finding happiness and fulfillment in what you do certainly is, and it’s a resolution I’m going to make an effort to keep this year. A happy new year to you all!
- Garcia H, Miralles F. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a long and happy life. New York: Penguin Books; 2016.
- Myers C. How To Find Your Ikigai And Transform Your Outlook On Life And Business. Feb 23, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrismyers/2018/02/23/how-to-find-your-ikigai-and-transform-your-outlook-on-life-and-business/#6e99332a2ed4
- Hansen MT. Great at Work: The Hidden Habits of Top Performers. New York: Simon and Schuster paperbacks; 2018.
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