Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Lessons learned for living a fulfilling life, from how to cultivate a positive mindset to strategies to improve future decision-making
As a board-certified diagnostic radiologist, I spend most of my time sitting in the dark, distinguishing between different shades of gray. I am an expert at reading complicated images and diagnosing diseases, but getting to this point wasn’t easy by any means.
The journey to becoming a physician is an arduous one. It constantly tests your resolve, putting you in stressful situation after stressful situation while sleep-deprived and frequently feeling burnt out.
How did I get through this? I analyzed myself when dealing with difficult situations and the decisions I made during those situations to see if they aligned with my values and the person I wanted to be.
In essence, was I living a good life — the life I aspired to live? When the answer was no, I reassessed my approach to each situation and made the changes necessary to ensure I was living a life I could be proud of.
I continue this approach to this day, and have since discovered seven key lessons in life that have served me well:
1. Life Isn’t Black and White
Rather, life is just like the images I interpret—with many shades of gray. Every situation has multiple sides, and it’s important to take the time to consider all perspectives before making a decision.
In life, the key to success here is to practice empathy. This means to consider and be considerate of others. Try to understand their situation, feelings, and needs. Listen to them earnestly and with an open mind.
As we say in medicine, “To Err is Human.” The vast majority of people are not malicious. Sure, there is the occasional bad apple, but in general, people do not have ill-intent and accidents happen all of the time. People are simply imperfect. So give people the benefit of the doubt and put yourself in their shoes.
2. Kindness Is the Foundation of Life
Radiologists look at thousands of images on multiple different patients every single day. Our typical day is fast-paced, trying to read as many exams as safely possible to prevent a significant delay in any single patient’s care. This makes it easy to forget that we’re reading cases on living and breathing people with real problems.
In my personal practice, I constantly remind myself that each study I read is a real person — someone’s parent, sibling, spouse, partner, child, or friend. I put conscious and subconscious biases aside on each exam I read and approach it as if it were one of my loved ones because everyone deserves this basic level of kindness.
Kindness is the foundation of life. Without it, nothing works right. How we treat others and how we interact with those around us matters.
So, always choose kindness. The phrases: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” and “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” (The Golden Rule) are both excellent phrases to live by.
Outside of work, I’ve found that consistently choosing to be kind and respectful to others, regardless of who they are or what they do, pays off in life. When you are kind and treat others with respect and compassion, you build trust and earn respect. You also form deeper bonds, leading to stronger relationships.
Here’s an example that still sticks with me. One of my friends hit my car in a parking lot. Instead of jumping to anger and yelling at my friend, I paused. I accepted that “what’s done is done” and that the accident was just that — an accident. There was no malicious intent. Contrary, my friend felt terrible as I could see by the expression on his face. So, I reassured him that I knew it was not intentional and that the incident was unfortunate for both of us. Then, by working together, we were able to come to a quick resolution and found the situation actually strengthened our friendship.
Getting angry, even though it’s an easy and natural (and sometimes justifiable) way to feel, only gets in the way of a solution. You can’t un-spill a cup of coffee or un-break a window. But you can turn a negative situation into a positive memory for all parties involved by choosing to respond with kindness.
3. Gratitude Is a Game Changer
Gratitude is a wonderful and powerful emotion. It can help you stay positive during difficult times, build resilience, and enjoy the present moment more. Practicing gratitude has also been linked with increased levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
Whenever I’m faced with a potentially frustrating situation, I take a few moments to express gratitude. This, in turn, helps me choose happiness over sadness or anger. Spilled cup of coffee? “I’m grateful I can make another cup.” Knee randomly buckles and I look like an idiot in public? “I’m grateful I didn’t break anything!” Lose a loved one? “I’m so grateful for all of the wonderful memories I have had with (insert name here).”
It’s hard to feel unhappy and grateful at the same time. I’ve found expressing gratitude to be an excellent way to quickly reset my mindset from negative to positive. With gratitude, I can stop dwelling on or lamenting a problem and move on to the solution or simply move on with life. In the words of a great scholar, my grandfather, “It’s in the past.” Embrace gratitude and move on.
4. How You Act Can Change Everything for the Better
When we reflect on our lives, there are generally a handful of key moments that stand out. These moments are frequently accompanied by powerful emotions, both negative and positive, that resonate throughout our minds throughout our lives.
