In 2015, I found myself in a really difficult place as I was emotionally lost. After spending over 20 years working hard to achieve my goal of becoming a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at one of the top orthopaedic hospitals in the world, which I thought would be a job for life, things did not work out that well. The job had both clinical and academic components, and there were several roles that I was expected to fulfil. This meant that I was stretched between research, teaching and clinical commitments. The intradepartmental politics in both the clinical and the academic institutions were intense.
My twin daughters were born during this time and the stress I was experiencing at trying to do the best I could at work was affecting my family life. It just was not fair on my daughters to have a mum who was tired, irritable and absent even when I was in the room with them.
Something had to give.
After several months of tossing it backwards and forwards in my mind I took the difficult decision to resign.
I remember the first Monday after I had quit the job and I had nothing to do – I felt desolate. For someone who had always worked very hard throughout their life, to not have somewhere to go on a Monday morning was weird. It felt alien and strangely, I also felt guilty that I had not been able to make the job work for me. I felt sad and I thought that I had just wasted 20 years of my life. I felt very sorry for myself and angry that, whilst I had been successful in achieving all the requirements of the job, the conflicting agendas in different departments meant that I could not please everyone. I felt that everyone disliked me and that my professional life had come to an abrupt end. In short, I felt that I had failed and I was emotionally broken.
Fortunately, there had never been any issues with my clinical work and I was still treating patients, which gave me great comfort that all was not lost.
But the sadness of feeling a failure was hard to shift and I spent a couple of years treading water. I did not have much motivation at the time to do the extra things that I really enjoyed such as teaching. I even found it hard to put work into The Funky Professor as I was not in a creative state of mind.
Then in 2020, I read 3 books that totally changed my mindset and my life.
The Chimp Paradox
Earlier this year I was given a book called The Chimp Paradox: Mind Management, by Professor Steven Peters. In this book he describes how the brain works, and how your thoughts and feelings are created. He categorises 3 parts of your brain and uses the analogy of a chimp, a human and a computer to demonstrate how we perceive external stimuli. This includes the things that people say to you and the way that we process and interpret those situations to form opinions that causes us to ultimately react in the way that we do. He also describes how your belief systems are formed and how they influence everything that you do. And more importantly, he outlines methods that you can use to catch negative thoughts and how to objectively look at situations, before automatically responding in unhelpful ways. This was a revelation to me and helped to understand why I have reacted to certain situations in the past. It also made me wonder why I have never been taught this before even though I had been to medical school.
Surrounded by Idiots
The second book happened to catch my eye at a newsagent in a train station. The title Surrounded by Idiots, a book by Thomas Erikson, grabbed my attention and the primary colours on the book really stood out to me. In this book the author describes 4 different personality types and assigns each type a primary colour; either red, yellow, green or blue. Most people are a combination of 2 or 3 colours. Erikson outlines the positive and negative aspects of each personality type, and the situations that each type find stressful and also the situations in which they thrive.
I have always appreciated that everyone is different, but I had never really analysed in detail how people approach the world in completely different ways. I also had not realised that certain personality ‘colours’ are more likely to clash than others and that in order to make the most out of any relationship, whether it is a personal or business relationship, you have to figure out what type of personality the other person is and then adapt your approach in order to make it work for both of you.
Again, these concepts were a revelation to me. I was able to understand why the different personalities in my previous department were struggling to find a consensus in their views. I was also able to understand how I would have come across to other people, and how I could have approached situations differently. There are many different types of personalities in any working environment and within academia and surgery, there can be very strong opinions, and to foster harmonious working relationships in this setting requires great skill.
This book made me understand things from a different perspective and made me accept responsibility for how I could have handled some situations better. This book helped me understand why some people find me really annoying.
The final book that had a major impact on me was The Choice by Edith Eger. This is a phenomenal true story of love, compassion, forgiveness and wisdom. It is equally heart-breaking and heart-warming. The book is split into 3 parts. In the first section Edith describes her life before and during the Second World War, when she was put into a Nazi prison camp and both witnessed and experienced horrific inhumane atrocities. She describes how she survived daily life in the camp, both physically and mentally. In the second section of the book, she writes about her life in America as an accomplished academic and psychologist and how she dedicated her life into helping others with mental health difficulties. And in the final section of the book, she describes scenarios with different patients and how she was able to help them change their perspective.
The underlying theme of the book is that no matter how bad things ever get, you still always have a choice. The choice is your ultimate power and the choice is in your head. The choice is how you view things, it is your perspective. The choice is how you respond to situations. Do you want to be a victim or a victor?
This was so powerful for me and really shook me up. If this lady could be so forgiving and gracious after such adversity, then I could and should certainly stop feeling sorry for myself. So what if that job did not work out? I have been blessed with the privilege of always having food, a safe home, a supportive family and a good education and I needed to appreciate this, and to be grateful, and find a way to move forwards.
The Chimp Paradox helped me to understand how my brain works and it made me challenge my belief systems and figure out what was really important to me. It helped me understand why I had taken things so personally in the past and how I could change this way of thinking which did not serve me well.
Surrounded by Idiots helped me understand my own strengths and weaknesses and how other people view me and their approach to life. It made me appreciate that what I regard as a strength may be considered as irritating to others. Communication happens on the terms of the listener, not on the speaker – this was game changing for me.
The Choice helped me to understand that I do have control over the way I feel and that I can change things. No matter how bad things get Edith taught me that you always have a choice in how you respond to things and no one can ever take that away from you.
I have never read ‘self-help’ books before as I did not feel the need to do so, but I guess it takes a major life event such as quitting your job and feeling hopeless to accept that maybe you could use some help. When I opened my mind to world of personal development, I realised that this is not just for people who are having a difficult time, it is a journey into becoming a better person for yourself, your family and your work.
I could not believe that as a healthcare worker I had not been taught these things before, not only for my own benefit but also to understand how patients may be feeling when they came to see me. Healthcare relies on teamwork and if you cannot see something from another team member’s point of view and understand their fears, vulnerabilities and goals, then you cannot be as effective as you could be and conflicts can arise. It made me realise that I wanted to share this knowledge with as many students as I could to help them get through the tough times and to be the best they could be for their patients.
After reading these books I took the decision to stop feeling sorry for myself and to reignite my passion for teaching. I love being creative and I set up The Funky Professor to help as many students as possible believe that could learn anatomy, and to make it fun and enjoyable.
Beyond just the anatomy, most people study anatomy to become a healthcare worker and in order to be the best you can be I wanted to share the knowledge that I had learnt from these books to help students understand their own minds and thoughts and to be the best version of themselves.
Every experience you have in life is for a reason and is leading you towards a certain path. It has taken me several years to find this wisdom, but I know that it has made me stronger and a better version of myself in just a few months.
In 2021, I will write in more detail about these topics, but as 2020 draws to an end, I know that for many people this has been a terrible year and my heart and thoughts go out to you. But whatever happens, no matter how bad it gets, there are still many things in the world to celebrate and things will get better. You always have a choice and no one can take that away from you.