Early indications

We start pointing young people in the direction of particular kinds of work very early, much earlier than we’d like to think.  If we want to improve the caliber of work that goes on in all professions, we’ll be wise to start noticing the potential for various professions that’s evident in young people who don’t necessarily excel academically, and then making room for the realization of that potential.

A couple of years ago my father fell off a ladder and spent six weeks in the hospital recovering.  I’d never spent much time in hospitals prior to those weeks and was surprised to find a lot of doctors and nurses who seemed as though they’d prefer to be doing just about anything other than what their job involved.  There were a few on the staff who were the opposite – people who seemed to enjoy other people, who were interested in keeping patients at ease and on track for their recovery.  But for most of the staff we encountered, empathy and connection seemed absent.  And it wasn’t as though it was empathy or medical competence.  I got the distinct impression that the people who were doing a good job were the ones who had chosen the profession because it suited them.

It seems odd to suggest that people would choose professions that don’t suit them, but I see it happen all the time.  Different professions have not only different kinds of work but different degrees of status and income associated with them, as well as stereotypes about what kinds of people should pursue them.  So people who are told they’re good at math and science become engineers, whether or not they’re suited to the work of engineering, people become teachers because they get along well with children, people become lawyers because they’re told lawyers earn good salaries, people become librarians because they like libraries (whether or not they like the people who populate libraries). This is an unfortunate phenomenon because it puts smart capable people in professions where they don’t belong, where they’re unlikely to be content, and thus where they’re not likely to do their best work.  Our experience at the hospital suggested that the phenomenon is in full force in health care.  And it makes sense to me for two reasons.

First, there are jobs in health care, which is not true in many other professions.  (Why so many of us are sick that there’d be so many jobs in health care is a question for a different day.)  So it’s a good idea, if all you want is a job, to get yourself trained as a medical professional.  But if you’re after anything more than a job (professional success, for example, or sustainability or fulfillment), it doesn’t seem like a good route to choose unless you’re really suited to the work.  Much of the work of those in the health care profession is thankless at best, downright grueling at worst.  It’s stressful enough for someone who wants to do it, someone who is suited to the tasks it involves.  For someone who doesn’t, it’s beyond stressful.  And it of course shows in their performance.

Second, we encourage young people to aspire to various careers based on how they do in school, much earlier than we’d like to think.  We tell young children they can be anything they want, but we also let them know early on if we think they’re good at math, or science, or the humanities, or none of the above.  And once we’ve decided, we give the ones we’ve deemed strong in those areas preference and support that we don’t give to the others.  (It’s not that we abandon the others; we give them remediation in the 3Rs.  We don’t tend to tell them they’ll be doctors and lawyers one day.  See the first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for a discussion of how we do this sorting in schools, whether we mean to or not.)

As I observed the dramatic difference between the staff who seemed interested in their jobs – the ones who were really listening to patients and actively problem-solving when something was off about a medication or a condition – and the ones who couldn’t seem to wait to get away from their patients, I couldn’t help but think of the children I know who are tremendously empathic and committed to caregiving.  These children are the ones who seem to me to be excellent candidates for work in the healing professions.  Not because empathy is all it takes to be successful in medicine.  Quite the contrary.  (I’m reminded of Daniel Pink’s Whole New Mind in which he acknowledges that it’s not that we need train everyone to be an artist; in fact we can’t get by on art alone.  It’s the way an artist thinks, her orientation to the world around her, that the job market and the social landscape need.)  If a child starts out as someone who wants to help people get better, wants their pain eased, it seems to me as though they’d be an awfully good candidate for a career in healing.  And we’d be crazy not to do everything we can to avoid squelching her interest in honing her interpersonal skills, while giving her as much access to the information and various modalities possible for expressing her strength.  We’d be crazy not to let her know we saw this promise in her.  It wouldn’t get the whole job done; there’d still be anatomy to learn and chemical properties to understand, but it’d be an important start, made of something that is much more difficult to teach than information.

The children who show this kind of promise don’t tend to be the ones who go to the head of their academic classes from the start.  They’re busy calming classmates who get nervous before tests, brokering compromises, walking their friends to the nurse’s office.  We don’t look around the classroom and point to them when we predict who’ll make it to medical school.  We point to the ones whose grades are good.

It’s a long long way from a child’s early years of expressing her inclinations and preferences to the profession she’ll ultimately choose for herself.  We can’t predict or dictate (at least I don’t think we want to dictate) the paths young people will set out on.  But we can do a better job of identifying the components of various paths that are already showing themselves in young children, and make it possible for the potential we so desperately need in various professions to find its way there.