The Great Resignation (Part 2): the prestige trap + cognitive dissonance + jumping when you can afford to drown

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Chasing Dreams is a multi-part series chronicling my thoughts, dreams & changing ideals over the years (since 2018), including burnout, quitting the rat race, migration and trying to find my path in life

The Great Resignation: Part 1 (not rushing into Med School at 19) | Part 2 (the prestige trap, cognitive dissonance, risks) | Part 3 (seeking purpose, procrastinating happiness) | Part 4 (post-sabbatical thoughts, Proof of Concept) |


Welcome to Part 2, which is all about the prestige trap, how I fell victim to it, and the uncertain path ahead as I try to realign my life compass towards seeking fulfilment/purpose.

Writing this series and editing it many times over has given me time to overthink & psychoanalyse decisions made by my younger self, and has been pretty cathartic. Thanks for joining me on this journey of self-reflection. 🙂

To start off, what is the prestige trap? To be honest, I had never heard of that phrase until last month, when I was harmlessly googling for source material for this series. And boy oh boy was this article the most relatable thing ever:

Simply put, the “prestige career” trap is when a college student signs him/herself into a contract to work as a lawyer, consultant, or financial analyst [or doctor], when in reality, none of those career choices deeply interests them.

If you are not absolutely (and I mean absolutely) sure about pursuing a career in any of the above fields, yet you decide to do it because you:

– Don’t know any better
– Know that it’ll make you a lot of money
– Will impress your friends and family

Then you’ve fallen into the trap.

And here’s my usual disclaimer: I am by no means claiming that my opinions and experiences are representative of any person(s) other than myself, and any views or opinions expressed are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organisation, company, or individual.

Why we fall into the prestige trap

In Asian culture, becoming a doctor/lawyer/engineer (or any fancy-sounding job) is a badge of honour of sorts, and gives your grandma a reason to humblebrag about you to all her friends (from personal experience). But the prestige trap isn’t a uniquely Asian thing, although it’s admittedly worse in achievement/success-centric societies like Singapore.

The prestige trap is awfully insidious, because it’s all too easy to get sucked into the thrill of competing for prestigious universities, courses or jobs, to prove that you’re competent or ‘successful’, without even really stopping to evaluate if you would have made the same choice if there were no prestige/money/fame attached to it. And worse still, is the opportunity cost (time, money, effort, etc.) of having fallen into that trap.

Hindsight is 20/20, and I can’t be sure if time has warped my memories, but I’m pretty sure I began my freefall into the prestige trap way back in 2010, when I was in Secondary 1.

It was our first day in RGS. It was the day we stood at the starting line of the rat race without knowing it, our hearts filled with ambition and excitement. It was also the first time I heard about a ‘CV’, when I overheard a new classmate loudly exclaim that she was going to become a prefect and get top grades to create a good CV for university applications…6 years in advance; for the record, she did achieve all of those, ending up in a prestigious university & landing a prestigious job.

Over the next 6 years in Singapore’s ‘Oxbridge factory’, we were constantly inundated with talks about getting good grades, how to make our university applications competitive and outstanding, and how to get into the top universities/courses. A great many of us set our sights on med/law school, fancy universities, or government scholarships in our teens, and unwaveringly pursued it, allowing this single-minded determination to shape our choices for many years (eg. subject combinations, extra-curricular activities, leadership roles, volunteer work).

Maybe it was just me, but I don’t think I ever really stopped to deeply consider if doctoring would be aligned with my interests. I think I just went along with the hectic hustle, peer pressure & endless pursuit of extra shiny stars that would increase the odds of a spot in med school. And I honestly don’t blame my younger self, because when you’re stuck in the prestige trap, it can be fun & inspiring to see yourself succeed and attain those lofty goals, so much so that you lose sight of the bigger picture and why you even chose that path in the first place.

