Achievement and learning are a means to an end, not the end in itself.
As a child I developed a deep love of reading. As would seem natural for any boy with an inclination for the outdoors, I devoured the usual platter of fiction that targeted my demographic. Where the Red Fern Grows, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Farmer Boy were among my favorites. When my tastes matured during adolescence, I began to enjoy science fiction and fantasy, especially Tolkien, who I must admit, was something of an idol to me. Prior to serving a mission in the Baltic republics a couple years after the fall of the Soviet Union, I stumbled upon The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan. This began an obsession with World War II history that, ironically, was only interrupted because of my two year church service in a part of the world that was, itself, ravaged several times over by that great conflict.
Upon returning home from my mission, I found life to be much different than the carefree days of youth, where I could shamelessly idle away every weekend and late night curled up in bed with my latest discovery from the shelves of our local library. In high school I had been a good enough natural student to get by with decent grades despite hardly cracking a textbook, so there was little pressure on me to delve much farther in my reading than the imaginations of C.S. Lewis and Orson Scott Card. Once I began university studies, however, the reality of having to support myself financially and keep my academic head above water put an end to me having my nose in anything but biology, chemistry or physics manuals. I realized that I wanted more from my career than what my parents had experienced, and that meant I had to out-maneuver the hordes of other pre-meds that crowded the auditoriums of the University of Arizona.
My mission had prepared me in a unique way for the rigors of not only the pre-med race, but also for medical school and residency itself. The requirement to learn two difficult languages (Latvian and Russian) had kicked open dusty closets in my mind that would later be filled with minutiae of the medical sort. I had adhered to a stringent language study schedule in the Baltics that consisted of memorizing grammar from a variety of thick primers, and had filled thousands of note cards with vocabulary words. I nearly abandoned my English scriptures for the Latvian Bible and Russian Book of Mormon, which I read out loud for a half an hour a day. These strict study habits payed handsome dividends as an undergrad. I found the pathways of biochemistry peculiarly similar to the mechanistic convulsions of Russian grammar, though none-the-less complicated. In the end, I managed to perform well enough to secure an admission to medical school in Wisconsin. Much of this success I attribute to the discipline I created through the reading that I did on my mission.
Of course, the mind-numbing monotony of forced memorization was only beginning for me. Medical school was like drinking from a fire hose. I could only dream of reading for pure fun ever again. If undergraduate premedical education was cutthroat, then medical school was a full on high-achiever Olympics. Knowing that I wanted to get into a competitive residency, I threw myself headlong into the material, utilizing many of the same devices that helped me learn Russian and Latvian. The very act of transcribing the material from our medical textbooks onto stacks of 3 x 5 cards imprinted it onto my brain like a mental firebrand, so I could regurgitate it for each session of brutal exams.
And so it went for the next eight years of my life—through medical school and residency. Any recreational reading took a back seat to the critical task of devouring the inexhaustible volumes of material prerequisite to not only passing the endless succession of board exams, but also to becoming a proficient physician. My love of reading was replaced by career necessity, and the material was chosen for me. I envied my wife, who had the freedom to casually dip in and out of whatever novel she fancied, whether it was Oprah’s book of the month, or just an old favorite that she hadn’t leafed through in a while. In my weaker moments I would even criticize her for not being more “productive” with her time, as if being run ragged all day long by four young children didn’t qualify her for a few moments to herself with a worn out copy of Pride and Prejudice.
Somehow, near the end of my residency, I realized that I was ill-prepared for the next phase of life. We had lived on student loans and a resident’s meager income for so long that I worried the adjustment to normal “doctor finances” would come as a shock to me. We had learned some budgeting skills out of necessity, but did not have a clue about how to invest for the future. It was not in my nature to do as many physicians did— turn retirement plans over to an advisor and begin the spending spree. Recognizing that I had completely neglected this important factor and somewhat in a panic, I frantically read every popular book on personal finance— The Richest Man in Babylon, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Millionaire Next Door, among dozens of others. I actually enjoyed this reading immensely but it nurtured a personal insecurity about money that I had possessed since childhood. This anxiety grew out of viewing myself as one of the less well-to-do kids at a higher-income high school, and watching my parents struggle financially. I vowed to never let money be a source of uncertainty for my children and I felt that earning a lot and managing it well would solve that problem.
