As a doctor, I was fortunate enough to learn from some incredible mentors.
These were the people who lived and breathed medicine. They were willing to make regular sacrifices to go above and beyond. And they knew exactly what they were on this planet to do.
I looked up to them with awe.
I’m betting you’ve met similar individuals. You knew them when you see them. They ooze positive energy, navigating life with unshakeable optimism. Everyone wants to be around them. It’s inspiring to watch them work, and learning from them is a joy.
But then there are the others.
Perhaps their enthusiasm died long ago. Or maybe they never had any to begin with. And now they suck energy out of a room with unshakeable cynicism.
They show up and begrudgingly do the bare minimum. Everything seems to be tinged with impatience and sarcasm.
When you’re answerable to this type of person, work is an utter grind because they seek not to appreciate but to negate you.
On my career journey so far, I’ve encountered these two contrasting types of colleagues and mentors – often in the same workplace.
At this point, let’s classify them as follows:
- Type 1: Angels
- Type 2: Vampires
Hold on, though.
There’s a third group, and it’s the one comprising an overwhelming majority.
Their defining characteristic is indifference.
This indifference can fluctuate. It borders on malaise at the low end, and mild interest at the high end. But in the end, they’re going through the motions without feeling much of anything.
They’re living a Zombie life:
- Type 1: Angels
- Type 2: Vampires
- Type 3: Zombies
I’d like to ask a question at this point:
Which type of person are you currently being at work?
Is it an Angel, Vampire or Zombie?
If you got this far, you probably recognise yourself in Type 3, The Zombie.
Maybe you head to work each morning with a sense of unease, working hard but feeling numb about what you’re doing. This can be really distressing. And I’ve been there.
From the outside, I had a lot going for me as a doctor. Not only was I in a position where I could genuinely help others, but I also had job security, reasonable pay, and the ‘respect factor’.
But on the inside, I was slowly dying. To make it worse, at the time I just couldn’t understand why.
Inspired as I was by Angels I met along the way, I couldn’t bridge the gap and leave Zombie zone. I wished I could absorb their passion.
My solution at the time was to go hunting.
I looked for something outside myself to spark joy about being a doctor. This strategy had me flitting from one hospital to the next in search of more passion.
But each time I changed a variable, I eventually discovered the same “problem”… myself.
I was chasing a mirage.
I couldn’t change the fact that I didn’t enjoy the core essence of what means to be a doctor.
And I knew something at a deep, intuitive level.
I knew that by sticking around in medicine – whether for 3 more years or 30 – I was going to become a Vampire.
Who were you at the beginning?
If you’re in Zombie zone, or dipping into Vampire zone, think back to who you were at the start.
We need to track your trajectory in order to figure out what happened.
There are 3 possibilities, which we’ll take one-by-one.
1) You started out as a Vampire
If you began in Vampire mode, you need to seriously consider why you started down this path.
Were you pressured into doing this?
Are you here for the wrong reasons?
This can be a good start. I know it isn’t always so simple – factors which have nothing to do with work can make people jaded. However, a full exploration is beyond the scope of this article.
2) You started out as an Angel
If this is the case, consider what caused you to lose the spark of enthusiasm for your work.
Why have you declined into the Zombie/Vampire zone?
It can be useful to divide causes into internal and external:
- Internal: Have your beliefs changed? Have you learnt something about yourself? Do you still feel aligned with the core mission of your job/field? Do you need to develop a growth mindset?
- External: Is your environment supporting you? Are you being fairly compensated for your time/effort? Are you going through a difficult time personally?
Having come out the gate as the high-spirited Angel, there may be potential to get back there. If your causes were mainly external, there may be more you can do to rediscover the spark.
For instance, maybe you need to reprioritise your personal commitments, install healthier habits or set firm boundaries with the Vampires around you.
On the other hand, especially if there were more internal than external causes, you may be realising how tricky it’s going to be to find your way back. Life is a process of continual self-discovery. Sometimes we can’t unsee something about ourself, or we drift away from past decisions.
No one can tell you for sure whether it’s worth working through these factors. You have to decide.
Personally, I came to understand that I had never truly been in the Angel camp to begin with
Like so many do, I had started out as a Zombie…
3) You started out as a Zombie
When you (or those around you) are in Zombie zone, it’s not obvious. Zombie zone is a subtle place to be. Why? Because it’s the norm.
Think about it.
When Angels come into your life, isn’t the difference immediately clear? Doesn’t the room come to life? Suddenly people start to vibrate with positivity.
Most of us are good at faking this. We pretend to be an Angel.
We put on a smile, but underneath people see we’re disengaged, checked-out and working on autopilot.
I started falling into this camp.
And being somebody who craves deep fulfilment and alignment with my values, it was an agonising place to be.
Not only did I come to appreciate that I was in Zombie zone, I also had the painful realisation that I had never been an ‘Angel’ to begin with:
- I started doing the minimum expected of a competent doctor. I couldn’t motivate myself to push for mastery. Whereas now, going the ‘extra mile’ is simply a by-product of what I love doing anyway. It’s a delight.
