Last Thursday I got a note from my friend Paul saying that he and his wife Blake would be in town over the weekend. They live in Akron, Ohio, and were coming to DC to go to the temple (Akron apparently is equidistant from the Palmyra, Manhattan and DC temples, so they chose DC.) They wanted to know if I’d be interested in catching up over dinner.
Of course I said yes: Paul and I served our missions together in Brussels, and although we’d kept in touch since then, we hadn’t seen each other for years — quite possibly since the Superbowl party where we watched Justin Timberlake cause Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe” to “malfunction.”
The mini-reunion was great – Ron began by noting how “youthful” Paul and I looked despite the twelve years that have passed since he first met us. His second observation was a jibe at the fact that I’d brought him to a restaurant in a competing hotel – to which I responded that it wasn’t my fault his hotels had mediocre restaurants. (He followed by chatting up the waitress about the chef — Ron’s apparently thinking about putting a Jean Georges restaurant in a new hotel that’s under construction.)
Then we proceeded to fill everyone in on the past few years of our lives: Paul is in his final year of medical school, having transferred to Ohio after spending the first couple of years at a medical school in the Caribbean, and having just matched into his first-choice urology residency. Blake is teaching modern dance at several studios in Akron and otherwise raising their son Hugh. Ron and Debbie are busy with their roles in the company and the church (he’s the DC stake president; she’s head of public affairs for the church). As for me, well, you know what I’ve been up to.
Once finished with ourselves, we moved on to everyone else we’d kept in touch with: So and so is finishing X degree; so and so has a baby; so and so was killed in a car accident. And so on.
The funny thing about talking like this is that you see life patterns emerging from the people you knew back when we were all starting out. The mission president who finished an Ironman race the month before starting his mission is now a high-powered business executive. The go-getter missionaries who held leadership positions in the mission (and some who didn’t) are now doctors or lawyers or investment bankers or successful entrepreneurs. Those who struggled on the mission generally still struggle.
These patterns shed light on the lives of others, but also on my own. For example, consider the following:
When I asked Paul if urology was his first choice, he said no, he really wanted to be a trauma surgeon: he wanted to be in the ER sewing up people with gunshot wounds to the head and limbs missing after car accidents. Why? Because he loved being the one person who had to keep his head on straight and focus on making crucial decisions about how to save the person’s life. Same thing for another guy, Jay, who had been my companion: Jay is finishing up medical school to be an ER doc; he thrives on the pressure of the crises and resolving the problem.
If you’d asked me what I thought when I was companions with Jay, I’d have said that we were totally different. I hate crises and chaos and I don’t feel any particular need to save people from gunshot wounds. Or do I? Instead of becoming a French professor or whatever, I’ve put myself in a fast-paced, high-pressure, high-stakes legal world – because I thrive in those circumstances. The pressure, the problem-solving, the expectation of perfection in results, the feeling of accomplishment when I achieve those results. And of course, this applies both to my professional life and my personal life. When things get too slow and calm, I get bored and restless and ornery – I start looking for mountains to run up (figuratively and literally). This is why I struggle with Sabbath observance and beach vacations (or, really, any vacation longer than a weekend that isn’t high-intensity).
But note this; Paul didn’t become a trauma surgeon. As much as he personally would have enjoyed the work as a trauma surgeon, he didn’t want the lifestyle that came with it. He didn’t want to spend days on end in the hospital, sleeping on cots in the closet and missing out on life with his wife and kid. So he chose urology, a field known for having high satisfaction with work-life balance, as well as handsome remuneration. He enjoys it and will do well, even though it may not have been his very first choice.
I, on the other hand, seem to have taken the other route. I became the “trauma surgeon” and I’m getting both the ups and the downs that go with it. So I guess the question is how I feel about the balance between those ups and downs. Last year, on balance, the downs were out of control. This year, the ups are winning. So far, I think that’s generally been the case: there’s a lot that I really like about being at this law firm (and I’m still there, aren’t I?). Still, hearing about Paul’s choice makes me wonder if there’s a “urology” equivalent for me. How do I find enough of the high-intensity stuff to keep me happy, while making sure it’s adequately cabined? Alternatively, are there other things that motivate and satisfy me that I can focus on in a way that will substitute for the satisfaction I get from the high-intensity stuff? Or will I turn everything I do into “trauma surgery”? (To be honest, part of me suspects that the answer to that last question is yes.)