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What Juggling Medical School, Business School and a Startup Taught One Man About Burnout

The more he worked, the less impact he had.

Too much self-inflicted pressure is not a good thing. Sometimes, harsh criticism is the wakeup call you need.

Rajat’s parents moved from India to the United Kingdom and then to the United States to o er their sons a better life. They settled in Ohio, and Rajat’s father repeated his medical residency, working long hours. Those early days stirred Rajat’s intense drive to achieve:

The people were friendly and nice, but it was pretty obvious that we were recent immigrants. I remember thinking that I should be doing more and better. In ninth grade, I was always worrying, Can I be more efficient?

My self-improvement projects built on each other. Every night before I went to bed, I wrote down what I had remorse over, what I regretted—for instance, if I had had a chance to help someone but didn’t.

In college, Rajat cofounded a nonprofit startup with the aspiration to bring leaders together for bipartisan conversation. He co-led it through college, med school, and then business school. Hell-bent on impact, Rajat didn’t notice that he was spinning out of control:

I applied to medical school as an alibi so I could work on the startup. I could have taken a pause, but my parents would have thought of it as tantamount to dropping out. Medical school was intellectually stimulating. I found it powerful to be with people in their hard times. At the same time, the startup gave me incredible exposure to the world’s issues and top minds. I’m really competitive, and I had to be the best I could in school. I brought that same intensity to my startup.

My third year of medical school was the hardest, when you work in the hospital all day and study afterward. Some days I had to be in surgery from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I would fall asleep standing up in the operating room. Thankfully, I wasn’t doing operations! Fridays, I got home at 5:30 p.m. and made a massive mason jar of coffee that held 10 cups. I did my schoolwork and startup stuff. Saturday night was date night. Every date ended the same: after dinner, I fell asleep five minutes into the movie.

I decided to take a break and attend business school. I had an affinity for risk, creativity, and innovation. We were hitting year 3 in the startup, and I knew I had to bring my A game.

At business school, Rajat’s mood worsened. He was frustrated that he hadn’t accomplished enough. He lost 20 pounds. His health suffered:

A friend and I went out for drinks. The next day, he called. He said we had spent our entire time complaining about work, and I was changing in negative ways. I felt humbled. I was not sleeping and in pain. I was working to death. I had health problems too awful to discuss. I had never valued self-care. I saw it as not much more than what’s required to keep a plant happy—you know, nutrition and water.

In college, every day had felt like the best day of my life. I don’t know when that changed, but I was beginning to feel like every day was the worst day of my life. I hit a breaking point when I realized I would rather be poor and happy as a simple doctor than miserable with power, status, connections, and no control over my life. That was rock bottom.

It was time to make a few life changes. Rajat let go of the startup’s day-to-day operations and returned to med school, reenergized and purposeful. And healthier.

So What?

Attending medical school and business school and leading a startup at the same time is a lethal recipe. Rajat didn’t question the ill effects of rising pressures that he had imposed. Harsh criticism was the wakeup call he needed.

A mindset of punishing work drove Rajat’s behavior. He said, “Ever since I was a kid, I had been envious of monks and the monastic life. I was into the intensity and focus of it, working oneself to death.” But when Rajat stopped to reflect, he saw that his drive for achievement was backfiring. The more he worked, the less impact he had.

Self-awareness leads to self-correction. However, this is not a fake-it-until-you-make-it kind of thing. If mindset is what’s holding you back, you have to replace it—and genuinely believe the new mindset. If you don’t, your unhealthy behaviors won’t change. They’re simply a function of the entrenched, even deeper mindset that’s still steering.

You’d be wise to pay attention. 

This post is excerpted from “Grow Wherever You Work: Straight Talk to Help with Your Toughest Challenges.” Copyright © 2018 by Joanna Barsh. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. 

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