The positive memories are wonderful. The negative memories are generally not so wonderful. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Over time, I’ve found that how you act during a troubling situation can drastically affect everyone’s perception of the event and even influence their response. A negative experience can become neutral or even positive as a result.
My father passed away in 2019 after a difficult, nearly year-long battle with metastatic cancer. While I have sadly lost too many family members too early, this was different — it was my dad and he was only in his mid-60s and otherwise in great health.
While I am deeply saddened when I think about losing my father, I have incredibly fond memories of his last year with us because of how my family and I responded to this tragic situation. We used my dad’s diagnosis as a catalyst to reprioritize our life decisions. We created new, lasting memories and did whatever we had to do to be with and take care of him during his final days.
My father died in his own home with his two sons and daughter-in-law by his side, with all of his close family and friends visiting during his final two weeks. So, when I think about my father’s passing, my sadness is replaced by feelings of joy, admiration, and pride in how we made one of the worst possible situations for my dad more bearable.
5. Make Decisions that Minimize Future Regret
One of my goals in life is to minimize future regret. So, for the past two decades, I’ve followed my own golden rule: “Make the decision that you will regret least 30+ years from now.”
When my dad was nearing the end of his life, I had a decision to make. Do I continue working to avoid missing out on 1 to 2 weeks’ worth of income (paid time off generally doesn’t exist in most medical practices)? Or, do I work with the people in my practice to find coverage so I can be with my dad at the most important time of his life?
With college and medical school loans still looming over my head, I’m embarrassed to say that I honestly considered the options. Then I asked myself, “What option would your future self regret?” You already know the choice I made. I was there for my father and I was there for my brother, so he wouldn’t have to go through it alone.
When I reframed the question in my mind, the answer became clear. If I had chosen not to go back and be there for one of the most important people in my life during his greatest time of need, I would never forgive myself. I’m glad I made the right decision. I now look back on that time with pride rather than shame.
You know yourself better than anyone else. You know what you find important and you understand your values. Make your future self proud.
6. There Isn’t Always a Right Answer
When it comes to life-altering decisions, many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the “right” choice. But, what if there isn’t a right answer? What if the options are all equally as plausible or difficult?
In radiology, we are limited to what we see on the screen in front of us. We have to interpret what we see and make a call based on the information we have. This is when I may defer to the ordering physician and say that “clinical correlation is recommended”. In other words, more information is needed to come up with the diagnosis.
Similarly, in life, there isn’t always a right answer. You can do your best to weigh the pros and cons of each option and make an informed decision, but sometimes you just need more information. You may need to talk with friends and family, do more research, and/or get advice from professionals.
Whatever you do, don’t let the fear of making the wrong choice paralyze you. Make the best decision you can with the information that is available to you and then move on. With time, more information may become available, and you can always adjust your decision later on.
Rather than deciding between a “right” or “wrong” answer, seek the best answer for you at that moment.
7. Live Life to the Fullest
Life is too short not to live it to its fullest potential.
I see so much pathology every day. The irony of my job is that I help people by diagnosing what ails them. I see how diseases like cancer and heart disease can take someone’s life far too soon, before they’ve had the chance to enjoy the people and things they love.
I don’t want that to be you, or anyone else. So I encourage you to live your life to the fullest.
Appreciate the little things, like a sunny day or a cool breeze. Take time to spend with friends and family, enjoy the outdoors, and explore your passions. Go on that trip you’ve been putting off, and make memories along the way.
Life is too short and precious to waste away wishing you had done things differently. Life is a gift, so make the most of it!
We’re all living in a live-action “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. Every day we are faced with decisions that shape our future. How we interact with others and how we react to difficult situations ultimately determine the kind of person each of us becomes. What will that be for you?
We’re all exposed to life’s ups and downs. We face experiences that can either lead to joy and satisfaction or disappointment, worry, and stress. But life, for the most part, is what we make of it.
So, as you choose your own adventures, choose empathy over judgment, kindness over spite, and gratitude over frustration. Act with courage and integrity, and strive to make your future self proud. Remember that no two adventures are ever the same and that there isn’t always a “right” answer. Life is too short not to live it to the fullest so enjoy every moment.
Hopefully, with these lessons in mind, your life journey will be a joyful and rewarding one.
You may also enjoy reading Clearing the Path: Trusting Your Intuitive Tools to Guide You, by Diane Wilshere.