As we search for meaning in our lives, we worry most about “Why do we want to become a doctor?” Indeed, as our fragile souls are knocked and swayed by existential crises and moments of doubt and insecurity by the overture of every Chemistry exam or weekend of volunteering, our searches for meaning and satisfaction ultimately leave us with only our constructed answers. Though it would be ridiculous to make decisions of the rest of our life in response to the temporary moodiness that mark any neophyte, whether we like it or not we, undergraduates, are forced to ask ourselves what we want to do with our lives and why. It’s important to put things into a bigger perspective that, while we are here to learn about ourselves and the rest of the world, we should not feel pressured to forget about our purpose.
You’ve probably heard the far too-oft repeated buzz-purpose “to work with people” or “help people.” I mean, it seems like an easy option, right? Despite its banal general feeling, wouldn’t want to work with other people or help others? It seems to be the prime quality of an empathetic, righteous human being. Through out volunteering, extracurriculars, research, and whatever else we do, we find ourselves doing things out of a love of helping others and working with people. Digging deeper, we ask ourselves what it really means to “work with people.”
Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Medical Ethics Professor at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, and ask him if he had made any observations about the motives and purposes of medical students in their work. I explained to him how I have already spoken with several different professors about how our motivations for why we learn and behave may have significant implications. Specifically, I asked Dr. Sulmasy about our pressure to act and do things for “utilitarian” purposes, rather than finding a “truer” meaning behind the things we do. He responded that there was indeed a difference between students pursuing actions for “Intrinsic”, rather than “Instrumental” purposes. One can imagine that studying for an exam because learning organic chemistry reactions has an intrinsic value that chemists and scientists truly appreciate may be more helpful and successful than students studying for the sake of obtaining a decent grade on an exam. Perhaps we, pre-medical students, should use these intrinsic values of our academics to find deeper meanings beyond “a desire to work with people.” As another example, we find students who want to study poetry for the sake of satiating a desire to understand the human condition and the beauty of art at odds with students who study how to program software that can detect viruses in human DNA. Sulmasy continued that the battle at the hands of our motives and purposes is a test of sincerity that is very often showed in graduate & medical school applications. And one does not need to throw away the motive of “utilitarianism” altogether. We could argue that, if students approach their studies for more “intrinsic” purposes, then society will have more motivated and mindful scientists & doctors that would provide a greater practical benefit for everyone. And, of course, these issues are exhibited among all students, not just pre-medical students. Aside from the amusing alliteration, his comparison drew from examples of doing things for the purpose obtaining a reward out of their pre-medical/medical experience exhibited by his students.