“What do you wish you had done differently?” It’s such a great question, and a challenge that I was asked at one memorable Next Generation GP evening. It really set me thinking.
Outside medicine the answers are relatively simple. The one that really bugs me is that I wish I had fitted a loft ladder in the house where we lived for 36 years, but which I put off for year after year because it didn’t seem worth the hassle. At least once a week I had to use a wobbly step ladder which chipped bits off the ceiling, scratched the landing wallpaper, and involved hazardous balancing to retrieve whatever I needed from the attic. I’ve just calculated that I must have gone up into the loft well over 1500 times, but “it didn’t seem worth it”. Trivial annoying inefficiencies build up. Sort them out now.
But as for my career, I’m not sure I have any regrets. This isn’t because I didn’t make any mistakes. Of course I did. (And we don’t have anywhere near enough time here for me to list the clinical mistakes!) I’m looking at decisions that I made, career options that I followed, or opportunities that I failed to pursue. And I don’t have regrets because I’ve always felt that if you change anything in the past, you change everything – and who knows what the unintended consequences might have been. Solve one problem and you probably create a hundred more.
You’ve probably seen the film “Sliding Doors”, a Gwyneth Paltrow movie which alternates between two story lines, showing the two paths that the central character's life might take depending on whether or not she catches a train. It’s a great premise for a film, and I’m sure that you – like me – can look back at such moments in your life – the extraordinary random nature of how you met, or equally might not have met, your partner, for instance. But I’ve also always believed the premise was flawed for one particular reason. We don’t have just one “sliding doors” moment in our lives - we have an infinite number. The things that did or didn’t happen are indeed infinite in their possibilities.
There were definitely moments in my life when a clear bifurcation in options meant that my career took one direction, not another. I recall going for an interview for a very senior regional role in postgraduate medical education, realising half-way through the interview that I was both bored and irritated with the educational jargon that the interview panel was spouting, and so when we got to the inevitable “Have you any questions for us?” at the end of the interview, I said “No – but I do have a suggestion. If you’ve got any sense you won’t appoint me. You’ll appoint…” and I named one of the other candidates.
They took my advice.
I’m actually delighted that moment of interview madness turned out the way it did, even though my career up to that point had seemed to be on a logical trajectory. But if I had shifted onto that all-consuming educational pathway, I don’t think my subsequent career would have turned out to be half as interesting as it did. Though one young doctor who interviewed me at a conference pointed out that my secret of success was that “every time something goes wrong, you redefine it as a success”. I think he was probably right.
So – regrets. Yes, more than a few. But an equal number of lessons learnt, and a recognition that it is absolutely pointless agonising about the things you can’t go back and change.
And the lesson, if a blog has to have a lesson, must be that there’s absolutely no point in losing sleep over the things you can’t change, and that applies to everything that’s already happened. And that old tale that says “when one door closes, another one opens” is absolutely true.
Though I still wish I had installed that loft ladder.