Start with WHY: Define Your Purpose and Goals for Your Career

Start with why

Simon Sinek’s excellent book, Start with WHY discusses how businesses tend to focus on WHAT their business does and neglect the reasons WHY.  Starting with WHY gives you clarity so WHAT you do and HOW you do it lines up with your ultimate goals for your business.  If you haven’t read this book, you should definitely go buy a copy.  It’s a great place to start, so let’s start there.

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Start with WHY: “Why did you want to become a doctor?”

People ask me that question all the time.  You can read about my personal decision to become a physician, but I want to ask why YOU wanted to become a physician, nurse, dentist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, chiropractor, speech pathologist, or other health care professional? 

Maybe you’re just starting out in medicine and you’ve got a crystal clear picture of your reasons for entering the health care field.  Perhaps you’re in post-graduate training and that picture has been crushed under the educational demands of your day-to-day life.  You may even have been practicing for decades, and the administrative and financial realities of modern medicine have distorted and clouded that vision to the point that you can’t remember your original calling anymore. 

Some of the more common reasons people elect to become health care professionals include:

  • “It’s intellectually stimulating.”
  • “I like to help people.”
  • “This is how I feel called to serve.”
  • “I enjoy the relationships with patients.”
  • “It’s rewarding to help people heal and feel better.”
  • “One of my mentors was a physician and encouraged me to do it too.”

Notice that I didn’t include “earning a great living” among those reasons.  I’m sure that there are some people who started their career hoping to have a large income, but I’ve never met a single doctor, nurse, or other health care professional who said money was their big motivator for starting that career path.  I’ll just tell you, it’s not worth it to do this job just for the money

First of all, there’s no guarantee that you’ll earn a high income forever.  Second, the road to get there is long and arduous. 

Start with WHY: my story

To complete my gastroenterology training took 14 years after high school: 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 3 years of internal medicine residency, and 3 years of gastroenterology fellowship.  If you want to spend that amount of time, effort, and money to get trained as a medical professional, you need a rock-solid foundation on which to build those efforts, and that starts with “WHY.” 

When you experience frustration with your bosses, administrative hassles, ungrateful patients, long hours, and tough losses, you have to have something to fall back on that reminds you that the struggle is worth it.  Coming home at the end of the day exhausted and with frayed nerves, I find I can always wake up the next morning and be right back at it.  I love taking care of my patients.  I LOVE it. 

Truthfully, I can’t imagine doing anything else. 

That’s not to say that I don’t experience setbacks, anger, frustration, and stress.  I certainly experience that as much as anyone, and you will too.  However, if we allow those struggles to distract or derail us from our mission, we will eventually succumb to the bitterness and burnout that plague so many people in our field. 

Start with WHY: the impact

How many times have you heard someone say, “If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn’t be a doctor/nurse, etc.?”  What about, “I try to discourage my kids from going into medicine.  It’s just not worth it anymore.”

Most often, I find that those defeatist statements come from people who have allowed the day-to-day annoyances of the health care field to consume them, and they have forgotten why they wanted to be a health care professional in the first place.

In some industries, you can legitimately perform at less than your maximum capability and still get by.  If you ship packages for a living, what’s the worst that happens that day?  A package goes to the wrong place and gets delayed.  As a health care professional, if you have a bad day, people can die, and that’s just not acceptable.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with shipping packages, or being a file clerk, or working for minimum wage.  I’ve done several of those jobs myself.  There’s honor in those jobs, but the honor is in performing those roles to the best of your ability, not just with the intrinsic value of the work itself.

In medicine, getting up in the morning should raise your heart rate.  You should be so excited about the opportunity to serve your patients that you can’t wait to get started for the day.  You should walk into work ready to take on the world.  That’s what our patients need from us and what we should expect of ourselves.

Does that sound overly idealistic?  Maybe it is, but I still believe it’s possible for everyone in the health care field to achieve.

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Start with WHY: a story for early career and young profressionals

I attended a lecture once given by a physician as part of a series of lectures given by different professionals on why they went into their particular field.  His opening line was, “I’m going to try to convince you in the next hour why you shouldn’t become a doctor.” 

That really piqued everyone’s interest, because up to that point, every other presenter had been actively trying to get us to consider their chosen career path for our own.  He followed that line with, “If I can convince you in 60 minutes that you shouldn’t become a doctor, then you needed to be convinced.” 

