The Great Resignation (Part 3): The Alchemist + being a jack of all trades + the dangers of ‘先苦后甜/bitterness before sweetness’

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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) |


Thanks for sticking around for Part 3, and don’t worry, this is the last part of The Great Resignation series. This one is a tad more personal – it’s about becoming a jack of all trades, procrastinating happiness, and my ongoing attempt to seek purpose. Shoutout to those who’ve been following my ongoing solo trip in NZ, sorry for the heavy Insta spam…

This post will quote heavily from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, the book that gave me the courage to resign. It reminded me that I shouldn’t stagnate in an ‘okay’ job, because days turn to months, which turn into an ‘okay’ life filled with shelved dreams & regrets – I don’t think I’d be satisfied to look back on a life like that. I’ll admit that I’m a very strong idealist, so most people may not relate to my desire for such a purpose-driven life nor understand why I can’t just…settle into a zen life (with food, a house & enough money).

Seeking purpose(s)

I wrote a long post last year about how The Alchemist and its characters resonated with my journey of nearly self-sabotaging and quitting Housemanship after just half a year, how I pushed through, and my desire for self-discovery. The book also repeatedly opines that everyone has a Personal Legend, a life purpose they need to discover and then follow through with, to become self-actualised. It may sound a tad dramatic and unachievable, but we’ve (probably) got decades left to live, so why not try?

And it turns out that seeking purpose might actually help you live longer. Sounds wild right? But hear me out; a group of researchers conducted a longitudinal study, publishing a paper with these findings (as summarised in this article):

  • People without a strong life purpose were more than twice as likely to die between the study years of 2006 and 2010, compared with those who had one. The survey didn’t ask participants to define how they find meaning in life. What matters is not exactly what a person’s life purpose is, but that they have one.
  • Having a low life purpose may be connected to high levels of stress hormones (cortisol & pro-inflammatory cytokines, as theorised in other papers), but further research is needed.
  • This association between a low level of purpose in life and death remained true despite how rich or poor participants were, and regardless of gender, race, or education level. The researchers also found the association to be so powerful that having a life purpose appeared to be more important for decreasing risk of death than drinking, smoking or exercising regularly.

Whether it’s fact or fiction remains to be seen, but I’ll take any excuse I can get to try out a new life path. You know how people love saying ‘Life is about the journey, not the destination’? Well, The Alchemist also said something along those lines:

“And what went wrong when the other alchemists tried to make gold and were unable to do so?”

“They were only looking for gold,” his companion answered. “They were seeking the treasure of their Personal Legend, without wanting actually to live out the Personal Legend.”

Although it’s cheesy and overused, it makes sense. I don’t think I’ll be able to gain clarity if I just sit in front of my work computer all day, ruminating on what I hope to do, instead of actually trying it and deciding if I like it, or if I ironically felt more fulfilled in my previous job/path, which will then allow me to return to that job with a renewed sense of purpose and certainty.

Paul Graham wrote that ’sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.’

I don’t know where I’m headed, I don’t know if I’ll regret this choice one day and wish I had stayed on the bright & well-trodden path, I don’t know if I’ll end up a disappointment, but all I know is that I don’t want to have to live with a gnawing sense that I’m not making good use of my life.

Personally, I derive a huge sense of purpose when I’m able to create new works/ideas and also help others, which is the entire reason why I spend a significant amount of my free time & energy (I’m typing this while waiting for my flight) just working on this blog or replying DMs/giving advice to various peers/juniors. But amazingly, it doesn’t feel like a chore and brings me fulfilment, so I guess this has unwittingly morphed into one of my life purposes, which I’m grateful for.

Jack of all trades, master of none

When people heard of my plans to resign, they asked if I would regret not specialising or furthering my studies in Medicine. The funny thing is that I was a Psychiatry residency gunner for 3 years in med school, because I thought I liked it at that time, and wanted so badly to just find some concrete ‘purpose/goal’ in this line of work. But I ended up not really liking the specialty (turns out, it’s Psychology that I liked) and made up my mind not to apply for any residency, preferring to be a generalist.

Maybe I’m just flighty, but becoming a jack of all trades (in both Medicine and life) has always been more appealing to me than being a master of one. Over the past 7-8 years, I’ve dabbled in writing, running my own jewellery business, music/songwriting, art, learning languages, Muay Thai and doctoring. I’ve moved on from some of those over the years after acquiring enough new skillsets or deciding they’re no longer worth the time or effort invested. 

According to Wikipedia, obviously the most credible source, the original phrase was just ‘jack of all trades’ and meant to be ‘a compliment for a person who is good at fixing and has a very good broad knowledge … an individual who knows enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring the individual’s disciplines together in a practical manner.’ The ‘master of none’ bit was apparently added on later by various snarky individuals, to debase generalists.

Quoting once again from How to Find Fulfilling Work (it’s great but may also trigger a career or existential crisis, so read it at your own discretion):

Specialisation may be all very well if you happen to have skills particularly suited to these jobs, or if you are passionate about a niche area of work, and of course there is also the benefit of feeling pride in being considered an expert. But there is equally the danger of becoming dissatisfied by the repetition inherent in many specialist professions … Moreover, our culture of specialisation conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize … We have complex, multi-faceted experiences, interests, values and talents, which might mean that we could also find fulfilment as a web designer, or a community police officer, or running an organic cafe.

This is a potentially liberating idea with radical implications. It raises the possibility that we might discover career fulfilment by escaping the confines of specialisation and cultivating ourselves as wide achievers, allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.

Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work

Some people genuinely thrive off being highly specialised and derive joy from knowing all the intricacies of their field. But you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t want to specialise (especially in the context of Medicine), because we’re all wired differently and enjoy different styles of learning & working. The world, and also the healthcare system, needs both specialists and generalists to function, so it doesn’t matter which path you eventually choose, as long as you do it well.

