“But if I have one single regret about my career standing here today, it’s that I never took the time to enjoy it. I swear to God this is true because I was always working.” Jerry Rice, NFL wide receiver, in his Hall of Fame speech at Canton, Ohio, August 2010.
For the sake of context: Jerry Rice was, by a wide statistical margin, the best wide receiver in the history of professional football. He holds the all-time NFL records in receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards, and touchdowns; effectively every measure of a receiver’s achievement.
He is considered to be one of – if not the singular – best to ever play the game. And he never took the time to enjoy it. He was driven to success by the fear of failure. He worked and practiced and endured to achieve success and yet, at the moment of his highest honor, notes his regret. Stop me if this kind of professional despair sounds familiar to any of you.
We get to do this awesome job (it doesn’t pay as well as the NFL but I don’t need a helmet nearly as often). We get to help people and their animals and we can make a living doing it. We get to use our brains and our hands and our personality to achieve absolutely incredible things for our clients and patients. Medicine! Surgery! Education!
We have the opportunity to literally save lives on a more or less daily basis. We get to help our friends and family and neighbors to take care of their beloved pets and valued livestock. We get to solve problems for the people around us that they couldn’t solve alone. We get to be useful. We get to matter! This is what we get. How lucky are we to have these skills and this talent and find ourselves with this remarkable opportunity? It’s really pretty great.
And yet, if social media’s competitive complaining and recreational outrage, along with the more serious and troubling suicide rate, are any indication, we are not taking the time to appreciate and enjoy what we do. Those are two distinct verbs, “appreciate” and “enjoy.” Enjoyment and appreciation are not, as Rice points out with agonizing hindsight, passive processes.
It is not something that simply happens or, one might assume, it would’ve happened to a man who achieved the professional heights he did. It must be a conscious effort. It is our responsibility to make these things a fundamental part of our careers and our lives. With a little bit of mental effort we can have our cake and eat it too, we just have to make particular variety of mindfulness a deliberate action.
Perhaps most importantly, doctors are leaders; in our practices and our society, we are empowered to influence the world around them. We impact the culture of our hospitals and clinics and offices regardless of whether we do so actively or not. We have it within our immediate power to improve our own quality of life and the quality of the places in which we work.
We cannot fix everything of course (my cheery attitude isn’t going to extinguish the literal barn fire my colleague started with an errant cigarette), but we can significantly enhance the quality of our day to day practice. We already get to be a part of this great profession, and we can make it better for ourselves and those around us by taking the time to appreciate and enjoy it more consciously.
Admittedly, advice to NOT be like Jerry Rice would have been a tough sell to my 11-year old self. Growing up, as an athlete and as a student, I was taught to endure, to meet hardship with fortitude and courage, and that the measure of my worth was rooted in my ability to withstand adverse conditions with moxie and stoicism. There was no higher compliment than being called “tough.”
I still believe this to be true, for myself anyway, but I do not believe that taking on a challenging career means I need to suffer in order to do it correctly. This simplistic attitude lends itself, unfortunately, to a cognitive dissonance in which we conflate toughness and cynicism, suffering and accomplishment. We have met challenges, accomplished much, and we need not allow it to be agony. We can, and ought to, enjoy and appreciate every single day we get to do this job.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
Dr. William Tancredi is a small animal clinician at Kentmere Veterinary Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware.