In the last post, Roberto Luongo’s retirement was described as a good example of both internal and external factors that firmly contributed to “pushing” him out of his long career. For Luongo, these factors were obvious, objective and measurable, and perhaps even reflected a poignant watershed moment, the end of a life chapter. He was honestly acknowledging his progressive inability to take on the robust challenges of a professional hockey career.
Of course, these similar factors also eventually appear in the trajectory of a physician’s career, albeit a couple of decades later. Physicians will also become aware of the progressive mismatch between the needed abilities and the demands of the career, a clear signal that it is time to hang up the shingle.
But does every retirement necessarily require such difficult acknowledgments?
A younger person’s take on retirement.
Probably not. Enter Canadian world champion and 2-time Olympic ski cross medalist Kelsey Serwa, who announced her retirement on July 4, 2019, just a couple of weeks after Luongo, at the ripe old age of 29.
Perhaps it was because she was 10 years younger. Or perhaps it was because she had not been worn down by an extra decade of fierce competition, tough losses or a critical press, although she had had her share of significant injuries. But either way, the tone of her press conference was decidedly different.
She was actually excited about the next stages of her life.
“I love racing. I love that feeling. But now, for sure, I’m like ‘OK, my time has come and I’m ready for the next stages of my life,”’ Serwa told The Canadian Press.
“Finishing second in Sochi (in 2014), that was kind of my decision-maker to go one more Olympics…The Olympic gold medal (in PyeongChang) is just the cherry on top of it all.”
She reflected positively on all of the ups and downs of her international racing career, her injuries and surgeries, and even the relationships that that contributed to her development.
“Each has a role in shaping the athlete you become. The different people on the team during different Olympic cycles, each one played a particular role in challenging me or supporting me or giving me the confidence I needed in order to let me become my best. It’s never always happy rainbows and butterflies all the time,” Serwa said. “You butt heads with some people. You get along really well with others.
“I think maybe throughout my career, whatever the team environment it was during each Olympic phase and quadrennial, I made it work for me in the best way that I could.”
With the Olympics well behind her, her young life was now consumed with writing exams to become a physiotherapist, planning a September wedding (to a professional skier) and preparing for a six-stage mountain bike race. She is already looking ahead to the kinds of clients she would like to have, and the kinds of opportunities she may have as a retired Olympian and physiotherapist as she continues to develop her skills.
Serwa vs. Luongo: What is the difference?
Sure, Serwa is younger than Luongo. She is still working on her degree and looking forward to career opportunities, and very excited about building a married life, some of which Luongo has already experienced. But the tone in her voice was different.
Is there a message here for the weary physician contemplating retirement? You could say that most physicians have had a ton more life experiences by age 60 than either Luongo or Serwa, and therefore unable to get excited about what the nature of the next chapter(s) in life will be. But perhaps that is the crux of it: As you get older, your imagination stagnates, you get set in your ways, you are less likely to think of things that would find both interesting and meaningful. Medicine, which reliably never has a dull moment, and no two days are ever the same, is interesting and meaningful, and it can seem difficult for anything else to compare.
And this is where physicians often have a reluctance to permanently leaving their profession, even when they have long built their retirement nest egg, and their kids have long left the house. They may continue to say that they love what they do, and that it is meaningful, and it may even be true. But are they really saying that they cannot find happiness anywhere else? Making a difference in someone’s life is possible outside of the realms of medicine. Learning new skills, a new language, traveling, reconnecting with friends and family, renewing a commitment to personal health and vitality, are all interesting and meaningful, especially for a well-educated and resourceful person such as a physician.
If you are struggling to sort out or outright avoiding the topic of what the hell you are going to do with yourself once you leave your career, you need only restimulate your imagination, and/or get in touch with who you once were before you ever started medical training. Consider listening to a couple of TED Talks by Jane Fonda and Tim Tamashiro (links are near the top of the “Useful Links” page of this website) to get you started. As the Apple advertising slogan used to suggest, you need to “Think Different”.
Finding the pull factors for the decision to retire.
Without anything attracting a physician to retire, and without as much as talking about it, there are no “pull” factors to help accelerate the process, and this is often where physicians are caught flat-footed. So ask yourself just a few basic questions:
1) What is it that you still want to do before you die? The older you get, the less time you have for it.
2) What are the activities outside of medicine that fulfill you, that make you tick? What was it about medicine that initially attracted you to the profession, that you could find somewhere else? What is your “Ikigai”?
3) If you only had a short time where you are still fully functional, what would you feel you needed most to do, that you would regret if you never did it? (You really don’t know how much time that is, no matter what your age is, so this may be a pressing question).
4) If you could be a fly on the wall at your funeral, what would people be saying about you? Would it only be your colleagues and your patients talking about your clinical acumen? Or are there other things you want to be remembered for (that you are not really pursuing?
5) How much room do you still have in the third major stage of your life to still learn and grow in ways that have nothing to do with medicine?
Medicine as a career is honorable, absorbing, meaningful, and comprehensive. But it can also suck the life and soul out of you, to a point that you have almost nothing left of the tremendous potential you initially brought to your first day of medical school. Retirement can be the time of redress, of filling in the blanks, of reinvigorating your love of learning, and reconnecting with the people most important to you. And for some physicians, the sooner you step out of your esteemed career, the sooner your can rediscover the joys that you once took for granted.