“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

A few months ago, a pre-med had made an appointment to talk to me about med school. He was full of anticipation and energy; I think the term is “bright-eyed and bushy tailed”. He was telling me how hard he had worked to get to a point where he will be applying to medical school, and how much he is looking forward to medical school. I had to tell him that medical school is not likely to live up those high expectations, that the process of becoming a doctor is quite challenging, and perhaps that he should really re-examine his reasons and expectations for medical school.

So…that wasn’t what he was expecting to hear. He looked at me with a quizzical look. If I was reading his mind, I’d imagine he would be thinking, “What’s the matter with this guy? Why is he working at a medical school?”

Medical school is not a destination
For a lot of people, getting into medical school is a kind of destination. The idea is that you’d work really hard to get into medical school, but once you get in, things will be alright. Whenever I talk to first year medical students during orientation, there’s a palpable “We’ve made it!” sense in the air. Not long after that though, perhaps as early as the first week of classes, that notion is dispelled, replaced by the realization that medical school is not a destination, but the beginning of a long drawn-out grind.

Medical students, who are typically excellent “grinders”, then set out to grind through medical school. They would now laugh at the pre-med notion that getting into medical school was the hard part. Medical school was not, in the end, the destination. However, in gaining one insight, they unwittingly create a new illusion. Now, Step 1 is the new destination. Everything hinges on doing well there. Things that are not related to Step 1 are ruthlessly ignored. (perhaps I’m being a little extreme in this description, but not by much) Thereafter, it is about getting honors in the right clerkships with residency as a new destination.

In talking to residents, they scoff at the short-sightedness of medical students in making residency a destination. Step 1 was a distant memory; they couldn’t believe they put so much stock in it at the time. Of course, residents themselves have a new destination identified. They think about the life they’ll be able to live AFTER residency. So the process changes in outer form, but remains stubbornly persistent. It’ll be better when…

Finding meaning in the present
Let’s fast forward the story a bit further ahead. I was talking to a group of medical faculty recently. They were quite upset at some issue in the organization. For them the destination was the resolution of this issue. It’ll be be better when… I told them about the story of the pre-med, the med students, the residents. They reflected on the journey that they have been on ever since they were pre-meds. They talked about the meaning of their work and how lucky they are to be where they are. They found their meaning in the present moment.

Let us return to medical students. The journey ahead will be challenging. You will be tempted to look ahead, to just get through med school to get to the next destination. Do not do this. Find meaning in the present. Medical school is indeed a great experience if you pay attention.