In the wise words of Paul Graham:

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

The other big force leading people astray is money. Money by itself is not that dangerous. When something pays well but is regarded with contempt, like telemarketing, or prostitution, or personal injury litigation, ambitious people aren’t tempted by it. That kind of work ends up being done by people who are “just trying to make a living.” (Tip: avoid any field whose practitioners say this.) The danger is when money is combined with prestige, as in, say, corporate law, or medicine. A comparatively safe and prosperous career with some automatic baseline prestige is dangerously tempting to someone young, who hasn’t thought much about what they really like.

(yes, this is the same lengthy blogpost I referenced in yesterday’s post)
Cognitive dissonance (I’ve been there, it sucked)

What happens then, if you realise after a while that your initial path is no longer what you wish to pursue, but you’re stuck or committed to it for the next few years? For me, that moment first struck when I was in M3, when I realised with a sense of dread that I didn’t enjoy ward-based work, but preferred clinic work…or maybe an entirely different career path.

Just a quick disclaimer that this section is not applicable to those of y’all who are genuinely passionate about your chosen field and are willing to do anything to reach those dreams with no complaints. Y’all are admirable, but you won’t be able to relate to this section.

In psychology, cognitive dissonance describes how people are willing to justify or rationalise two contrasting ideas to suit their existing beliefs and choices – simply put, how we lie to ourselves to make things more bearable or to reconcile our past choices. Effort justification is a form of cognitive dissonance that makes us value things in which we have put great effort, regardless of the objective value of the outcome (but chances are, if you feel the need to justify it, its value wasn’t that high).

After all, it’s only human to want to have all aspects of our lives in harmony and in alignment with our beliefs, be it in our jobs, personal lives or interpersonal relationships. So we might have to ‘fake it till you make it’, and I’m sure most of us have unwittingly used this as a coping mechanism during tough times – I certainly have – to give ourselves a reason to keep pushing on in unpleasant or challenging situations.

In our daily lives, it’s perhaps having an indomitable attitude to the point of self-delusion, like when you hold a retractor in the OT in an uncomfortable position for 6 hours but tell yourself it was a necessary learning experience (which happened to one of my friends).

In long-term situations, it’s perhaps convincing yourself that working long hours for 6-7 days a week (even on public holidays) is a good tradeoff for future gains/prestige/career progression. After all, you’ve already devoted 5-6 years of your life to med school, plus a few more working your way up, which is a herculean effort. So, in an attempt to decrease the dissonance, we try our best to stay positive and reconcile 2 contrasting beliefs: (1) the desire for work-life balance and (2) an unideal working environment.

I found this diagram that hopefully makes more sense than my rambling:

source: simplypsychology

For some people, they’re fortunate enough to be able to turn it into an all-consuming passion and successfully overcome the dissonance. Those are the conventional ‘success stories’ of tireless surgeons or physicians who’ve saved countless lives, written 101 research papers, all while managing to get married and have kids.

But what about the rest who we don’t hear about? I personally know a number of former residents, mostly from surgical specialties, who quit residency after a few years, because they decided the programme wasn’t worth continuing with (for various reasons, mostly burnout). And that takes courage.

(of course, getting through any residency is also a form of courage, but 0/10 would personally try it)

Jump when you can afford to drown

It’s sometimes hard to admit that you’ve changed your mind or that you want to quit. There’s the fear of being seen as fickle, not committed, irresponsible, or having squandered years of your life. There’s value in knowing how to walk away from something that is not good for you, or leaving for (objectively) greener pastures.

When I shared the news that I was resigning, I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive and supportive reactions from my friends, colleagues/former colleagues and acquaintances. In my circle of close friends, not many are risk-takers, so it meant even more to me that I received their unwavering support, in spite of my risky decision. Over the past year, they never once told me I was making the wrong choice, nor tried convincing me to just stay on for a little bit longer, and I could not be more grateful for them.

Life is about taking calculated risks, and everyone has a different risk tolerance based on their current circumstances or preferences. I came across this video by entrepreneur Gary Vee, in which he said: “You jump when you can afford to drown.”

And I’m fortunate to be at a phase in life where I have minimal strings trying me down – no major bills to pay, no partner, no plans to buy a house/car in the immediate future – so I chose to jump sooner rather than later. Whether it will prove to have been the best risk or my worst decision remains to be seen.