- I was never able to bond with peers over a passion for medicine. I found myself instead connecting with those managing to cultivate a fun life away from medicine.
- While I could appreciate the Angels in my field, I didn’t aspire to be like any of them. I loved to help people, but not using the tools of a ‘doctor’.
This mini-epiphany left me at a crossroads.
One route was to just chill out, maintain course and keep going.
The risk in this scenario would be two-fold. I would have to accept the likelihood of not becoming an Angel i.e. remaining a Zombie…
…or worse, deteriorating into the cynical Vampire:
But with two of my core values including personal fulfilment and mastery, I knew this wasn’t viable for me.
The other route would be to go all-in.
This would mean re-committing to stay the course as a doctor, and doing whatever takes to ascend to become an Angel:
This is where it got really tough, because another core value for me is commitment.
I’m always reluctant to fold when things are tough, or to fall into the ‘grass is greener’ trap.
As a culture, we look up to those persistent enough to stick out disappointments and setbacks. We hear how ‘mastery’ takes at least 10,000 hours, and that mastery in turn breeds passion.
And I do believe this is a route to the Angel zone.
But just because we can persist, does that always mean we should?
Many of you may recognise this dilemma.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix, and it would be unethical to propose a blanket solution.
All I can do is talk you through my thought process at the time. The question running through my mind was this:
Is there anything left I can do in order to enjoy medicine?
I thought hard and took my time. I got a coach. I journaled daily. But as all important decisions do, it came down to intuition.
In my gut, I knew there were no avenues left. No amount of further inner work or changes in my environment were going to improve the outlook.
For me, it was become an Angel or get out. So I got out.
Mirrors and Crystal Balls
If you’re fine with being a Zombie, or even a Vampire, there’s no need to read on.
You can relax in the knowledge that you’re in good company. You can also avoid the relentless heartache that comes with discovering and pursuing worthwhile dreams.
But if you’re hungry for the call to adventure, or for just finding work that brings you to life, then what follows is a metaphor I’ve found useful.
Wherever you go in life, the people you spend time with shape your future. You don’t develop as an individual, you grow together as part of tribes.
And most of us spend a heck of a lot of time with people we work with.
Elliott Hulse, American Strongman and Strength Coach, proposed a way to think about the people around you. One of these being the ‘Mirror’, and one being the ‘Crystal Ball’.
Take stock of the people you work with – your colleagues, subordinates, immediate supervisors and mentors.
Here are two questions to consider…
Question #1 – In whom do you see yourself?
When you recognise yourself in a person, they become a Mirror. Sometimes they reflect things you like, but often you’ll see things you’d rather deny.
Let’s say you’re at the height of your career, and yet remain deeply dissatisfied.
Still in Zombie zone, you can’t understand why you don’t feel like the Angels around you.
Then comes along a fresh-faced junior member of staff. They seem just like you in every way. Apart from one thing – Enthusiasm. Vitality. Passion.
They have the spark of an Angel, something you’ve always wished you could locate in yourself.
It’s easy to resent such a person. I’ve been there. But realise that they’re a gift. They’re showing you something valuable.
Question #2 – In whom do you see your future?
This question is more relevant when you’re in the early/middle stages of a career journey.
When you look to people as Crystal Balls, you see your future in a flash of insight. You see who you might become.
Sometimes this can scare us. Especially when we see more of ourself in the worn-down, sarcastic supervisor than the radiant Angel.
That was the case for me. I had to ask myself this: do I want my future to become as dysfunctional as their present?
On the other hand, maybe there’s an Angel you know of, and they act as a Crystal Ball for you.
This can be uplifting. But not always.
Different Angels are here to carry out different missions.
At the risk of having now pushed the analogy too far, I’ll rephrase this more simply:
Each person has their own unique version of what a life of fulfilment and contribution looks like.
When I looked to the Angels in my field, and projected forward 10, 20 and 30 years, I realised something. I simply didn’t want the version of success I saw.
They were brilliant, but I didn’t aspire to their type of brilliance.
So without making a change, I would forever remain in the disconnected land of the Zombie zone.
Who will you become?
Through this insight, I came to understand something else:
No amount of outward success was going to make me a happy doctor.
I can’t know this for sure, but it made sense after putting 2 and 2 together.
Because to me, a career isn’t about what I achieve, how many qualifications I obtain or how competent I become. These things are a means to an end. The end being inward success.
And to me, inward success means having a positive impact in the way I’m most suited to do so. A way which complements the core essence of who I am.
This is why to me, a career is about who I become as a person.
When this is your focus too, you’ll have much less problem navigating out of a career rut. Nor will you struggle finding meaning, or purpose. You’ll be happy deep within yourself.
When you think about who you want to become, and then keep yourself accountable to that vision, you begin to change the world around you in ways you won’t always understand.
And to the people in that world, you might just end up becoming an Angel.