‘When you’re at a party and someone asks, “what do you do?” what do you say?’ The question was posed over dinner, and my interrogator had good intentions, but the silence that hung in the air between us somewhat spoiled the creme brûlée.
It has been just over a year since I took an unconventional turn on the pathway that I loosely describe as my career. Shortly before I left my post as a professor at a university, I asked some of my clinical academic colleagues what they felt had been their most important contribution to their field over their careers. Noticeably, none were able to answer this question without a lot of thought. In truth, some are still thinking about it. Of those that answered, most struggled to come up with a single tangible contribution. None were able to cite a breakthrough, or a major impact. Interestingly, none mentioned or perhaps even considered what contribution they had made to the next generation of people in their care. All were, in addition to being clinicians and researchers, university teachers with the power to captivate and sway their students, to sow seeds of curiosity and inspire wonder. But, either none thought this worthy of mention or none felt they had had the slightest impact in that department.
Perhaps their inability to define their careers in terms of worth crystallised for me the problem. I wanted to teach and I wanted to write and I realised I was working in a world where I could do neither the way I wanted. Having secured a chair in my chosen subject I walked away from the job, from academia and from medicine, and I chose no longer to describe myself as a doctor. But, what exactly was I? What we do is, in most contexts, what we are? I used to be a doctor, I used to be a professor, I used to be somebody it was easy to define. I did not pose a problem to my dinner guests, for I was easily pigeon-holed. Now, it seemed I was the cause of indigestion.
My wife has a lot to say on this matter. When I say I don’t care what people think I am anymore, she reminds me that this is only because I have had a career and I am already defined by what I have done. She, on the other hand, has had a piece-meal professional life fitted around two children, bouts of illness and following me around the world. She has no idea what she is, but me, I’m set. After thirty years I can call myself what I like, but everyone knows I’m a professor. I can play at being anything I like, but it’s patently obviously to all that I’m a medic, a scientist and an academic. Or so she thinks.
The reality is a little more complex and a little less pretty. I have never felt part of my profession. I have the labels and the letters after my name that would suggest she is right but I, like anyone who has an MD or a PhD or both, knows that these things mean nothing. Sure, they mean everything when you’re trying to get them, but nothing once got. My disillusion with my qualifications are certainly part of the wider disenchantment that forced me to bid farewell to my former life.
What I do now is focus on teaching healthcare professionals and scientists how to design and conduct their research, and I write. So, does this make me a writer or a teacher or both. ‘I’m a teacher,’ I told my questioner. ‘And, what do you say when they ask what school you work in?’ ‘I’ll explain,’ I explained. But, I realised that this wasn’t going to be good enough. Any job title that required sub-titles for it to make sense was not going to cut it. ‘Maybe, I should just say, I’m a writer,’ I proposed. ‘They’ll think you’re a novelist.’ This did not seem an entirely unattractive prospect, but I realised that once again I was presenting the world with uncomfortable ambiguity.
At this point, I came to my senses and realised the world could probably cope, if indeed it cared, which I was pretty sure it didn’t. I am what I am, as the song goes. I love teaching and writing, and I am going to do both for as long as I can. Incidentally, I also juggle, collect stamps, and know all the words to Tomorrow from the musical Annie, which I sing very loudly when on my own. I’m not sure any of this makes me a teacher, a writer, a circus performer, a philatelist or a singer, but collectively it makes me, me. So the next time I am asked at that hypothetical party what I do, I am going to say proudly that I’m working very hard at being me. That should at least make them edge away and move on to the buffet.
© Allan Gaw 2014
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