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Balancing The Dual Career

I don’t have time”… four little words that so often give people carte blanche to turn their backs on their ambitions and dreams. Frankly, I don’t buy it. I realize many of you are so overwhelmed with work, family, health, financial, and or school commitment that you barely have time to breathe, let alone consider pursuing your dream job. And there are times—for those with very young children, significant illness in the family, or in the midst of personal crises—when it’s impossible to pursue anything but the hope of keeping your head above water.

Still, I think too many people use a lack of time as an excuse.

I’ve been an Emergency Room physician for over fifteen years, and in the past seven years I realized my dream of becoming a published novelist. I hope you don’t interpret this as gloating. No one who knows me would ever mistake me for one of those annoyingly ultra-efficient people. You know the type: someone who, in an avereage day, seems to be able to paint a house, teach his child Japanese, canvas for a local charity and still host a dinner party for forty.

If I have time on my hands, I can make a shave and a shower an all-day ordeal. I am capable of being an Olympic-level procrastinator. I have papers from the previous millennium still sitting in my inbox. Were it not for hired help, my lawn would be a jungle. And my garage is beyond description; it’s possible that Jimmy Hoffa’s remains are somewhere behind the stacks of boxes, books and magazines.

My advantage is my drive. When I sink my teeth into something, I do so with single-mindedness that borders on obsession. Other obligations and commitments invariably suffer, but I try to follow one rule that I won’t let my wife or kids bear the brunt of my obsession. Family still comes first. However, when I’m writing a new novel, I cut back on all other pastimes. Netflix loses an avid follower. My timing in tennis goes to crap. I even stop reading for pleasure and focus solely on research.

Around the same time I started to seriously pursue my dream of writing professionally, I also began to dabble at golf (by ‘dabble’ I mean lose ball after ball to the woods and the water). My wife “suggested” that I choose between the two time-consuming pursuits. It was the easiest choice of my life. I have never once thought of writing as a sacrifice. It’s my passion and still my favorite hobby.

Of course, when it comes to pursuing dual careers, I do have a huge advantage over people with nine-to-five jobs. As an ER physician, I am basically a shift-worker. And while the workload can be intense, the hours are not long compared to most of my colleagues in other specialties. I often have free time during the daytime, when the kids are at school and my wife is at work, to focus on writing.

I am also lucky in that I get to flex both sides of my brain in my two chosen careers. Medicine is traditionally considered a “left brain” function, focusing on science and logic, whereas creative writing is viewed as a “right brain” activity, relying on imagination and creativity. This, of course, is a gross simplification. Work in the ER often requires great imagination and creativity, as we often have to respond on the fly and come up with all kinds of “band aid” solutions. And creative writing, especially plotting, can be an almost scientific process. After all, how often have you heard novels described as “formulaic”?

Nonetheless, pursuing two such diverse interests helps to keep both exciting. One feeds the other. My work in the ER—especially meeting new patients who give me a glimpse into their fascinating lives—fuels my creativity. And my writing offers the perfect outlet and antidote to relax after a long or stressful shift. In many ways, it has reinvigorated my fervor for and appreciation of medicine.

I warn you, though, chasing the dual career is not easy. It takes considerable juggling. There are no shortages of naysayers willing to catalogue all the reasons why failure is inevitable. And sometime it is. Depending on your aspirations, it takes more than just talent and determination to succeed. Often, luck and timing is even more important. They certainly played a huge role in my particular case. But I think it’s tragic that so many people find excuses to never try to in the first place.

For those people willing to take the plunge, the rewards—and believe me, I am not speaking in terms of dollars and cents—are immeasurable. However, I get a little concerned to hear of people who have left long-term stable jobs to follow their dream career path. There’s a huge advantage in working a job with a steady income to compensate for the sporadic income of the other. I’m not only speaking about food on the table and a roof overhead (though those are hard benefits to ignore.) In the literary world, many authors who support themselves on their writing income alone have to make compromises in terms of their projects. I’ve always had the luxury of writing whatever I choose to. I consider every dollar I make in royalty as a bonus. Don’t tell my publisher, but I would write for free.

As best as I can tell from a quick Google search, there’s no real science behind managing the dual career. But here are a few basic common sense principles—as I see them—to giving yourself a chance to succeed at a second career:

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  2. Give yourself time to succeed
  3. Capitalize on your expertise and experience
  4. Do your homework
  5. Follow your passion, not your wallet
  6. Know when to walk away

I am not advocating dual careers for everyone. Sometimes it’s truly impractical. And some people would find the diametrical tug of two jobs too stressful or counterproductive. But speaking for myself, pursuing a second career has turned out be one of the best decisions of my life.

Maybe a time will come when I have to choose between the two. Or maybe the decision will be made for me. But right now, my life is incalculably richer for doing both, and I cannot imagine working solely as a writer or a doctor.

There are plenty of reasons not to bother tackling a new career challenge. But every job gets a little monotonous at some point. What’s the harm in varying it up a little along the way?

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