“Dr. Beck, why did you become a doctor?”

This question was asked by one of my 17 year old patients who is thinking about what to study in university. I have known the answer to her question for many years. People often ask me, but I have always known the answer.

“My high school Biology and Chemistry teacher and my high school English teacher encouraged me to be a doctor. My Biology and Chemistry teacher’s husband was a doctor and he spoke to me as well. They convinced me to apply to medical school, and I did, although I couldn’t believe at first that I had been accepted. Some days I still can’t believe that I am a doctor.”

“My teachers don’t ever give me suggestions. Maybe they think I couldn’t be successful at anything good.”

I told my patient, “They may be waiting to get a better idea of what kind of work would be meaningful for you. You could ask them what they think, but you have told me that you want to make a difference in the world, so you probably also have some ideas.”

Since half of my patients are finishing high school every year, I was pleased to find this article from Mindshift which highlighted the work of Emily Esfahani Smith who described four pillars of a meaningful life. These four pillars resonate for adolescents, because they reflect values important to them:

  1. Belonging: “Belonging,” Smith says, “comes from being in relationships where you are valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well.” For adolescents, for whom belonging is crucial, this is a pillar they will be glad to have in their life’s work.
  2. Purpose: Smith’s view is that “…purpose is using your strengths to serve others.” Encouraging a youth to consider their strengths is an affirming exercise that helps build their self-esteem. Again, this will centre a young person to really think about themselves positively.
  3. Transcendence: The sense of feeling that you are involved in something greater than yourself is the essence of a meaningful life – and every teen knows this.
  4. Storytelling: I don’t know about my patients but this pillar resonates the most for me. I always want to see how a young person’s dreams integrate into the narrative of their life. Each of us has a life narrative. Listen to the stories your parents, grandparents, siblings, spouse, friends, and children tell about you. They may not always be flattering, but those stories lovingly capture a person’s best attributes.

Storytelling especially provides a window into a person’s personality. It is always good to hear the wonderful stories people will tell me about a youth and there are always stories.

From the time it was possible, one of my sons arranged his stuffed animals into a tidy row in his crib and then his bed. That boy was an orderly little soul then and he still is, a benefit to all of us who seem to need his organizing influence.

Another story is that I panic in some situations that might involve quasi-medical situations in my family. Thank goodness for my daughter, who famously told me when I was frantic over her brother who had fallen off a play structure: “Mom, calm down! You’re a doctor!” I am often grateful for that soothing presence.

When you invite these stories from families, you will hear them. They bring us together. I ask my patients to gather these stories and they are invariably positive. They help youth to feel loved.

Stories are a reminder for a youth that their life has already given meaning in the life of their family and in the lives of those who love them.

(Apart from medicine, these three people have made my life meaningful – and I just love looking at their picture…)

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