The X-ray Beam: The Happy Philosopher
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Welcome to another installment of the X-ray Beam series.
I first came across The Happy Philosopher’s website after reading an incredibly moving guest post on physician burnout by Vagabond MD.
I felt like they were kindred spirits after reading more posts from these great writers and I suppose it also did not hurt that there was an additional bond formed based on our shared specialty of radiology.
So without further ado I present to you The Happy Philosopher as he is prepped and ready to go under the X-ray beam himself.
If you can please give a brief introduction of yourself (age, medical specialty, years of medical practice):
I’m a mid-40’s, formerly burnt out Gen X-er, and I have been in private practice radiology for almost 15 years.
When did you know you wanted to become a doctor?
Were there any influential people or events that made you embark on this career path?
I think many physicians know from an early age that being a doctor is what they want to do, or at least that is the narrative we create for ourselves in retrospect.
This was not the case with me.
I had an idea that maybe I would do medicine (I loved the idea of healing people and enjoyed science) or law (I also loved to argue with people and beat them into submission with superior logic), but I really didn’t make up my mind until early in college.
I’m not sure what nudged me in towards medicine, but I think the decision was more or less random or subconscious.
What were some of the deciding factors that led into choosing the medical specialty of radiology?
Were there any other specialties that you considered?
Before medical school I thought I would become a psychiatrist or maybe family medicine…until I actually did those rotations and realized they were not what I thought they would be.
I became a little distressed my third year of medical school, as none of my core rotations seemed like what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I started exploring other specialties such as anesthesiology, pathology and radiology.
I really loved how radiology was like a command center of the hospital, where people came for definitive diagnoses and cool interventional procedures.
The radiologists all seemed really happy and I decided that would be my path.
If you had to do it all over again, would you choose the same medical profession/specialty?
Radiology fits my introverted personality well, and at this point in my life I really can’t even imagine myself in another field.
Pathology was cool, but I didn’t really enjoy autopsies, and I got nauseous looking through the microscope for too long.
If you were not a physician, what alternative career would you have gone into?
As mentioned above, I think I would have gone to law school and became a litigator.
If you had a time machine and could go back to any point in time and change just one thing, what would it be?
I honestly wouldn’t change much of anything.
It’s tough to really know the impact of our choices, even in retrospect.
My life has been great and I wouldn’t want to change anything in the past that could screw up my present.
Overall I would try and be kinder to people and less judgmental.
As I’ve matured, I realize that people are living through perspectives and circumstances I cannot understand.
What inspired you to start a blog?
Were there any surprises along the way?
Do you have any advice to individuals who may be contemplating starting a blog of their own?
When I went through massive burnout shortly into my radiology career, a big part of my healing came from reading other people’s stories, mostly in the form of early retirement and financial independence blogs.
I had this vague idea that maybe I had a story to tell, and ideas in my head that would be helpful to others.
Shortly after I went part-time, a good friend of mine from medical school died by suicide.
I think this event was the nudge that really started my journey into writing.
My biggest surprise is that people actually read what I wrote (Besides my wife of course. I made her read it; mainly because I was so bad at writing I needed someone to correct all my mistakes).
It was slow at first, but eventually a couple thousand random people on the internet were reading, relating to, and even commenting on my articles.
It was a bit mind blowing, as I don’t consider my life and story all that exciting.
My advice to people starting a blog is to write for you.
Write about things that interest you and that you care deeply about.
Be authentic and your audience will find you.
What were some of the other names that you considered before going with The Happy Philosopher?
Honestly I don’t remember.
My method was to write down a bunch of words on a piece of paper and combine them in various ways that sounded cool and authoritative.
I remember being completely frustrated as my first 10 choices of domain names were already taken.
At the time I also didn’t know exactly what I was going to write about.
The blog has evolved since its inception and The Happy Philosopher is probably not the name I would choose today, but it is now who I am.
It is not totally irrelevant though, as I write often about happiness and my philosophy on life.
With a name like Happy Philosopher, I presume that philosophy plays a large component in your life.
When did you first develop an interest in this subject and what impact has it had on your medical career?
I use the term philosopher a bit tongue in cheek.
I’ve never formally studied philosophy, except an intro level class in college that I paid minimal attention to.
I believe that anyone who thinks deeply about life is a philosopher, and for better or worse I am wired to think deeply about everything.
Philosophy is in my nature.
I love thought experiments, behavioral psychology and pondering the mysteries of the universe.
I also value happiness as the end goal in life (or maybe contentment, although The Content Philosopher just doesn’t have the same ring to it).
Who is your favorite philosopher?
What is your favorite philosophical quote?
I don’t have a favorite philosopher, but Descartes and Nietzsche come to mind as quite interesting.
Or maybe Plato…The allegory of the cave is wonderful.
I’m not sure this is my favorite quote, but it is a great one.
“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted in a sick society.” – Krishnamurti.
What I love about this quote is that it is both true and false at the same time.
Maybe it isn’t healthy, but what choice do we have?
We live in the society we live in, and not adjusting to it is madness.
One could write thousands of words on this one line.
Perhaps I should.
What is the biggest non-medical accomplishment you have achieved to date?
Watching them grow and turn into wonderful human beings has been an amazing experience.
My hope is they will be better versions of me.
One could reasonably argue that perpetuating our genes is our true purpose, and this seems to be at least partially true to me.
For a reader unfamiliar to your website, what are three posts you are most proud of that they can gain an insight about you and your philosophies?
It’s tough to pick three, and if you asked me tomorrow I may pick three different ones, but here they are.
The first is my most popular post, and one that took me a long time to write and express clearly: How Understanding The Marginal Utility Of Money Will Make You Happier.