Unfortunately, the rigid circumstances of my mission, undergraduate experience, medical school and residency had created a bit of a monster out of me. I no longer knew how to do anything for leisure anymore. Instead, it was a “pedal to the metal” approach toward anything of value. And in the case of finances, the stakes were just too high for me not to overdo it. I went way beyond the normal, casual reading about money management and began to delve into stuff that would bore the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Stock market and real estate investing were the main targets of my obsessive reading. I poured over companies’ quarterly reports online, read decades of Warren Buffett’s letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, and studied the stochastics of technical market trading. Though this obsessive reading may have yielded positive results for our family financially, it pushed me further towards becoming an emotionless analytical creature. My wife began to comment on this to me. How I was not affectionate toward her anymore. How I had become too “strict” and too “rigid”. At first her comments annoyed me. After all, I was learning all of this to support my family. Why shouldn’t I always apply myself to achieve the highest level of mastery in whatever I pursued? Gradually I began to realize that while I had put myself through years of excruciating servitude to learning, I had become wildly unbalanced and was having trouble enjoying the simple pleasures of life, even personal relationships. It almost resembled patterns that emerge from some forms of addiction.
I had forgotten King Benjamin’s sage advice to the Nephites:
“It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order” (Mosiah 4:27).
A few things have helped me return to normalcy. First of all, my wife’s comments made me recognize that achievement and learning are a means to an end, not the end in itself. Another thing that changed my perspective were several church callings that came to me. Serving in the church forced me to take note of the Savior’s council that “whosoever will lose his life… shall find it”. This adjustment in mindset came as I found myself turning to the scriptures and to prayer for answers rather than searching out solutions in another frantic round of academic calisthenics. I learned that life is more than metrics. It is more than measuring myself against the curve and making sure I am at the upper end. At some point it is about taking my foot off the pedal and coasting a bit. About enjoying the time I have now rather than trying to secure a better life sometime far in the future. About serving others rather than my own ambitions.
My reading habits have changed dramatically over the past few years. Yes, there is still a pile of books on my dresser, my desk and my nightstand, but they are more varied in their subject matter. Nowadays, I am focused on learning about church history, about how to build a stronger relationship with my wife, and about how to find meaning in life. The reading I do now is less about getting ahead in the game and more about learning to enjoy the game more. I really haven’t gone back to reading fiction though, like I did in childhood and adolescence. I guess I feel that there is enough truth out there to be learned from reading from the best books and that there is scarce time for stories that have been made up out of thin air. Not that I think that reading fiction is a waste of time— it just isn’t for me. Ironically, despite my aversion to reading fiction, I have developed an interest in creative writing, and have already tried my hand at historical fiction as well as a story loosely based on events from my childhood. The difference for me now compared to how I might have approached this pursuit earlier in my life is that I am not writing with some goal in mind— to get published or to one day become a famous writer. I am writing for the pure joy of doing it. It brings me personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
Reflecting back on the course of my life I can see that I understood the value in doing as the Lord admonished in the Doctrine and Covenants:
“Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study…”
But I somehow lost the last part of the scripture:
“…and also by faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118).
What I needed earlier in my life was faith that God would bless me and prosper me. I didn’t need to white-knuckle it alone through DECADES of self-imposed exile from life, worried that I might not study hard enough to qualify for some reward that might otherwise pass me by.
I can see myself in several of my children, who are now all teenagers. The love of reading. The drive to learn— to achieve. It is my duty as a father to remind them just as the prophet Jacob reminds us in the Book of Mormon that “to be learned is good if they would hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29).
Do you know someone who needs to hear this message? Please share it with them.