Chasing Dreams \\ reframing time + When Breath Becomes Air + rearranging life priorities

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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

You’ll never know which random, unassuming Wednesday will be your last. In the words of Paul Kalanithi, the late author of When Breath Becomes Air:

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?”

When Breath Becomes Air

I felt deeply moved to write this post because of the sheer number of ‘coincidences’*, happenings and conversations recently related to time (in the context of work, life and death). And as someone whose top love language is quality time, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how I could and should re-frame my perception of time.

I don’t believe in coincidences, so let’s call them signs/divine intervention.

Maybe time shouldn’t be measured in days, weeks, or months, but rather how many weekends we could spend with our loved ones, how many trips we can go on with our friends, or the quality time we were able to spend on the people, things & experiences that mattered. Maybe I should be doing more with my time.

confronting time and mortality

I’ve had a lot of time this year, 3 months of sabbatical to be exact, to think about time itself. More recently, I’ve been confronted with one too many situations that forced me to reevaluate how I choose to spend my time. In reverse chronological order:

  1. Last month, my best friend TL recommended that I read When Breath Becomes Air, which I had never deigned to read because certain med school groupies had touted it as a book about a dying neurosurgeon’s devotion to medicine. They had mercifully misinterpreted it. It’s a book about time, health/mortality, and most of all, a parting gift for his infant daughter.
  2. I recently made yet another career choice which was met with some hesitation by some family members (thankfully, my ever-supportive parents had my back). I nearly faltered, fearing their remarks, but committed to it nonetheless. Leaving a secure, full-time GP job to locum/work freelance was a decision made with the knowledge that life and time are finite – I needed more hours with with my loved ones, time to invest in my education, writing & potential careers, and my own health.
  3. The premature demise of a kind radiologist who once taught my Clinical Group back in our 3rd year of medical school. Seeing his obituary in the papers, with his relatively young age and family members’ names displayed, was a sobering reminder that we can’t take for granted that we’ll reach the average life expectancy of 83. So live like each year is going to be your last.
  4. When on sabbatical in New Zealand, seeing most stores close by 6pm was refreshing. It felt like a deliberate and meaningful decision to reject the distractions of modern society, to allow people to return home earlier and spend more time with their families or on their own hobbies. Living like that for the whole month I was in NZ helped me discover a way and pace of life that felt sustainable, and it reaffirmed my life priorities.
  5. One of my readers, J, emailed me a blog post a few months back titled The Tail End, with this excerpt: ‘No matter what your age, you may, without realizing it, be enjoying the very last chapter of the relationships that matter most to you. Make it count.’ (but more on that in the section below)
reframing time

Look at the picture below.

Every single dot represents a day in your life if you live to 90. Hopefully, most of us will get as close to the end of those dots (or maybe even exceed them), but on the flip side, there will also be a handful who won’t even have the privilege of half those dots, be it due to illnesses, accidents, suicide, misadventure, or any one of the other ways a person could die.

And since we don’t have a magic crystal ball to tell us how many years/months/minutes we have left, how then should we spend this indeterminate amount of time that we’ve been given?

Well, The Tail End – please read the post, it’s life-changing – very starkly re-frames and reminds us that we’ve likely already ‘used up’ most of the time we’ll have with our parents, former school friends, etc., and it rang especially true when I read this paragraph:

In high school, I sat around playing hearts with the same four guys about five days a week. In four years, we probably racked up 700 group hangouts. Now, scattered around the country with totally different lives and schedules, the five of us are in the same room at the same time probably 10 days each decade. The group is in its final 7%.

I did (and still do) have a group of long-time friends like that. Back in RGS, we were a group of 6 classmates-turned-good friends, inseparable and having endless fun hanging out every day in school for 2 years straight. Junior College rolled around, all of us ended up in separate classes, and we suddenly only saw each other in hallways or at infrequent meetups. It only got worse in university, where we went from being 6 girls in 1 classroom, to being scattered over 3 continents for 5 years. Realistically speaking, we’re in our final 7% (or maybe even less).

