Three Fathoms Observatory
Stewart Yeung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                Life Contemplation

Why I Am Not a Doctor (Reflecting on My Career Journey)

 

 

 

 

The Trigger of My Reflection

During the QC 150th Anniversary Dinner, Professor Joseph Sung rallied all QC doctors alumni present on that occasion (some 300+ strong!) to sing on stage, expressing their gratitude towards our teachers.  I stood on the floor of the banquet hall watching, my feelings and thoughts spontaneously emerging, triggered by this moving scene…
 

My Career Journey

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”.

The first step towards a better career had been a partnership with a good friend (Lawrence Lai, now a HKU Professor) in exploring our further study in town planning. I conceived town planning as a professional job, creating better physical environments and thus serving the people well, and involving a lot of analytical thinking. I considered the job nature a good fit to my personal style.  Motivated by the film “Chariots of Fire” depicting Edinburgh University’s alumnus Eric Liddell (1924 Olympic 400m Medalist), I singly embarked on the journey to pursue town planning study in Edinburgh. (Footnote 2)

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.


Re-thinking of My Earlier Career Target

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…


The Best is Yet to Come

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!)


Career Planning Strategies/Tactics

After reviewing my experiences so far, here are my thoughts on career planning (many ideas are attributed to Edward de Bono) :

  1. Self-knowledge : (a) Be aware in a realistic fashion of one’s own limitations (so long as they do not thereafter become an excuse to improve) and strengths/ weaknesses;  look for blocks and weaknesses in order to put them right, if possible; (b) Be aware of one’s own personal style, considering one’s aptitude, temperament or inclination and match it to the job demand to achieve a style-fit (Vs just assessing one’s general ability) ;

 

  1. Choice of Field :  (a) A perfect job/profession doesn’t exist. The over-riding principle is to do something you enjoy doing and are good at doing. (b) There are fields in which it’s far easier to succeed than others, requiring just a moderate talent plus hard work; In contrast some fields require a higher degree of natural talent. (c) A person’s style may better fit certain fields. (d) Look for fields requiring your rare combination of skills and experiences.  
  1. Career Success: (a) always results from combinations of timing, luck (e.g. chance meetings/contacts/events), a sharp sensitivity to opportunities and a willingness to act on these opportunities. (b) depends on a good choice of personal career strategy such as focusing on a personal style-fit field.

 

  1. Plans : (a) Define/set your own challenge for yourself and respond to specific focus on personal style/skill improvement.  (b) Avoid the trap of “moderate success”: highly talented youngsters get “trapped” by their early success at school, and this determines their career paths in the academic world and in the professions, but limiting the further development of their talents. So be willing and ready to change targets, to give up what was a reasonably successful job in order to try for something much better. This demands taking risk and involves assessment of present path and its future, the opportunity being offered, personal style, skills and talents, available resources…



My Career Fulfillment

Applying this wisdom and given my chosen life theme (footnote 3), I could now reflect on my career journey in retrospect:

Respecting my personal style, endowments and constraints, I have explored alternative career paths (executive officer, academics, town planning practitioner), grasped the right opportunities and taken sufficient risks (further study, voluntary early retirement), and clung my career ladder to the right wall (the town planning profession). I’ve even ventured to climb the lateral career ladders (from executive officer to town planner; from town planner to astronomer). Throughout this career journey, I uphold my expectation that I can work my way towards success, persistently improving myself on the way.

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…


Self-Acceptance

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?”
I replied, “It’s OK, given the significant role played by our QC alumni in the medical field in Hong Kong.”, with no feeling of jealousy, regret, or special admiration. I know I myself have already to a large extent attained fulfillment in my career life, and perhaps the best is yet to come.

 


Footnotes :

Footnote 1 :  I later recalled that my insightful form-master in form 1 once advised my parents: You’d better take him to more social occasions and encourage him to exercise more physically. He’s now the best in class but he could not keep up with it in higher forms if not for a change….

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.”

 

Postscript:

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.

My honest acceptance of this earlier failure didn't mean that it was caused by my making a personal mistake, for to a large extent it was due to circumstances out of my control. However it has indeed enhanced the depth of my life, giving me a sense of conquest of a temporary setback. My subsequent struggle in searching for a replacement career, an equally meaningful life endeavor, added much colors and vibrancy to my life. The result was the creation of a richer and fuller life, and a happier one as well, just as I put it in my life theme, “the sense of mastery of one’s own fate through the various stages of life is a distinctive source of happiness in life.”

(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.

 

Acknowledgement :

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

 

Reference :

“Tactics” by Edward de Bono, London: Collins, 1985