• Peter Yawitz

Poster Child For Career Reinvention, Chapter 1

Young professionals I’m asked to coach will sometimes admit in confidence that they think they’re in the wrong profession or role. Since their bosses are paying me, I can’t say, “Go on, girl, quit!” Instead, I remind them that a lifetime of work is a long one. It’s rare for people to stay in their first jobs forever, and countless people entirely switch careers. I should know. I’m the poster child for career reinvention.

During college I had blinders on about what opportunities I was suited for. My adolescence was defined by Crohn’s disease, and I admired many of the doctors who’d treated me. Consequently I convinced myself that I should devote my life to becoming a doctor just like them, as a sort of payback. In high school, though, even though my grades were very good, I got most of my pleasure in the theater department where I became obsessed about perfecting the timing of words and movements in every play I was in so I could achieve the maximum laugh.

Still, I labeled myself as “pre-med” to anyone who’d listen. The first sign that I was heading down the wrong path was seeing the dismal grades I received in pre-med courses in college. I stupidly didn’t pay attention to the good grades I got in every other class I took, which would have been a clear sign that my focus was perhaps misplaced. The pre-med advisor told me that the only hope in the world I’d have for getting into medical school was to take post-graduate classes in biochemistry and genetics and work in a hospital to show people how committed and serious I was.

Serious. Right. I can do that.

After graduation I took a job in hospital research lab. The work wasn’t bad, and it was “serious,” though very slow-paced. Happily for me, my boss was a foppish English pathologist with a great morbid sense of humor, who recognized that I could easily sling bon-mots back at him. I constantly wrote fake testimonials about him from historical and political figures, always managing balance praise with some way to ridicule him for one of his quirks. “The doctor’s insistence on dining at home alone seated at a table with a starchy white linen tablecloth and sterling silver cutlery marks a great contrast to his demeanor in his lab where he often will pick up a surgical specimen and say it resembles ‘a fucking bus accident.’”

After a while I had to find a way to ease my boredom and assuage my high level of guilt because I was killing little white mice for some advancement of science. One day I put three dead mice in my right lab coat pocket, picked up a large stack of books and approached one of the cool research fellows who hung out in our lab. I sidled up to him and asked whether he’d mind getting the pencil out of my right lab coat pocket since I was carrying so many books. He said sure, reached in and screamed when he touched the mice. Work done for the day.

My eyes opened a bit when that research fellow told me soon after that he had gone to med school with a guy who completed his studies, then decided to be a stand-up comic instead of applying to residency programs. All I thought to myself was, “OK, there’s hope.” Soon after, I was a patient in the hospital, very sick with Crohn’s because I’d developed a New Jersey-sized abscess that had made its way down into my leg muscles. As I awaited surgery my boss came to visit and sat at my bedside. Instead of his typical comments like, “You look like a badly decomposed corpse,” he said, “Medical school is the wrong place for you. It’s doesn’t suit your personality and strengths.” (Of course, it didn’t help that I hadn’t been accepted anywhere.)

The relief I felt after the abscess was drained matched the relief I felt since someone whom I respected and who understood me well confirmed what I knew anyway. I was only 23 and had a long way to figure out how to balance who I was and what I could offer the world. But at that point I was in a panic because I thought my professional life was over. Dental school, perhaps?

Stay tuned for Chapter 2 of my twists and turns in finding out how I managed my serious path while still pursuing how to get that great laugh.


Originally published at https://peteryawitz.medium.com on May 20, 2021