Each and every one of us has had the experience of being frustrated, fed up, or simply exhausted with our work. This is only natural, particularly during times of intense labor and stress. Whether you’re a college student preparing for an exam or a physician putting in long hours at the hospital, moments of frustration are inevitable in any line of work. But the key is to let them be only that— moments and not the overarching trend, exceptions and not the norm. So how do we achieve that? One key is maintaining perspective. Keeping in perspective what is great about our path, and why we chose that path in the first place, is an effective way to maintain the right mindset and avoid a trend of negative thinking.

I’d like to illustrate this point first with an anecdote. This is a true story which was I was told by one of the supervising physicians with whom I worked. It is about a memorable experience he once had with one of his residents. For anonymity’s sake (and honestly their names have long escaped me anyways), let’s call the supervising physician Dr. S and the resident physician Dr. R.

Dr. R was a very accomplished first-year resident. He had come from a top medical school and achieved highly at each step of his career. He showed lots of promise as a budding young physician. But over the course of that first year of residency, his supervisor Dr. S noticed repeatedly that Dr. R had a negative and frustrated attitude. Dr. R would complain about how many patients he had to see, lament how many hours he spent at work, and protest whenever he needed to see an extra patient. The negative energy was clearly evident; Dr. S could not help but notice it. Eventually Dr. S could not remain silent any longer. He decided to speak with Dr. R in the hopes that he could provide him some perspective.

“Dr. R, can I ask you a question?” said Dr. S one day in clinic.

“Sure, why not?” Dr. R replied.

“As a child, what did you always want to be when you grew up?” Dr. S asked.

“A doctor, of course,” said Dr. R as if this was an obvious answer to a silly question.

“And did this dream come true?” Dr. S went on.

“Why of course!” Dr. R exclaimed, now becoming perplexed by the obvious line of questioning.

“And how hard did you have to work to get here, Dr. R?”

“I busted my tail throughout undergrad and med school, so I would say quite hard,” the young doctor replied.

“So it seems you now get to do what you always dreamed of, and care for patients every day?” asked Dr. S.

“Yes, that is the case,” said Dr. R quietly, his tone beginning to change.

“So tell me, Dr. R. If this is the case, then why do I hear you complain each time you see a patient? Why is it such a chore to you to see this gentleman who sits in the waiting room? He has come a long way to this appointment, and he has many questions for his doctor. He is excited and perhaps a bit nervous to get his questions answered. But he is certainly very happy that you, such an accomplished young physician, are going to provide him your best care today. So then why is it that, though you have accomplished your dream and are afforded this great privilege each day, you are constantly negative, constantly frustrated with your work?”

Dr. R had no reply. He paused for quite a long moment, pondering this thought, this absolutely cataclysmic change in perspective that he had never before considered. “I guess…I don’t know. I guess I never thought of it that way…”

From then on, something truly changed in Dr. R. What Dr. S said must have deeply resonated with Dr. R. He was suddenly positive, much happier to be at work and to care for his patients. He grew into a stellar resident and his positive attitude became infectious. Believe it or not, three years later Dr. R was awarded as the best resident in his class, and went on to big things in his career beyond residency. No joke, no exaggeration; Dr. R was a new man. Or at least a much more content one. And this contentment bred positivity that was palpable.  Looking back now, Dr. R may trace some component of his success to a single moment when a new perspective changed the way he approached his work.

What I love about this story is how universally useful it can be to all of us. As I mentioned before, it is almost inevitable that we will have some negative reactions to aspects of our daily pursuits. But one simple way to quell these reactions is to remember why we do what we do in the first place. For Dr. R, it was remembering the amazing opportunity he had to impact lives as a doctor. It is very easy in the medical profession to lose sight of that. Refocusing on what truly matters (your passion for the field, your goals and aspirations, and how your efforts will affect the people around you) will make all the difference. So I encourage you in times of stress, frustration, or angst, to take a step back. Think of why this is the path you have chosen. Think of the things you love about the journey, which you may take for granted on a daily basis. Remember these aspects, and redirect your focus to them and not the negatives. It may completely change your outlook.

Keeping this sort of perspective in mind can be hugely helpful during tough times. When the prevailing tenor of your thought process becomes gratitude for the opportunities you have and passion for the process of working toward your goals, work becomes something positive. With this perspective one begins to enjoy the process instead of fixating on the outcome. When that transition is made, pursuits become much more fulfilling. So remember this in those moments when the challenges and pitfalls of life rear their ugly heads. Remember Dr. R and how a single conversation changed his perspective and altered the way he approached his life’s journey.