It is about marginal utility, and how understanding it can influence all of your financial decisions.
It is a critically important concept.
The second is also very popular, very different, and conversely took me very little time to write.
This ridiculous idea about alligators and kittens just popped into my head and the post just kind of wrote itself: Alligators And Kittens.
[If you haven’t read this previously, it is well worth the click and is one of my favorites.]
The final one is not really my greatest post, but it tells my story.
I think other articles I have written; especially with respect to physician issues, will make more sense after this one: Happy Philosopher: The Back Story.
Is there a book (or books) that has made a major impact in your financial or emotional well-being?
There are so many great books.
I have a book recommendation page on my blog (which I have neglected for a long time) which lists a few great ones.
Your Money or Your Life is a must read for the concept that when you spend money, it’s not really money.
It is your life energy that you previously traded for the money.
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Brown is a radical book that will shake your brain.
Some will love it, some will hate it, but it is worth reading (at least twice) for the concepts.
Can you name 5 things that have had the greatest financial impact on you?
- Choosing a high paying specialty (radiology) in a high paying career (physician).
- My ability to earn money at a very high rate dwarfs everything else.
- It doesn’t matter how much you make if you spend it all.
- For most of my life there has been a large delta between earning and spending.
- Making mistakes early.
- I made many poor investment decisions through my life (stocks that went to zero), but most of them were with small dollar amounts, and early in my working years.
- I learned from my mistakes.
- Investing automatically and often.
- Using primarily index funds and some relatively conservative stocks, I let the power of compounding and growth of capital markets to do the heavy lifting.
- Allergy to consumer debt.
- I have never carried a credit card balance, even when my cash flow was minimal.
- We paid off our student loans aggressively in the first few years of practice.
- The last thing I financed was our house, and that debt will likely be gone shortly.
Can you share with us a hidden talent that most people would be shocked to find out about you?
If I had one I would.
I feel like I have above average skills in several areas, but nothing I would consider amazing.
Currently I’m working on improving my skill level in soccer (recently hampered by a foot injury), guitar, video games and hitting the heavy bag (boxing).
I will let you know if I ever get good at any of them.
The topic of physician burnout has been gaining momentum in social media.
Have you experienced burnout in your medical career?
What steps have you taken to minimize the chance of burnout?
My burnout and journey through it is a major influence on my writing.
About 5 years into my career I went through massive burnout.
It was so bad I decided I was going to pursue financial independence and quit medicine in 5 years.
The problem with this strategy is that I still had to work 5 more years completely burned out!
I decided that I needed to figure out how to work through it and be content.
Over the next two years I managed to design a half-time job share (that I still do today), however I also became much happier and less burned out those next two years in spite of not changing a whole lot structurally about my job.
I changed my mindset.
I learned to meditate and practice gratitude.
I cut out negative stressful things from my life like news and paying too much attention to current events.
I stopped worrying about things I could not control, and focused on changing things that I could.
While I was making these changes I also aggressively pursued FI.
If I ever became so burnt out or dissatisfied with my job again, I wanted the option to walk away and do something else if I wanted to.
Another trend that is sweeping the physician blogosphere is the concept of FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early).
What are your thoughts on this and do you see leaving the medical profession earlier than what has been the traditional time frame?
My feelings about FIRE have evolved since I started my journey.
From a technical standpoint I think nearly every physician can become FI by about age 45 or 50 if they put their mind to it.
Some can even do it by 40 if they are hardcore.
All it takes is a decent income, moderate frugality and average investment returns.
It’s not that simple though.
Leaving medicine is as much a financial issue as it is an identity and ego issue, especially for men.
I’m not so sure a large percentage of physicians can leave medicine before 50 and find something to replace it that will give them a sense of purpose like being a doctor does.
I have worked very hard detaching my ego from my job and identity as a physician, yet I still think full retirement will have certain challenges.
At maximum burnout I thought I was going to leave medicine at 40, but now I question if I will leave before 50.
When I was burned out, working to 50 seemed absolutely insane.
I do think striving towards FI is reasonable though, as it gives you so many options if you burn out or have some other life circumstance that makes continued work very difficult.
I will not be reading trauma CT scans for 10 hours straight on the weekend when I’m 55 though, that much I know.
There are enough things I do not enjoy about radiology and medicine in general that will eventually drive me away.
Let us say you have hit your target number for financial independence.
Would you a) continue to practice medicine the way you do now, b) continue to work but reduce clinical workload/eliminate certain components, or c) exit medicine completely regardless of age?
Well, I basically eliminated half of my job and income years ago, well before I was anywhere near FI.
I think about the answer to this question often.
I could probably walk away any time I wanted and be OK, although I’m just not sure if I want to turn off that income stream.
I’ve seen enough disasters (medical, family, etc.) to make me a little gun shy.
I wouldn’t want to work much less than I am now, as I feel like I need a certain volume to stay fresh, but I certainly wouldn’t want to return to full time.
It’s complicated when you are FI or close to it.
When it is 10 or 20 years away the answers seem simple.
When you are faced with pulling the trigger, “one more year syndrome” becomes a very real phenomenon.
For me, the first thing to go will be the night and weekends.
I really don’t enjoy call.
It is busy, stressful, and brings me no joy.
It is not clear if a job like that can exist within my current situation, but if I figure it out I will blog about it. 🙂
Thank you so much for your time answering these questions and being placed under the “X-ray beam.” I look forward to your continued posts and wish you much success.
Namaste, and likewise.
If you are interested in checking out previous individuals that were brave enough to expose themselves to the beams of the X-ray, please check them out here.
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