For the most part, I have lived a fairly charmed life. I have had challenges, but not nearly what many others have had. Some of my challenges are: I went to LA public schools, which were not particularly safe. I did an internship in a private practice owned by a single person who would sometimes make disastrous unilateral decisions. I had a conflict with one of my residency supervisors. I was a department chair at an institution with toxic leadership. When you are faced with a challenging professional position, how do you handle it?
I have two suggestions on this point: one from Stoicism and one from The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.
The Stoic answer: focus on what YOU can control. You can’t change other people. You probably can’t change your circumstance. You CAN control your response to that circumstance, how you act, and what you say. There’s no point in being upset that your boss is an idiot who doesn’t know how to run a business. You can’t change or control that person. You CAN change how you respond to the person or situations. If someone insults you, you can respond with humor. If someone treats you without respect, you can realize you have self worth and can follow the saying, “Don’t worry about what people think of you if you wouldn’t go to them for advice.” If someone angers you, instead of lashing out, you can take a deep breath and walk away.
The Dalai Lama: what can you learn from your suffering? We grow in times of challenge and under duress. When things are easy, we coast. But it is in times of adversity that we improve who we are as human beings. What can you learn about yourself, or your choices, in a bad situation? You can reflect on how you ended up there and make different decisions going forward. You can learn how you react to adversity and improve your patience, compassion, and tolerance. Look upon your enemy as giving you a gift- the gift of self-improvement.
How have I applied these principles to my own challenging circumstances? In high school, I started learning martial arts to provide myself a greater sense of security in a dangerous environment. After my internship, I decided I preferred bureaucratic institutions like universities, where one person is unlikely to be able to mess up everything. From my conflict with my residency mentor, I learned to approach people early and talk through problems with empathy. Working for a narcissistic sociopath, I learned the importance of well-balanced upper administration and why our culture tends to reward the narcissistic sociopaths, so I can avoid them in the future.
We all have challenging professional situations. Maybe it’s a professor who you feel had it “out” for you. Maybe it’s a colleague who continually undermines you. Maybe it’s a boss who bullies or belittles you. We all face adversity. The question is, what are you going to do about it? You can wallow in misery, cry foul, and gripe about things. Or, you can learn, grow from the challenge, improve yourself, and improve your future. Which will you choose?