Why I Am Not a Doctor (Reflecting on My Career Journey)
The Trigger of My Reflection
In my QC days, I longed to become a doctor. There were various reasons: I had a minor illness and wanted to cure others' disease; Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, our alumnus, was a doctor by profession; medical practitioner always serves people well; a job as a doctor earned a better living… Moreover, becoming a doctor was the sort of career path advocated in our alma mater that imprinted an image of the profession in our mind.
It turned out that I failed in the keen competition to enter the medical school in HKU, not because I lacked the requisite intellect (I was second in Form and won a scholarship in Form 1), but because of my then social immaturity and vulnerable temperament (attributable to my early childhood environment), a lack of support by family (little parental guidance) and friends (little sharing with classmates amid competitive milieu). I succumbed to social phobia and emotional pressure while taking my HKAL written examination, and even more so in my physics and chemistry practical. After the practical examinations I walked down the HKU entrance ramp realizing that I could never become a doctor... (Footnote 1)
My subsequent study of social sciences opened up a new world and widened my horizon. The disappointment was short-lived and I found myself avidly reading books on sociology, psychology, economics, political science…with keen interests.
After graduation I worked in the government as an Executive Officer. I was posted to do liaison work. Given my social immaturity, this was an early career “misfit”.
After the further study I secured a teaching post in the then HK Polytechnic. Shortly I left the job for its lack of opportunity to do practical town planning and joined the Town Planner Grade in the government. The job did fit my personal style and I worked there for 18 years.
In the course of my professional life, I had compared my job with that of a doctor and arrived at the following:
No doubt the medical profession in Hong Kong has an especially high social status. It attracts substantial pecuniary reward, is conferred a sense of service to the people, and doctors are invariably admired by all. However, I have also been disillusioned by reports of their heavy workload, long working hours, professional hazards, mundane nature of some (just some) day-to-day practice, and the pressure of incessant inflow of patients…
This is not just a “sour grapes” mentality, because there is always a drawback, or it isn’t a job. There is always the emotional ingredient when considering whether you like what you are doing. Assuming an unconditional free choice now, aptitude or inclination aside, I would rather opt to work as a town planner (or a physicist, or an astronomer) but not a doctor. I am not saying that the job as a town planner is not without its mundane aspects, but I might not be happy with the onerous life-and-death pressure.
Now I would view career /profession within a broader life perspective: to live a good life, our job is just one aspect, and sometimes happiness has little to do with our profession. As such I might not be willing to work too hard, devote too much time to a job at the expense of other aspects making up a rich life…
Back to my journey, I could have stayed a bit longer as a town planner but for the voluntary early retirement option. I took the opportunity and retired early. In my pastime while working, I found myself interested in astronomy and physics. I had a natural intellectual urge to understand more about “quantum mechanics”, “general relativity”, and other unknowns in the Universe. I also sustained my interests in practical observational astronomy engendered while I was the Chairman of the Astronomers’ Club in QC. In my vision of early retirement, I aimed at embarking on a lifelong project that could become my version of “encore career”, one combining my current values (freedom to develop my hitherto neglected potentialities), innate talents (my propensity to rational thinking) and early dream (to become an astronomer).
During the earlier years of my retirement, I sat-in the HKU undergraduate physics courses and self-studied the lecture notes by myself. Then I set up my own astronomical observatory, the Three Fathoms Observatory, pursuing astrophotography and other practical aspects of astronomy. I now called myself an “amateur astronomer”. (This is how I want to be remembered eventually!)
After reviewing my experiences so far, here are my thoughts on career planning (many ideas are attributed to Edward de Bono) :
Applying this wisdom and given my chosen life theme (footnote 3), I could now reflect on my career journey in retrospect:
Although luck also played a vital role in the direction of my endeavor (chance contact with Lawrence Lai; chance event of the one-off Voluntary Early Retirement Scheme), my success (gauged in my own personal terms) is not a fluke, but the results of conscious strategy, hard work, awareness of personal style-fit, self-correction … This self-judgment of success is not complacency given my understanding of my endowments, constraints, early family environment…
After the singing by the doctors alumni on stage, a classmate, also a doctor, asked me, “Shouldn’t doctors be given a special treat on the stage?”
Footnote 2 : My M.Phil. thesis is dedicated inter alia to humanism, my belief that gives me faith in myself as a Homo Sapien, and to my folk, the ordinary people, my neighbors on earth, who give me the purpose to serve. My English name “Stewart” is meant to stand for my life purpose to serve the people as a servant.
Footnote 3 : My life theme is “View life as a project to be created and directed by oneself. Consciously lead one’s life with articulated strategies to achieve self-chosen goals while counteracting the forces of mundane habits and social hypnotism. The sense of mastery of one’s own fate through the various stages of life is a distinctive source of happiness in life.”
This writing in essence is my reconciliation with my failure earlier in life (as the title hints at), my story of how I come to terms with it. Retired and leaving my career behind, and in the aftermath of my direct-confrontation-with-death experience, I am now in an objective position to face it with absolute honesty, proclaiming to the world that it was a failure. Meanwhile I am now also mature enough to accept this failure in a proper light, with the benefit of the hindsight of subsequent events.
(This seemingly mastery of fate is of course not without bounds. I had already described how my career life was sometimes driven by chance contact and chance events. My travelled career path is the result of both chance and conscious strategies.)
Just like an “infatuated” first love that must meet its fate of disillusionment, my unrequited first love for a career as a doctor has ended with the realization that I might not be style-fit for it after all. A style-fit career depends on one's aptitude, inclination, values, etc. I have no doubt at all that some of us are suitable to become a doctor (the woman in the "infatuated" love will eventually marry another suitable suitor!), others a town planner, yet someone else a physicist, an administrator, a businessman, etc. Moreover, all of us possess multiple talents and may not be tailor-made for any one particular career path. While steering our career course, we could try for more conscious strategies but the outcome are to a certain extent governed by our whimsical Lady Luck!
An equally important purpose of this piece of writing is to share the wisdom of Edward de Bono in career planning. I hope younger readers embarking on their career journey, as well as veterans still climbing their career ladder, could somehow benefit from it.
Thanks Hung Hing Kai, Dick Tse and many others for their honest feedback (this is what friends are for!) that has contributed to more objective views in this piece of writing. I’ve also taken the liberty to incorporate some of their ideas here.
1st Draft on 12 December 2012 by Stewart Yeung
2nd Draft on 13 December 2012
3rd Draft on 14 December 2012
“Tactics” by Edward de Bono, London: Collins, 1985