The Fork in the Road

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From the time I was three I wanted to be professional baseball player.

I don’t mean that in a sentimental sort of way. I literally wanted to be a professional baseball player for the San Francisco Giants.

And I would stand outside in the rain throwing tennis balls against the wall of my house creating dramatic game seven moments where my actions would secure the Giants their first World Series victory in San Francisco.

I would even interview myself. “Well you know Jenny, I just really gave it my all out there. I try to always give 110% and sometimes the ball
falls in for a hit and you get lucky and you win the World Series.”

The point is that I lusted for greatness. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be famous. And I wanted success.


This is what success looks like

Somewhere along the line that all changed.

First in high school I came to the realization that the major leagues were probably not in my future.

Then I chose to pursue a career that fit in well with my real world talents, medicine.

And I got married, had kids, and continued my training.

The years melted away and here I am. A doctor. A father. A husband. A blogger.

And if someone were to ask me today which I would prefer, success or happiness, the answer would be instantaneous.

I want happiness. That’s what I’m after.

And it seems to me that this is a useful distinction to make.

Although success and happiness are not mutually exclusive, one must decide which one to pursue above all else because often the paths do diverge.

So let me define the terms as I see them.

Success orientation

1. Concerned primarily with achievement.

2. Outwardly focused.

3. Success is defined by others or an external system.

4. Pretty much responsible for all of human achievement and legacy.

5. Achievement is held above relationships.

Happiness orientation

1. Concerned primarily with balance.

2. Inwardly focused.

3. Success determined by a subjective feeling of happiness.

4. Success is small scale and unlikely to bend the trajectory of human history.

5. Relationships are more important than achievement.

So in looking at my own field of medicine I would infer that a success oriented physician would be more likely to make a great medical discovery, or build a fantastic business, or be at the forefront of his profession.

Whereas a happiness oriented physician would more likely be content to provide good care to his patients, and focus on his personal relationships with his patients, coworkers, and family.

So obviously there’s no right answer here. The only key is figuring out which camp you’re more naturally inclined towards.

If you’re happiness oriented you will have to be content to not focus on outsized achievement, and if you’re success oriented, happiness will have to come in second.

And to all of you success oriented individuals, (I’m talking Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs and Paul Farmer) I have one thing to say. Thank you. Thank you for pushing humanity forward. Thank you for putting your own happiness second. I don’t know why you do it, but I’m sure glad that you do.

But if you’re happiness oriented, that’s okay too.

As Shakespeare said ,

“This above all else to thine own self be true. ”

And while I’m pretty sure he was success oriented, the words sure ring true to me.

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2 Responses to “The Fork in the Road”

  1. David July 9, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Hello Dr. Z. I was directed to your blog by one of your coworkers. I love it – it’s almost like reading a history of my adult life. I entered what I’m considering my “first retirement” last year at the age of 42. Maybe I’ll go back, maybe I won’t. The point is that I don’t HAVE to go back.

    This blog entry reminded me of conversations I used to have with coworkers. I worked for the big high-tech company here in Hillsboro, and I used to say (actually, I still say) “Those R&D folks working 15-hour days, 6 or 7 days per week, skipping vacations and family events, seemingly miserable all the time…I don’t know why anyone would live like that, but I’m sure glad that they do!”

    • Miles Dividend M.D. July 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm #

      David ,

      Thanks for checking out the blog.

      That you were able to retire at age 42 tells me that you did an awful lot of things right.

      I share your admiration for people who are success oriented. If I’m able to take good care of my patients and offer them treatments to reduce their suffering and add value to their life, it is only because I’m standing on the shoulders of those ambitious doctors who pushed the boundaries of my speciality10 or 15 years ago.

      And the trailblazers of today are surely doing the same thing for happiness chasing doctors and their patients 10 or 15 years from now.

      But one of the keys to happiness is not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Particularly when the peg is you!


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