It’s the end of 2020, and I just turned 30. In the last couple of years, I quit my safe and lucrative career path as a plastic surgeon, started 3 businesses, and learned many lessons along the way. To say it’s been a crazy ride would be an understatement. These are the 5 lessons I’ve learned that I wish someone had told me sooner.
1 | Deliberately Choose Your Future & Work Toward It
The first lesson is to choose the type of life you want to lead and to work towards it.
Some want to dedicate themselves deeply to their work because they find it truly meaningful and impactful.
Others want to make money above all else, finding it more important than enjoying the work itself.
And some want to optimize for freedom and lifestyle, where their expenses are covered and they have passive income streams to spend their time how they want.
There’s no right or wrong here, but the key is to be true to yourself. Too many people get caught up in the game of virtue signaling by writing off money as bad, implying that they are morally superior to those who are wealthy or understand the purpose and value of financial security. Don’t buy into this black and white thinking.
I used to think that I wanted to work as hard as possible and achieve as much as possible in my lifetime. After all, that’s where I derived significant meaning and identified my self-worth. But as I’ve gotten older, particularly in the last few years, I realize that this is not a recipe for long term sustainable happiness.
Given certain life events and circumstances, which we’ll get to later in this video, I’ve shifted more towards optimizing for freedom. While this isn’t a singular goal, it is central to the vision I have for my future. Yes, I still crave intellectual challenge and want to follow my curiosity, which is why I’ll continue to build new businesses – it’s fun. And yes, I think helping others provides deeper purpose and satisfaction, which is why I love reaching younger generations through my videos or helping aspiring doctors through my businesses.
2 | Seize Opportunities (Often Hidden in Plain Sight)
Second, seize the amazing opportunities afforded to us. While many are focused on negativity and the issues of the world, don’t let them cloud your way of thinking or kill your optimism. We live in a time with unparalleled opportunity for those who are willing to take initiative and work for themselves.
The internet and the opportunities afforded in easy scaling and broad reach is paradigm-shifting. Regardless of what your ideal future life looks like, you can leverage the internet as a tool to accelerate the process. If you want to maximize your impact and reach in helping others, the internet can help. If you want to accelerate wealth accumulation, the internet has revolutionized that space too. If you seek freedom or fame, the internet can be leveraged for those outcomes too.
True freedom comes from building wealth, not from trading your time for money. Sure, having a high paying job like being a surgeon is fantastic, especially when you can take your high income, live off a portion comfortably, and invest the rest into assets. But the key here is building assets, whether through investing from your job, or even better, building assets from the start, like a business.
As Naval Ravikant says, code and media are the new leverage. You can do the same work, but that work can scale to reach far more people without any, or only minimal, additional cost. Combining the two is like cheating. Build a following on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, your podcast, newsletter, and wherever else by offering value for free. Then offer additional value with paid products that have no marginal cost of replication, whether courses, software, or scalable services.
This isn’t to say that to build a successful business, you should chase money. Rather, provide as much value as possible upfront, and later seek to monetize part of that value exchange.
3 | Enjoy the Journey, Not the Destination
Third, enjoy the journey. We set arbitrary goals and tell ourselves we’ll be happy once we reach them. If you set a goal to get into medical school and you get that acceptance letter, you’ll be ecstatic for days, weeks, or even months. But after a certain point, your goalposts change, and now you’re focused on doing well on USMLE Step 1, and then crushing your away rotations, and then matching into a good residency program, and then becoming the best surgeon possible in residency, and then getting into a good fellowship, and then a good attending job.
The destinations are brief blips on the map before we focus on the next. Most of our time is spent on the journey.
When I was in medical school and residency, I was grinding hard, denying myself much of the freedoms and experiences that many enjoy in their 20’s, even amongst my medical school colleagues. I was working uphill, not only overcoming the additional challenges that come with inflammatory bowel disease but feeling the need to accomplish more in a compensatory way. I also was striving for plastic surgery, thus giving me an additional reason to work harder to have a realistic chance of matching into such a hypercompetitive specialty.
As I turn 30, I realize that it’s ok to slow down at times. By pushing myself 10/10ths, I’m more likely to burn out or not enjoy the process as much. In comparison, by going 8/10ths, I achieve a roughly similar outcome in terms of achievement, but I’m simultaneously able to smell the roses.
4 | Frequently Question & Reflect on Your Priorities
Fourth, understand we all play games. The key is being aware of the game you’re in and reflecting on whether it’s a game that serves you.
Sometimes, this translates to comparing ourselves to others. Did I accomplish enough by the time I hit 30? Is my business growing fast enough? What about this other guy’s business? Do my life and work have enough significance?
Ultimately, the comparison is a fool’s errand for two reasons.
First, understand you’d have to trade everything to be in their shoes — you cannot simply choose the good parts and leave out the bad. In order to do so, you’d be sacrificing much that is great in your life for a different mixed bag of good and bad.
And second, what utility does this mental exercise provide? Comparing yourself doesn’t make you happier, more motivated, or improve your judgment. It’s simply a source of negativity unless you are careful to approach it through a lens of learning from others.
Upon deeper reflection, I’ve come to the following as good areas to prioritize:
First and most importantly, health. Without health, nothing else matters. This is obvious when good health is out of reach. When I was hospitalized at 18, I didn’t care about girls or being cool or my grades, I just wanted to stop the pain and get back to a normal baseline. Without health, the significance of everything else is muted. I cannot enjoy driving or watching a movie or spending time with friends, I cannot think clearly, and I cannot live life intentionally, but rather from a position of compromise and damage control. It was fine to push myself through this when I was younger, as I was hungry, determined, and in a position in my life where I felt I had something to prove. Now, I don’t care about that. Health is too important.
Second, sleep, which also helps with health. After breaking the spell of being addicted to sleep deprivation, I realize how much better I feel and can think when I sleep 7 to 9 hours every night. As often as I can, I sleep without an alarm and allow my body to wake up naturally.
Third, relationships. None of it is nearly as meaningful when you are by yourself. Celebrating is much more meaningful when surrounded by people you care about.
And fourth, freedom. I love working for myself. It has costs, namely the added risk, stress, and liability from being the boss, point person, and one on the chopping block at the end of the day. But I can create my own schedule, make decisions the way I see fit, not due to inefficient bureaucracies or office or operating room politics. I steer the ship and can make a larger impact that way. At a certain point, I’d like to take my freedom further where I can take a few weeks off and truly enjoy a vacation without having to respond to business emails. Or if I’m having issues with my health, to take time away and recover peacefully.
5 | Celebrate the Small Wins
Fifth and finally, celebrate the small wins. I’ve historically done a bad job celebrating things worthy of celebrating. Birthdays didn’t always require celebration, and achievements weren’t to be dwelled on, but rather used as an opportunity to move the goalposts further.
If we only focus on what isn’t good enough, what isn’t working, what is broken, then we train ourselves to view our life through a lens of “not enough”, through scarcity. If we instead take a moment to celebrate the small wins, treat ourselves to a special meal after an infusion, or do an outing to celebrate a business milestone, we can more readily tap into an abundance frame and a richer life experience.
To those on the journey, I say reflect often, read broadly, and choose your inputs wisely.