When I Decided Not To Become A Doctor

My folks stayed at my condo in Boulder the last few nights with me so I was inspired this morning to write a quick post in the Letters to my Dad series that I’m writing with my father (he’s calling his posts “Father and Son.”) 

In my dad’s last post, Father and Son #3, he wrote about our overthrow of the administrative regime in my high school at the start of my senior year when they botched the AP course schedule because of a “computer glitch.”  He calls it a “lesson in leadership and self reliance” and tells a great story of how we (him and I) quickly mobilized about 60 parents and students in 24 hours to get together, proposed a solution to the problem, presented the case the superintendent and principal, and then fixed the problem.  We all got to take more than one AP class (even though school was over for me my senior year at lunch time since there were no other classes to take) and I even wore a tux to prom.

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But that’s not today’s story.  When I was young, my dad regularly took me on rounds with him at the local hospitals.  He was the most experienced endocrinologist in Dallas (and one of the first doctors to specialize in clinical endocrinology) so he was in high demand.  He was also extremely respected by his peers, loved by his patients, and adored by the nurses and hospital staff.  Looking back, I like to say that he was the doctor that we all dream of having – engaging, funny, 100% focused on you and in the moment, extremely responsive, and extraordinarily competent. 

I loved going on rounds with my dad.  I’d bring a book, sit at the nurses station, and read while he saw patients.  Occasionally the nurses would let me look through charts (this was well before HIPAA) or play around with the medical equipment (in the 1970’s there were a lot of beeping noises and flashing lights – perfect for an eight year old.)  Hospitals were big places which seemed huge to me at the time.

However, there were two things I didn’t like.  I hated the way hospitals smelled and was always afraid of touching things.  I didn’t realize what this was at the time, but looking back on it I realize it was an early instantiation of OCD which I’ve struggled with throughout my life.  I’m sure the linkage between the environment and the events in the hospital (sick people, dying people) reinforced something around this at a deep psychological level. 

More obviously, I disliked a lot of the doctors.  I thought my dad was amazing and loved listening to the nurses talk about “Dr. Feld” when they thought I couldn’t hear them.  I’d have my head buried in a book in the corner and they’d be chatting about how amazing (where amazing is a proxy for a wide variety of great attributes) he was.  In the mean time, they’d bitch about virtually every other doctor.  I learned the word “asshole” at a relatively early age as that was the most common descriptor I remembered.  Most of the other doctors were assholes – they were arrogant to the nurses, short with patients, and many of them seemed genuinely uninterested in what they were doing.  Now – a few of them were like my dad, but only about 10%.  The rest turned me off.

When I was about 10, I grabbed a thin green book on endocrinology off of my dad’s shelf in his study.  I discovered a lot of books in his study over the years (including Atlas Shrugged and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).  The endocrinology book wasn’t titled “Endocrinology for Dummies” but it could have been – it was an introduction to endocrinology presumably aimed at a first year medical student.  By 10 I was devouring ever book I could get my hands on so I’m sure I laid down on a couch in our house and started reading.  The only thing I remember is how unbelievably bored I was by the book.  I’m sure it was way over my head, but this wasn’t a unique experience for me – even when I didn’t really understand very much of what I was reading I usually sucked it down anyway and went back and tried again at a later time.  I remember finishing this book and thinking something like “I never want to read about endocrinology ever again.”

My dad tried to be home for dinner every night.  He’d often head back to the hospital after dinner to go do more rounds.  At dinner we’d go around the table and talk about our day.  We alternated who went first – there was no rhyme or reason to the order that I could tell although my parents might have had a secret sequence that I didn’t know about.  A few days after I put the book back on the shelf, I went first.  I was really nervous so I just blurted out what was on my mind “I don’t want to be a doctor!”  It probably came out more as a plea or a shout, but I remember it sounding like a scream in my head.

Once I had said it, I felt so much better.  I’d been carrying around the thought for a few days terrified of what my parents would say.  All of my relatives were already asking the typical jewish “is he going to be a doctor when he grows up” question every time they saw me with my parents.  I hadn’t realized how much this was weighing on me – now it was out in the open.

I remember a short moment of quiet followed by my father quickly saying “you can be anything you want to be.”  We then spent most of dinner talking about this and when dinner was over I had a bunch of different possible careers in front of me to explore.  None of them were being a doctor.  And – I felt great because I’d learned that a huge lesson that day – that I could be anything I wanted to be.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/DonRyan DonRyan

    There is awesomeness in the statement "you can be anything you want to be"on a couple of levels. First, it freed you from the expectation to follow in the family business. After 21 years in the health care industry, I can tell you that if you're not in love with it, it's the wrong business for you. On a second level that affirmation from parent to child is terrific. How empowering it is to have your parents' support in achieving and doing whatever you'd like and encouraging you to be a rock star at it can't be quantified. It certainly help position you for the successes you've enjoyed I'm guessing.

    Docs like your dad are certainly in the minority in my experience. But the ones that are like him are rare gems. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • http://blog.redfin.com Glenn Kelman

    One of my favorite posts of yours Brad. I read it feelingly, having considered medicine at the age of 21 and again at 35, choosing both times to stick with software startups. I try to create for myself the same sense of social purpose that medicine has, but it's always mixed with other motives. The problem with medicine is that it isn't creative, unless you go into research, and that often the people aren't creative.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.wyman Bruce Wyman

    I think the more subtle but equally lesson was that you could question authority and be right. That's a pretty tough thing to do, especially when it was to one of the highest authorities in your life.

