The chairman of the ophthalmology department looked down the polished wood conference table, past my fellow professors, and said to me, “The reviews the residents have given you are so bad they’ll make your hair curl. You’re going to have to make some changes.”
That mortifying experience ultimately led me to freedom. First, I’ll fill in what led to that moment:
Early on my road to becoming an eye surgeon, my Ivy-League education made me an expert learner. However, my residency training as an eye surgeon at University of California, San Francisco showed me how to be a teacher.
My professors were world-class doctors and scholars who were also invested in my success, believed in my ability and created personal relationships with me. They expected me to proactively participate in the teaching process. The culture at UCSF was one of continual and reciprocal teaching and learning. I thrived in this world.
When I finished my training, I came to Chicago as an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Northwestern University. I was excited to apply my powerful teaching mindset to the residents in my new department. To my dismay, I realized that the teaching culture there was not the same. Residents knew less, professors taught less, and learning was not the top priority.
Despite the cultural misfit, I set out to teach the way I’d learned at UCSF.
I quickly rose in my career, developing new surgical techniques, taking national leadership positions, working as a consultant to corporate ophthalmology device companies, doing research and publishing papers. I was often the only woman in a room full of older men. Of all the different things I did, teaching was my greatest passion. I taught my physician colleagues as well as the residents and students in training.
Then came the ophthalmology department leadership meeting and the chairman’s “hair-curling” comment to me.
This unexpected public humiliation and rejection of my way of teaching was life changing. In that moment, a switch clicked over inside of me, and I realized I couldn’t continue to work in an environment that devalued me and constrained me from doing what I loved in the way that was true to me.
I decided to quit medicine. My husband didn’t want me to quit. Nor did my patients, my colleagues, my boss. They told me I would be wasting all the years of training, that they needed me, that I owed it to society to continue as a physician, that I was being selfish.
The pressure to stay was enormous, even from inside myself. What would I do when I was no longer an eye surgeon and professor? Who would I be?
Two excruciating years later, despite my fear and a world of pushback, I finally walked away from medicine.
That lasted about three days. Then I set about figuring out what was next. I experimented, searched and learned new things. I found a mentor who helped me clarify what kind of work was the best fit for me. I honed my innate abilities to connect and understand people. I got an MBA. And I was certified as a corporate coach.
Now I’m a teacher to talented executives. I help them get what they want in life. And I teach in a way that’s true to me. I found my way out of a successful but constraining role and into doing work that serves others, brings me joy and allows me to continuously create and expand. In turn, I teach my clients to create fulfilling work roles for themselves.