He gave an amazing presentation, with some great stories about the wonderful experiences he had a physician over the previous 20 years.  It was truly inspiring.  But, he also gave us a really clear picture of the hardships we could face if we chose to become physicians.  There would be mountains of debt, years of education, minimal free time, strain on relationships, delay in earning potential, and a lot of time being overworked and exhausted. 

One thing he was very clear on was that it would be worth it if you were called to it.  He talked about people he knew who went into medicine for the wrong reasons and hated it.  They did it out of a sense of obligation to family, for the high income potential, because they had some friends who were going that direction, or maybe some job flexibility. 

He said, “If you go into medicine for any of the wrong reasons, you’ll hate your life and you’ll hurt your patients.”

Start with WHY: encouragement for early career and young professionals

Let me encourage you that despite the social media rumblings and whining that you tend to see on a variety of health care websites, some of which is legitimate, this field is incredibly rewarding.  I’m still excited to go to work every day, but it’s because I know that this is where I belong. 

I get to make a difference in someone’s life every day, and that just never gets old for me.  The paperwork, the long hours, and politics do get tiresome, but I always revert back to my reasons for serving in this profession, and I remember that it’s all worth it.

Start with WHY: for long-term practitioners

According to surveys, up to 80% of health care professionals report having experienced burnout .  There will be a time when you are tempted to think that you chose the wrong profession.  Maybe that’s where you are right now.  You dread hearing your pager go off.  You fear the next day’s shift, and you don’t respect your bosses.  That vacation that’s coming up in six months can’t come soon enough.  You’re thinking, “Why don’t I just retire  early?  Oh yeah, I don’t have the money.  (Sigh).” 

Whatever your experiences that have led you to this point, you CAN take control of your life again.  That all starts with reclaiming your “WHY”.  Why did you go into your field in the first place?  If you can’t remember, ask people who knew you when you first started in your career why you said you wanted to do it.  What excited you back then?  Was it the patients?  Was it the challenge?  Maybe it was the opportunity to make a difference? 

Try to find your way back to the mindset of the starry-eyed dreamer you used to be, and find your purpose again.  Forget the frustrations of the job, the inadequate pay, and the people who might rub you the wrong way.  Just think about that original reason

Talk to mentors you respect who still experience joy in their daily work, and ask them why they still love it.  What motivates them to continue coming back to work and finding ways to be excited?  How do they avoid burnout?  Learn from them, remember your true purpose for serving in the medical field, and let that be the guiding light for your career. 

An Exercise

Any good business or nonprofit organization will have a mission statement.  This is the codified “WHY” of the company.  You will also benefit from having a written document you can refer to that describes your purpose and your reasons for serving in the health care field.  Keep this document in an accessible place, and have copies at work and at home that you can refer to any time your faith in your career choice begins to falter.  You might even consider printing a copy and posting it in your office or in another prominent place to remind you of your original “WHY” on a daily basis. 

Click to download for free!

If you’re in a leadership role, have all of your team members go through the exercise, either on their own or as a group exercise.  You’ll be amazed at how this simple action can lead to a renewed sense of purpose and an increase in productivity as well as job satisfaction.

To help you complete this exercise, I’ve put together a simple guide for you.  You can download it for free.  It’s easy to use.

  1. Download the free guide
  2. Complete the simple exercise
  3. Renew your love for your profession

Final thoughts

Finding and constantly renewing your belief in your “WHY” will help you stay motivated when things get tough.  We have an extraordinary calling, perhaps the most rewarding career path available in modern society. 

I feel humbled when faced with the awesome responsibility that our profession demands of us, but being firmly grounded in my “WHY” makes it easy to accept that responsibility. 

I want you to get to experience the same joy I do every day.  Take time to consider your “WHY” and use that to give you the emotional security of knowing you are doing exactly what you were born to do.

Leave a comment below and tell us your “WHY.”  What keeps you motivated to stay in your chosen field?

If you haven’t read Simon Sinek’s excellent book, Start with WHY, you should definitely go buy a copy.  It discusses how businesses tend to focus on WHAT their business does and neglect the reasons WHY. 


Further Reading

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dentist, leadership, personal finance, physician, practice management, purpose

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