How medical careers are like argyle sweaters

This post originally appeared on Kevin MD

Working in health care, going through medical school and residency, changes who you are.  We invest so much of ourselves and our potential futures into accomplishing board certification.  Once we achieve this feat, we often live in fear of one day losing what we have achieved.  After all, many of us have sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars, relationships, friendships, marriages, the ability to have children, joys of life, our 20s, and many will start asking ourselves, why?

We find ourselves in a situation where we are so afraid that something else will be “worse” that we cling to situations that are toxic.  I recently came to the realization that I was so afraid I wouldn’t get another opportunity, or business connection, that I was clinging to people and places that were actively harming me.  I was so conditioned that I didn’t deserve better and would likely have nothing if I didn’t cling to the bird in my hand.  However, we deserve better.  It’s a fallacy we tell ourselves.  There will always be someone else to do business with, another potential partner, or a volunteer opportunity.

When I was a senior in college, I had many life changes, as we all do.  I had no money to buy fancy clothes, so I invested in one suit and one argyle sweater to wear either with the suit or without.  I also am tall and awkward-shaped, so when I found clothes I looked reasonably good in, I clung to them.  I’m sure many can relate to wanting to feel confident going into interviews and other big events.

I wore this outfit to medical school interviews, fancy restaurants, when I got engaged to be married, and when I graduated college.  My argyle sweater from J. Crew was a staple of my need to appear like I had everything together and was successful.  It was part of the image I was trying to project despite not having any money and desperately trying to fit in.

Sometime during my fourth year of medical school, the sweater was attacked by moths.  The blue arms had multiple holes; it wasn’t salvageable.  I was clearly not going to wear this item to my clerkship rotations.  However, I couldn’t get rid of it, and it sits in a drawer to this day.

The sweater served me for years; I was still unreasonably attached to this material item even though it was damaged.  This feels very symbolic of what we are going through in health care today.  We are attached to how we used to do things.  We stay in toxic and damaged work environments because there is fear that we won’t find better deep down.  Maybe the next place will fit worse.  Despite the moth-eaten holes, maybe this was the best I could do and get.  And I spent $78 on this sweater, which was an astronomical price for me then, much like medical training is an investment of money and time that we don’t want to part with.

The fear and insecurity associated with change stay with us.  There are, in fact, other argyle sweaters.  And maybe they will fit better and be easier to slip over a button-down shirt.  If we continue to allow ourselves to be stuck in how things were, we won’t ever find where we belong.  We will continue to be trapped in the status quo of a damaged system that doesn’t serve us.


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