It’s a sobering reminder that bonus time on earth is the one thing money can’t buy (unless the ultra-rich have already invented magic potions for that…). In a life where everything is a balancing game, where every choice has an opportunity cost, the only way we can ‘beat the clock’ is by making active choices on how to allocate our time.

That might mean saying no to writing another research paper for your consultant/attending, declining a lucrative job promotion, or passing on a meetup with random acquaintances; instead saying yes to accompanying your grandparents to their hospital appointments, spending an evening having heart-to-heart talks with friends over dinner, and taking time for self-care & fitness.

I know it’s much easier said than done, given how jobs (in the healthcare sector) force you to live life according to the monthly roster, violently switching your body clock back & forth and leaving you feeling chronically fatigued. Sometimes it’s really just easier and better to sleep in, than to show up for halfhearted quality time.

But on the off chance that you do have enough energy, why not just give yourself a try? You don’t deserve to have your youth, time and life stolen away by a job/company that doesn’t even really care about you; you deserve to have more time to spend on family, friends, experiences/travel, or just anything that makes you happy.

One of the messages that struck me the strongest in When Breath Becomes Air was that you should never procrastinate your happiness, nor assume that life will flow according to your 5-year plan:

“At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.”

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
the top of my to-do list

^ That’s the title of a Paul Graham essay I recently read, which referenced a book written by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse. The book was titled The Top Five Regrets of Dying, and while I didn’t quite read the book, these are the most common deathbed regrets:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

Graham concisely elucidated:

If you had to compress them into a single piece of advice, it might be: don’t be a cog. The 5 regrets paint a portrait of post-industrial man, who shrinks himself into a shape that fits his circumstances, then turns dutifully till he stops.

The alarming thing is, the mistakes that produce these regrets are all errors of omission. You forget your dreams, ignore your family, suppress your feelings, neglect your friends, and forget to be happy. Errors of omission are a particularly dangerous type of mistake, because you make them by default.

I would like to avoid making these mistakes. But how do you avoid mistakes you make by default? Ideally you transform your life so it has other defaults. But it may not be possible to do that completely. As long as these mistakes happen by default, you probably have to be reminded not to make them. So I inverted the 5 regrets, yielding a list of 5 commands:

Don’t ignore your dreams; don’t work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy.

So, my new to-do list looks a little something like this:

1. Spend more quality time with family and friends – I’m in the midst of transitioning from full-time employment to freelance work/locuming, because I want to be able to build my work schedule around spending quality time with my loved ones, instead of relegating them to footnotes in the story of my life.

2. Travel more, chase money less, and work less – There’s never going to be ‘enough’ money, and work can never truly be done. But experiences and memories are the only things you can take along with you when you die, so I’ve made it my goal to travel and explore more, instead of living the rest of my life as a slave to money and work.

3. Worry less and seek discomfort – As a self-confessed planner and veteran over-thinker, I’m still learning how to let go and just live in the moment, instead of letting my mind run 101 steps ahead and ruin the present. I also want to embrace uncertainty and learn to take calculated risks from time to time.

4. Stay curious and don’t get complacent – Life can get boring and stagnant too easily, once you settle into a comfortable job and go about each day on autopilot. I’m trying to find ways to inject excitement into the humdrum of daily life and constantly strive to learn new things, because complacency was what really killed the cat.

5. Write more – Writing is a burning passion and huge source of fulfillment in my life. I’ve been able to help (or at least provide relatable content) many people through my blog, so I don’t think I’ll ever quite be able to give up this baby/passion project.

What are the top 5 items in your to-do list? And what are some small steps you can take to realign your current lifestyle with those goals?

In the wise words of Paul Graham, I’ll leave you with what I hope will become your new mantra: Don’t ignore your dreams; don’t work too much; say what you think; cultivate friendships; be happy. Or in the wiser words of my favourite band, The 1975, won’t you give yourself a try?

And I was 25 and afraid to go outside
A millennial that baby-boomers like
Won’t you give yourself a try?

That’s all for this post, but be sure to follow my Instagram or FB page to stay up to date with my monthly posts (on the 25/26th of every month)!


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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, doctoring, psychology, random musings), or check out my most read series below:

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