The double-edged sword of 先苦后甜

先苦后甜 (xian1 ku3 hou4 tian2) is a Chinese idiom that can be directly translated to ‘bitterness first, sweetness later’; it suggests that some level of suffering is required before one can reap the results, and this is unfortunately often true. I chanted it to myself for the better half of the last 7-8 years, throughout JC & uni, when I was stuck studying or doing things I didn’t really enjoy (which was a lot of the time, but I’m a very persistent creature).

But it’s a double-edged sword: it can be (1) a motivational phrase that encourages you to push through the current hard times for future rewards, or if pushed to the limit, (2) a phrase that procrastinates your happiness*, encouraging you to continue suffering/hustling and only permit yourself happiness after reaching a certain goal (which may not even be realistic).

*I’ve written about the arrival fallacy in this 2020 post, and how it ruins our chances at present happiness.

Isn’t it scary how the idea of 先苦后甜 may chain us to a job we’re not passionate about (or maybe don’t even like at all), and isn’t it even scarier that your life & time are passing you by just like that? As Paul Graham said:

With such powerful forces leading us astray, it’s not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they’re lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

On my 24th birthday last year – I still remember being on call 3 times in 1 week, with my birthday being the only off day – it hit me that life was passing by faster as I got busier. I was starting to wonder if I’d end up chanting 先苦后甜 ad infinitum, using it as an excuse to stay on a path that clearly wasn’t healthy, snowballing into a life where I condition myself into ignoring that voice in my head that’s trying to save me.

I was reminded of the question that always lingers in the back of my mind: ‘If you knew you were going to die in a year, what would you change about today?’

It added a new sense of urgency and mortality, filling me with a mix of existential anxiety and openness to any good opportunities sent my way. I resolved to actively seek discomfort and fulfilment, rather than live life on autopilot and be content with staying in my comfort zone until the day I die.

Chasing dreams & open endings

This quote from The Alchemist resonated greatly with me (and might be relatable for some of you in similar situations), in the sense that I’ve never been able to shake the feeling like I’m supposed to be doing something else with my life, even though I don’t know what that is yet.

“Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?”

“Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.”

After 14 months in this line of work, I’ve accepted that doctoring doesn’t have to be the endgame for me career-wise, and that I’m going to end up branching out and away from it someday. I know it sounds vague, but I just want to ‘do more’ to help people or add value to society or even the world. Try as hard as I may, I can’t see myself being able to maximise my potential or contribute much to society in this role, beyond the day in and day out of seeing ‘X’ number of patients.

Even though I may openly acknowledge that Medicine most likely isn’t my lifelong calling (or at least under the circumstances of doctoring/training in Singapore), I don’t want it to take away from the fact that I’ll still do my best in my current role, until my head catches up with my heart and figures out what else I’m meant to do. But that may take a few years, and I’m not in any rush.

From the girl who thought she had it all figured out and took pride in her well-curated 5-year plan, to the new me who’s thrown all that out of the window, I’ve changed irrevocably over the past 2-3 years, and am more confident in my life choices going forward. It’s about time I seek out personal fulfilment, instead of trying to mimic the lives of those around me or fit in with society’s definitions of success.

It feels like most people my age have settled down and accepted their places in life, but I’m barely just getting (re)started, and it excites me. To quote Dirk Gently, “I’m just a leaf in the stream of creation”, and I’ll leave the future up to providence.

He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision. 

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

Here’s the last song rec to wrap up this series – Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads. My friend sent it to me this morning, and its lyrics felt like the perfect anthem for a mid (or quarter)-life crisis. Let’s just hope we won’t end up feeling this way when we’re 50:

You may ask yourself, “What is that beautiful house?”
You may ask yourself, “Where does that highway go to?”
And you may ask yourself, “Am I right, am I wrong?”
And you may say to yourself, “My God, what have I done?”
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down

Thank you to everyone who’s followed me or sent me words of encouragement on this wild ride over the past year, and if you have any questions or need advice on career options, feel free to DM me on Insta!

I’ll be writing a bonus post on salaries/pay progression of doctors in the public sector + clinical & non-clinical job opportunities some time down the road (but I’ll be enjoying my sabbatical for now), so be sure to follow my Insta or FB page to stay up to date with my posts!

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:

6 responses to “The Great Resignation (Part 3): The Alchemist + being a jack of all trades + the dangers of ‘先苦后甜/bitterness before sweetness’”

  1. your future self Avatar
    your future self

    much older person here who quit something similar. you will wear this scarlet letter and regret it later. and the moment would have passed for you to make amends, not with anyone else, but with yourself.

    Like

    1. Hello ‘future self’! Haha that remains to be seen, but as an eternal optimist, I choose to view things positively and with a sense of hope, because I know the alternative would definitely have caused me a lot more regrets (but it may be different in your case); and there’s a lot more who’ve chosen similar paths as you & I, for our unique reasons, and I’m glad that I’ve spoken up about this. But to each their own, I respect your views 🙂

      Like

  2. There’s no regret in picking something right for yourself! 🙂
    I don’t think anyone else can make a good judgement for you but yourself.
    Good luck exploring the world!
    And thanks for sharing this with us.

    Like

    1. Thank you for the encouragement! Jiayous to you too, fellow MO, and please take care!! 🙂

      Like

  3. Wishing you all the best, Faith! It was a pleasure reading this three-part series and some of the embedded links. Looking forward to more of your content!

    Like

    1. Hey Nic, thanks for the support as always, and same to you too as you journey through the rest of your med school journey. Keep in touch! 🙂

      Like

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