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The "Ideal" Life as a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

To be reading this, you either already are or are on the way to becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.  Career choice is no longer an issue.  The important concern going forward on your career pathway is the quality of your life, both in its professional and personal aspects.  How does a CT surgeon maximize his or her life so that when the senior years arrive there are no regrets about a life and career as a  cardiothoracic surgeon?

For me, the answer is arrived at by the utilization of what is called "emotional intelligence." [1,2] The originators of this phrase would say that the first step is for the individual CT surgeon to go through a serious and thoughtful introspective process to determine what they would consider their ideal life.  What do you really want from and in your life?  I suggest this is not a trivial or easy process, but none the less is absolutely essential to achieving anything close to the maximum life.  We all get on autopilot: college, followed by medical school, then general and thoracic surgery residencies and, eventually, enter our practices with our heads down, charging straight ahead.  Take a time out and reflect.  The question is not what do others (parents, spouses, mentors, teachers) expect for or of you, but what is your genuine wish for yourself. 

With some idea of your "ideal self," the second step is to take a realistic look within and identify what you do and who you actually are now.  Some observations will be consistent with your so-called ideal self.  Other comparisons will identify gaps or discrepancies between who you are and who you want to be as identified in the search for your "ideal" self.

When this process is complete, you know what you need to change and/or add to your life to align what is actual to what you desire.  You can then begin your professional life as a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon in a way most likely to lead to both professional and personal lifetime satisfaction.  As set forward by Aristotle in his "Ethics," the life plan should be oriented around achieving happiness.  That is, the ideal life should make each of us happy, although what brings each of us happiness will vary.  To follow Aristotle's logic, happiness follows from a virtuous life which is essentially defined by achieving a balance in one's life and activities.  Extreme behavior and choices are unlikely to result in genuine and enduring happiness.  If one feels that professional obligations always supercede personal and family interests and commitments, an imbalance is created, tension is inevitable, and happiness/contentment are unlikely.  Contrarily, insufficient commitment to your patients and their care will undermine both the quality of and satisfaction from the professional side of life.  Balance is essential.

There is no right or wrong or absolute standard for developing this personal, balanced life. This is why the use of the emotional intelligence approach to both being candid with yourself about what you want and about the sort of person you already are is essential.  Otherwise, you are back on autopilot.

We share in and have inherited a lineage in a wonderful profession.  In a fashion similar to that of any person who is both an individual and a citizen of our country, and who consequently has the responsibility beyond personal interests for participation in societal civic activities, we have a genuine obligation to sustain and further the legacy of  cardiothoracic surgery as well as to serve our individual interests.  This involves an obligation to our patients and to our professional colleagues.  However, we must recognize that as individuals we cannot accomplish this goal over a lifetime unless we also consider and balance into this construct our non-professional life which involves ourselves and our families.  The future of our profession and of its ability to sustain quality cardiothoracic surgery practices requires, I believe, happy cardiothoracic surgeons;  not happy in a frivolous sense, but happy in the sense of contentment with the depth and breadth of their individual lives.  A balance of life’s choices and commitments (personal vs professional, patients vs family, income vs time) based on one’s carefully considered definition of the ideal life seems the most likely approach to genuine happiness and the "maximum life."



  1. Golemen D, McKee A, Boyatzis. Primal leadership: realizing the power of emotional intelligence.  Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
  2. Goleman D: Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than I.Q. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1995.



Enjoyed your article. As the leader of a start-up thoracic medical device company serving patients suffering from pleural effusions, demands on our time can be great and I encourage all of my sales guys to put family, friends, faith and health above career and the one's that heed my advice, are my best sales guys because they are 'happy'. and 'balanced'.
It is so important for Cardiothoracic surgeons to be, and to remain, balanced. You have made the case for this very well. Now that I am emeritus (a “has been”), I appreciate the fact that my career was so satisfying, and that Cardiothoracic Surgery and medicine still interest and stimulate me. How many people in other walks of life are equally blessed? I would start all over again “in a heart beat”.

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