I walked out on an old dream and learned to feel free
How I stopped believing in the “one true calling”
I am one of those people whose plan A did not work out. A mere two years ago, my dream was to become a medical specialist. I was doing research in the lab of a well-known investigator; I spent a whole summer studying for the MCAT; I dedicated countless hours to volunteering and shadowing doctors; I spent thousands of dollars on applications and interview travels. In the end, zero acceptance.
Partly due to a spark of curiosity for the tech industry, partly due to my increasing disillusion with research and the daily life of a medical specialist, I decided to leave my pre-med path to pursue software engineering. For a really long time, though I did not have the courage to admit it, it made me feel terrible.
I felt this way because we live in a world that praises those with a plan and a clear vision of what they want the rest of their life to look like. We are constantly expected to have an idea of what we want to do, starting at a very young age. In college admission forms, we are asked what major we would like to study and why. During post-college interviews, we are asked “where do you see yourself in 10 years” over and over again. We see the pre-med on the fast track to medical school, residency, fellowship and we don’t question their life choice. They are the children whom parents brag about to each other; they are the people society holds in high esteem.
For the vast majority of my life, I too believed in this long-held cultural sentiment. Therefore, when I walked out on my old dream of medicine, I inevitably felt inadequate. I felt I was a failure because I couldn’t let my original plan succeed, and rather than trying again, I left altogether. I felt as if I was afraid of commitment or of perseverance.
However, my journey through the last couple of years have convinced me that it is okay to not have the next 20 years of our life planned out. We can live equally successful and enriching lives without dedicating our whole life to just one thing. I hope what I have learned from leaving my old dream can inspire you if you are, like me, someone whose initial plan did not pan out or someone who does not have it all figured out.
Did you know, 50% of Ph.D candidates leave graduate school before getting the Ph.D degree? For those entering the biomedical fields, less than 10% will become tenure-track faculty even though over 50% ranked research professorship as most desired career. Only 27% of college graduates (who did not go on to earn graduate degrees) have jobs directly related to their major. It is okay and even normal for one path not to work out and embark on another.
However, knowing these facts alone did not help me overcome the feelings of indignation and embarrassment. Things don’t work out for a reason. I came to the acceptance when I gathered the courage to be honest with myself to find that reason.
I initially tried to fool myself into accepting situational reasons for why I failed to get into medical school. I blamed the unfair advantage of in-state applicants at the schools I interviewed at. I blamed the luck and randomness associated with the med school admissions process. As humans, we have this tendency of blaming external forces for our own failure. It’s called fundamental attribution error in psychology.
I blamed these outside forces so that I did not have to face the fact that I might be the reason why I was not successful. In the end, putting the blame on these external variables did not alleviate my mind from feelings of incompetency, nor did it allow me to truly move on. It was only when I gathered the courage to get real with myself that I was able to set my mind free.
The reason I left was simply because I wasn’t interested enough in being a physician. I wanted to go to medical school because of my intellectual curiosity. I wanted to study the human body to its finest and most minute detail. However, that same intellectual curiosity one day guided me to software engineering. That same intellectual curiosity may one day lead me to something else in tech or something else completely different. By being honest with myself and taking responsibility for how things played out, I was able to finally move on.
Therefore, have the courage to open up your heart to your head and dare to look within for the genuine reasons why things did not play out the way you planned.
Equipped with a newly found sense of mental freedom, I was able to then boldly follow my interest in software engineering and explore other creative pursuits of mine. In turn, I have learned so many new things and gained so many new skills. None of these enriching experiences would have existed had I gone to medical school.
The knowledge I gained and the skills I developed led me to the realization that we don’t need a “one true calling” to have a successful or fulfilling life. It is okay to leave and pursue something new, something else that suddenly captured our fancy, even if it happens multiple times during our lifetime.
Life is short; our youth even shorter. Should we really spend a third of our time doing something that no longer motivates us or something we no longer love?
What is much more important than sticking to one path is working hard to become good at whatever next our passion brings us.
There are a lot of us out there who are not meant to be specialists no matter how much we want to. We have multiple interests and we may wake up one day to discover new creative pursuits. Our intellectual and artistic curiosity instill in us a longing to delve into them and we get drawn into these other wonderful opportunities in the world.
If that is the case for you, as it is for me, let us then embrace our destiny rather than feel ashamed by it. Let us enrich our everyday life by fearlessly exploring our multiple passions and hidden talents. Let us follow our desires to wherever they lead us, no matter how deep into the tunnel we have to go. Let us open ourselves to the world and realize that there is a world of opportunities out there waiting for us to discover.
There is a word for people like us. We are “multipotentialites.”
This post draws inspirations from Emilie Wapnick’s Ted Talk on the Multipotentialite. I highly recommend watching it.