Starting a new job has its challenges, one of which is introducing yourself and getting to know your work colleagues. I attended my first faculty meeting several weeks ago. I didn’t know anyone in the room except for my boss, so she introduced me, I smiled and waved, and the meeting went on. It was a fairly typical new employee experience.
Then the inevitable (for me, at least) occurred: when I am introduced as a former physician to a group, there is often at least one person who approaches me after the meeting to ask for one sentence on why I would leave a medical practice. One sentence. I know they don’t want more, because they ask while we are exiting a room, or entering an elevator, or waiting in the food line at a reception. Within one sentence of my explanation, they wander off, usually after shaking their head (as in “what a waste”) or making a comment about my presumed student debt.
These episodes really bother me, mostly because of the assumption that questions about my decision to leave medicine can be answered simply, and that they are appropriate for small talk with a very new acquaintance. The fact that it makes me so angry has led me to conclude that there is more to my reaction than frustration at rudeness. When I get angry, it is almost always because I am feeling vulnerable. I know this about myself.
New jobs – new work colleagues, new duties, new workspaces – are opportunities for reinvention: to tell different parts of your past, dress and behave differently, and learn from past mistakes, to be a different sort of work colleague. As I ease into my new role, I find that I have kept my workflows and office decor. Blogging, whiteboards, and interchangeable/temporary gallery-style photos (although this time with a theme and a color palette) are undeniably me, no matter what.
It took 5 weeks, but I can finally walk into my new office and say without a doubt that it is my office pic.twitter.com/zIUe3WuPCR
— Laura Gogia (@GoogleGuacamole) February 23, 2017
Nevertheless, I changed my wardrobe. Gone are the Old Navy student duds and in their place is Talbot’s entire deeply discounted winter line (God help me if my mother reads this, since I once told her that I would *never* like anything from Talbots, but yes, it happened. Shh.).
More important, I’m in the process of changing my work narrative…and I think that is why being surprised in the hallway outside the faculty meeting with superficial questioning about my past made me so angry. Despite all the years and reflective blog posts, I have yet to figure out how to talk about what happened when I was practicing medicine. I don’t know how to encapsulate the professional and personal isolation and the systemic sexism and the challenging patient population and the burn out… Not in one minute with a stranger while navigating a crowded space. Not when I’m trying my hardest to make a fresh start without completely wiping the slate clean. I do not know how to handle this situation.
However, I am getting something else right.
When I started in my new position, a position in which I design and teach leadership development for faculty and the community – I made the intentional decision to prioritize self-care and work life balance. I had my reasons. First, I’ve never been anything other than a workaholic. Second, I’ve experienced burn out before and left one career, so I’m concerned about leaving another. Third, I really should model what I am teaching.
Also, I want to change who I am at work. I want a different story.
I have worked for and with many people across fields and disciplines. My favorite leaders – the ones I admire and would like to emulate – have been calmly competent, or at least they have been really good at giving that appearance. They are efficient. They do not take their stress out on their subordinates. They delegate well, provide ample feedback and growth opportunities, and give credit where it is due. I don’t mean that in terms of handing out gift cards, I mean that as caring about and respecting their employees. These leaders also seem to take care of themselves – they eat, they look good, they exercise, they read, they get haircuts, and if they need to go to the doctor, then by golly they make an appointment and they go. I presume they do these things because it sustains them and makes them better at their jobs. This is the type of supervisor I want to be. I want to be sustainable as well as excellent.
As such, I have made an intentional decision to engage in self-care. I eat lunch – often at my desk, but quietly and at rest. I meet with friends on campus for peer coaching and networking. I consistently leave work for home (almost) on time. I rarely bring work home at night and limit my weekend work to no more than several hours on Sunday (if that). I make and keep doctors appointments. I get hair cuts. I sleep. I exercise, but not if it gets in the way of sleep. Sleep comes first.
Self-care, specifically leaving the work on the desk at 5pm, has not been easy. There has been a lot of anxiety around not getting all of my tasks done as soon as they emerge. Given that I am supervising a large program evaluation, creating a communication plan, pitching several new programs, creating and teaching new sessions for existing programs, and orchestrating widespread infrastructure updates…*none* of these things were ever going to get done on a dime anyhow. But not giving in to the impulse to work nonstop has taken discipline, and a constant reminder to myself that there is time, the world will not end, the work can and should wait for me to recharge.
In being more disciplined, I have learned to let go. I was working hard on a presentation last night…granted, I worked until 10 pm, but then I stopped and went to bed rather than work on it through til this morning. It got the work done. It was fine. Furthermore, I have been delegating to student workers. Granted, I have to correct some of their work, but I am teaching them about coding and database organization even as they do the detail work for me so that I can focus on data analysis. I have asked and received more help from my family around the house – they help me do tasks I once did all by myself, because I need time to unwind just as much as anyone else does.
Self-care takes discipline, but I have also seen results. I am more efficient. I feel more grounded, engaged, resilient in my work than I ever have.
Engaging in self-care has not been easy, but it is also beginning to make a difference in my narrative. It’s too early to say if I will ever achieve calm competence, but today, someone from my workplace announced to a large group of people that I had inspired her to try harder in her own quest for work-life balance. Apparently, I “leave the office on time almost every night” and I still get an extraordinary amount of work done. Apparently, that’s something to behold.
New job. I’m changing the narrative.
[Edit (3/3/17). I wrote this post last night, and when I woke up this morning I had a potential solution to my problem with people asking me for 1 minute descriptions of my past. This entire post is about becoming comfortable with the fact that I have more control over my own timeline than I’ve previously acknowledged. Just because someone asks me a question doesn’t mean I have to answer it or answer it immediately. Next time someone asks me a complicated question in an inappropriate space, I’ll try to say “That’s a great question, thanks for asking, but I’m not sure I can answer it well here. Maybe we can meet for coffee sometime to get to know each other a little better? I’d like that.” I bet not a single of those people would followup, but it doesn’t matter – it gives me control over how I tell my own story. I’ll let you know how it goes.]
Featured image by Ellie Pritts, CC-O