Physicians: Are you designing your career or is it designing you?

blank canvas to design your career

Have you thought about this question? At some point in our careers some form of this question will probably arise. Ideally, it would be something that we might reflect upon before we are in crisis. For years, we as physicians are focused on acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to practice our profession. Skills that will be continually honed over the years with practice in our chosen field. In fact, we are experts at a kind of tunnel vision that fosters a head down approach in service of building confidence and expertise. Our medical education and training foster a kind of hamster on the wheel mentality. There can be financial and hierarchal rewards in such an approach, but it is dependent on a system always remains respectful and appreciative of physician skill, effort and dedication.

We are living through challenging, changing times. The pandemic; escalation of administrative, clerical tasks; a plethora of qualitative metrics; uncertain leadership; changing patient expectations, etc. We live in a “brave new world” that requires a strong level of personal agency and engagement in order to survive and thrive. A linear training and mindset do not necessarily prepare us for all the twists and turns of a non-linear world.

The very word “design” suggests a conscious awareness of a process. It suggests purposeful involvement rather than unintentional evolution. Organic growth certainly has its place, but not to the exclusion of engaged creativity and input. So, this brings me back to the question:

      Are you designing your career?

Next Question:

         Do you know how to design your career?

In her book, Design the Life you Love, Ayse Birsel, an industrial designer and workshop leader, outlines five ways to think like a designer:

  1. Have a positive mindset.
  2. Shift your perspective and put yourself in others shoes.
  3. Visualize the big picture.
  4. Collaborate with others, expanding your ideas.
  5. Always ask yourself “What If” and pay close attention to your answers.

Try these simple, yet eye-opening instructions to see if you can break the mold of linear thinking. Infuse your next career move with curiosity, possibility, imagination and ideas of connection and community. Shifting into “design” mode will generates creative thinking and gets you unstuck.

Another great resource is the work being done by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, co-founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. In his TEDX talk, Bill Burnett outlines the five ideas that their Designing Your Life course is built around:

  1. Connect the dots that constitute a meaningful life and work (What you Believe; What you Do; Who you Are)
  2. Avoid “gravity” problems i.e., non-actionable problems (that can’t be reframed), most likely caused by unfixable circumstances.
  3. Create three idea plans around problems that you are currently working on, so that you develop new ways of thinking.
  4. Prototype your ideas.
  5. Choose well.

Your medical career trajectory deserves input, vision, inspiration and ingenuity.


“We are always growing from the present into the future, and therefore always changing. With each change comes a new design. Life is not an outcome; it’s more like a dance.”

Bill Burnett

“The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Create It.”

Abraham Lincoln

The alternative to good design is always bad design. There is no such thing as no design.”

Adam Judge, designer/author

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