11.07.19

the generalist in his labyrinth

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:29 pm by Administrator

earlier this year, my wife found herself at a career crossroads of a kind and was wrestling with some difficult questions about her path forward. should she keep up her job search? should she experiment with a side interest? should she make a leap into a totally different kind of career? her questions were ostensibly about decisions and tactics, but fundamentally they were about values and identity.

over a lunch on the tail end of a road trip, i reflected to her a few key themes that i’ve identified in her ruminations about career over the years, and i captured these in a simple acronym: M-I-G. M is for mission; more than most people i know, my wife needs to feel a sense of broader, ideological cause in her work. I is for integration; my wife finds joy in applying theory to practice, in crossing from academia into broader society, in bridging gaps between disparate cohorts and working against systematic barriers to justice and understanding. G is for generativity. at the end of the day, my wife needs to be able to identify evidence of the impact she’s making. that’s why a career in publishing articles of interest to only a few dozen peers around the world will ultimately be unsatisfying to her; her work needs to afford her some element of immediate gratification.

though i haven’t yet met with my own career crossroads, i’ve certainly begun hitting some junctures and milestones that strike me as distinctively mid-life in nature. perhaps for the first time in my life, i’ve been able to hold, observe, and understand my preoccupation with being extraordinary—a pursuit embedded in my manner of upbringing—and to begin accepting the possibility of my utter ordinariness, if not frank mediocrity. moreover, i’ve begun to weigh the possibility that neither fate nor responsibility as concepts will be sufficient to sustain my sense of a career path. i may at some point land upon the simple acceptance of the fact that i really have nothing important to accomplish through paid labor aside from the ability to indefinitely sustain my way of life.

regardless of how my values and paradigms continue to evolve, i think it is not too early to suspect that i really have made a permanent shift away from the mission-driven life orientation that once defined me. this strikes me as an opportunity to redefine myself, not only in terms of career but more fundamentally in terms of lifestyle, values, and influence. if i don’t bear a responsibility for perpetuating the timeless ideologies and social structures i inherited, then perhaps i am free to reenvision society through the one lens that strikes me as unfailing and true—present-focused awareness and the slow, simple, and compassionate acceptance that it implies.

two years ago, i would have stated quite readily that the elements important to me about work are importance, service, and ideals (in some way, shape, or form). “importance” was for me about feeling important, being recognized for my contributions, and being able to see the work itself as powerfully relevant to society as a whole. “service” was about posture and orientation—about being able to practice service to others as a core part of my daily work, to the satisfaction of my conscience. “ideals” was about being able to recognize a trajectory to the impact of my work, from individual betterment to societal transformation. in brief, i wanted to do big things.

at this point in my life, none of these three terms really resonate with me anymore. more essential to me than importance is wholeness now. rather than being valued or appreciated for one aspect of my intellect or giftings, i prefer now to be understood for everything personal and professional that affects how i connect with others in the workplace. if i cannot be seen and understood for the whole person that i am, then how can i be happy and grow in that situation? service has always been a transactional thing to me, a personal and religious discipline exemplifying my core virtues. that self-validation is less important to me now than authentic dialogue, which is non-transactional and more fundamental to mutual understanding and reconciliation. ideals often imply ideology, and ideology has become for me less of a necessity and more of a language required to navigate society. nowadays, i prefer wellness to ideals. more important than achieving an ideological end is experiencing wellness in a pervasive and recognizable way. what i’ve discovered ironically is that a life dedicated to principles and ideals often does not consistently translate to a full or happy life; and perhaps those principles and ideals more often serve to justify or manage the reality of unhappiness.

wholeness, authentic dialogue, and wellness are the values i’ve come to embrace as a physician leader, and for better or worse, these values have placed me on the periphery. among millennials, i have been perceived as a courageous outlier on account of these values; but among the boomers, i have been perceived as lacking in the courage required to toe the company line and to preserve the function of the hierarchy. in reality, i have been neither courageous nor cowardly; i’ve simply been unable to adhere to a certain belief about how people should approach their work. once upon a time, work was for me what it was to most others—an opportunity to situate myself within the social organism according to a function and its associated value proposition. nowadays, work is a space within which i encounter people who are so often struggling to care for themselves, much less effectively serve others. i cannot help but react within these spaces as one human among other humans, experiencing an inter-being (to borrow from thich nhat hanh) of lost and suffering people.

i have been and always will be a generalist without a certain cause or conviction. it is in fact in those times when i simplify myself to one purpose that i am at my weakest. i was designed to go deep into relationships and to zoom out in the quest for a greater healing. had i chosen from the outset a work that more closely fit my natural inclinations, i would have been a pastor, but i’m thankful to the universe for diverting me from that path; after all, what good is a pastor who does not believe in a god? but perhaps there were many other jobs i might have taken that would have befit me more intimately. i have a penchant for understanding people through systems and behaviors, and i think i would have enjoyed economics and org psychology a great deal. i spend a lot of time nowadays listening to established financiers like ray dalio and peter schiff, because on a macro level i find that what they’re talking about, amidst all the economic indicators and theories, is a meta-theory of what drives human behavior. schiff in particular is fascinating to me because he represents an enduring and relevant cohort of the america we live in: educated white baby boomers who do not understand the rapid shifts in the social discourses around gender, race, and sexuality and react to these with arbitrary epistemologies, frank skepticism, and even overt hostility.

i have given up on the idea that i will someday find my perfect vocation. but i am more than ever before open to the possibility that the broader value of my personal happiness and understanding cannot be underestimated. most human beings while they live on this earth do not impact their peers and progeny with radical new ideas or approaches to managing or reducing human suffering; but each and every individual who finds enlightenment of a kind brings something into the universe that cannot be reduced, dismissed, or forgotten. the ripples they introduce into the fabric of our inter-being are so rarely codified or commodified, but they are as transformative as they are ordinary. i trust in the ripple, and in the ability of the water to carry it, and in the ability of the river to spread it, and in the ability of the ocean to remember it and to carry it to all distant shores

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