The stakes feel even higher now that I’m writing about this so publicly. Do I feel like I have to succeed and prove that my choice was ‘better’ than everyone else who stayed? Not really. Am I afraid of failing and not making the best use of the extra 5 years of my life that I bought back (from the bond)? Yes, because I would be letting myself – and worse, everyone who cheered me on – down.

But I’m glad I jumped, because I would rather take a chance on the unknown, than continue pushing on and working in a system that was not physically nor mentally sustainable in the long-run.

The road ahead = ???

I’ve spent most of the past 6 years (and my whole life on this small island) feeling like I was leading someone else’s life and actively stopping myself from chasing my other dreams (for fear of failure, going against the norm and loss of stability, etc.). So the road ahead will involve seeking new experiences and figuring out what I like/dislike in a career, instead of passively watching life pass me by. I’m reclaiming my life – I’ll be taking a 3-month break to travel, recharge and wipe my mental slate clean, then return to doctoring for a year or two, until I’m sure of my next big step. 

Being able to utter phrases like ‘chase my dreams’ and ‘find my purpose’ is a huge privilege, something I would not have been able to do without the immense & unconditional support of my parents. Sometimes I feel guilty that I have the privilege to worry about these things, when others are just focusing on putting food on the table or getting through the daily grind, but at the same time, I don’t want to spend the next few years harbouring feelings of regret, frustration and stagnation in a job/situation that no longer feels healthy for me.

In Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric’s book How to Find Fulfilling Work, this point really hit home for me:

It is common to think of a vocation as a career that you somehow feel you were “meant to do.” I prefer a different definition, one closer to the historical origins of the concept: a vocation is a career that not only gives you fulfilment — meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose to strive for attached to it, which drives your life and motivates you to get up in the morning.

I used to have a 5-year plan, but I don’t anymore. Unlike my friends in residencies who will go on to become Registrars or Associate Consultants in the next 5-7 years, I can’t tell you if I’ll even still be doctoring in 5 years, if I’ll even still be in this country, or if an apocalypse would have wiped us all out.

Life is unpredictable and time is limited, so just take a chance on yourself and do something that scares yet excites you. Seek discomfort and never stop chasing the things that you’re genuinely curious or passionate about, and hopefully one day you’ll stumble onto a path you’re happy to walk down for the rest of your life.

The road ahead is uncertain, but I’m not in any rush. I’m going to forge my own path at my own pace, and all I can hope for is to find fulfilment at the end of the rainbow (and I wish the same for you as well).

I’ll leave you with this ethereal cover of Forever Young by Boy In Space:

It’s so hard to get old without a cause
I don’t want to perish like a fading horse
Youth’s like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever
So many adventures given up today
So many songs we forgot to play
So many dreams swinging out of the blue, oh let it come true

Thanks for sticking around for part 2, and I’ll be posting the final part tomorrow, about being a jack of all trades and trying to seek purpose. There’ll also be a bonus post covering alternative clinical and non-clinical jobs coming soon, so be sure to subscribe to this blog or follow my Insta/Facebook page to stay up to date with all the latest posts & my travel updates!

xoxo,
Faith

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If you’re interested in exploring my blog, click here for an index of all the posts I’ve ever written (travel, musings, doctoring), or check out my most read series below:

2 responses to “The Great Resignation (Part 2): the prestige trap + cognitive dissonance + jumping when you can afford to drown”

  1. Hi Faith, just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading your blog 🙂 in fact it was so addictive that I stayed up the whole night to read it (can’t put my phone down once I’ve started 😆
    My situation is quite similar to yours – I quit towards the end of my MO year because of burnout, but I guess I am luckier as I work in a different country from Singapore and they’ll still take you back even after you burned them :’)
    Have a happy new year, hope 2023 will brings you kindness and peace.

    Like

    1. Hello E (from here to wherever you are in this world), thanks so much for appreciating my blog posts and your words of support :’)))

      May we both have a brighter 2023/future in store for us, and you take care too!

      Like

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