  • John

    Your post is really interesting, particularly to someone whose father died young and who is always trying to figure out how to be a good parent. In looking around, it seems very easy for parents to support their children when the dreams of both are the same. But when the dreams are different, it becomes a test of being a good parent. I always say I want happy, well adjusted children who find joy in their jobs, whatever those may be and whether or not I understand why they want to pursue a certain dream. It sounds like your Dad had a similar view and I can only hope that I act similarly as my kids get bigger.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/KevinVogelsang KevinVogelsang

    Question: Did your father (at any point) want you to be a Doctor like him?

    I imagine all Father's want their sons to have more than they did. Perhaps, the simplest way is to give their son a head start in what they themselves have done and know best (such as being a doctor in your case).

    After reading this post, my image of the scene is that your parents were surprised that you had so much angst built up over this.

    This is probably because my Father is a doctor (and Mother a Nurse). And had I found myself in the same situation, they probably would've laughed at me. They never wanted me to go one way or another. This worked out for me. Now the, best description for myself is "entrepreneur," and I've felt zero pressure to be otherwise.

  • http://twitter.com/willherman @willherman

    Great story Brad. I was also raised in a Jewish family where the oldest male child was supposed to follow his father into medicine. Unlike you, though, I never had an intellectual epiphany on the subject. I was beaten over the head with it so often that I was emotionally exhausted by it and gave up any thought of the possibility early on.

    Oh, there was also the part about not liking the site of blood too . . .

  • http://www.facebook.com/keithlloydsmith Keith Smith

    Great post Brad. I need to keep reminding myself of the wonderful way your father handled this, for the sake of my own 9 year old son. I hope that someday he can proudly tell the story that his entrepreneurial, capitalist, gentile father didn't cram entrepreneurship down his throat. And yet I still hope he is telling the story in front of all of his employees at one of his big company meetings.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JChauncey JChauncey

    First I am forwarding your fathers blog to everyone I know… Second, I had the exact opposite problem growing up. My father told me in high school that I was going to college to get an education and do something other than taking over the family business (which they started in 1960). I actually enjoy doing what he does (they plant pine trees for paper companies) but I also enjoy being a programmer. So on days when its gorgeous outside and he's in the woods planting I wish I was right there beside him, instead of being stuck inside of a cube with no view of the outdoors. =

  • http://www.adstruc.com John

    Such a great post, Brad. It is so nice to see VCs write a post discussing their childhood or personal experiences while providing inspiration: "you can be anything you want to be"on a couple of levels."

  • DaveJ

    What must it be like, to be in a family where such things are discussed!

  • http://stanleyfeldmdmace.typepad.com/ Stanley Feld M.D

    Kevin

    I did not want either Daniel or Brad to be a doctor like me.
    I wanted both of them to experience the world of opportunity in America and choose what they wanted to do.

    I viewed my job as exposing them to these opportonities.

    If they chose Medicine that would be fine.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JChauncey JChauncey

    First I am forwarding your fathers blog to everyone I know… Second, I had the exact opposite problem growing up. My father told me in high school that I was going to college to get an education and do something other than taking over the family business (which they started in 1960). I actually enjoy doing what he does (they plant pine trees for paper companies) but I also enjoy being a programmer. So on days when its gorgeous outside and he's in the woods planting I wish I was right there beside him, instead of being stuck inside of a cube with no view of the outdoors. =\

  • http://tripwiremagazine.com Lars

    Great reading thanks!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jerrydcolonna jerrydcolonna

    Brilliant, lovely post. Thanks Brad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/derekscruggs Derek Scruggs

    Heh. I remember the first time I heard the word "asshole" (it was at a skateboard park). I also remember the first time I said the word "shit." My cousins asked me what s-h-i-t spells. I remember thinking it was a funny-sounding word.

  • http://scott-woodardblog.blogspot.com/ Scott Woodard

    What a great story! We often need reminding that our kids – and us – can be whatever they/we choose.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Sunil

    Very nice essay ! My father is a doctor as well, a Pathologist. I wanted to be a doctor and my father did everything he could to keep me away from medicine. Kind of odd considering that my grandfather was a doctor and my mother a nurse.

    In retrospect I'm glad he did. Doctors get treated like cattle now by the government and the insurance companies. It's absolutely insane to thing that a doctor has his orders for a patient countermanded by some pencil-pushing jerk at an insurance company.

  • Danielle Collins

    What a wonderful "letter"! I am the daughter of one of your dad's really good friends – Dr. James Shaw. My name is Danielle Collins and I am an ICU nurse in Cincinnati. So I can truly appreciate much of what you wrote. I have met you dad once at a Reds game and he is, without a doubt an awesome guy! I have heard your mother is pretty terrific too. I am the mother of 3 boys – 5,8,11 and I hope they get that same message loud and clear – that you can be anything you want to be. Thanks for the inspiring thought!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Danielle – I forwarded on to my dad – I’m sure he’ll smile a big smile.  Thanks for the kind words.

  • http://www.helloairjordan.com/Air-Jordan-2-II/Air-Jordan-2-II-Melo-White-University-Blue-Mid-Boots Jordan 2 Melo White

    Such a great post, Brad. It is so nice to see VCs write a post discussing their childhood or personal experiences while providing inspiration: "you can be anything you want to be"on a couple of levels."

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