The worst setback in my career took place after I had graduated from medical school in India in the 1970s, came to America, and set my heart on doing research in endocrinology. I destroyed my dream overnight, with very long-term consequences.
The most prestigious research fellowships were those in Boston medicine, and I was fortunate. I was offered one in an endocrinology program at a hospital affiliated with Tufts University that took only two or three new fellows a year. It was headed by a world-famous researcher in the field. My time would be divided between laboratory work, which would lead to publishing research papers, and seeing patients in the clinic.
I was fascinated by being in the lab, and there was no way to foresee the blowup that would end my fellowship and almost my whole career. What mattered was the subtle interplay of hormones in the body, which is what endocrine research is all about. The field had miles to go before a complete understanding would be reached. The next turn in the road would lead me to studying the hormones secreted by the brain, not just the thyroid or adrenal glands. The brain, of course, is only a step away from the mind.
One day at a routine staff meeting my supervisor quizzed me on a technical detail in front of the group:
“How many milligrams of iodine did Milne and Greer inject into the rats in their 1959 paper?”
This referred to some seminal experimental work, but I answered offhandedly, because he didn’t really want the information, only to put me on the spot. “Maybe two-point-one milligrams. I’ll look it up.”
“This is something you should have in your head,” he barked, irritated.
Everyone in the room grew quiet. I got up, walked over to him, and dumped a bulky file of papers on top of him. “Now you have it in your head,” I said, and walked out.
My enraged supervisor followed me into the parking lot. I was agitated, fumbling to start my beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, the signature vehicle of struggling young professionals. He leaned in, speaking with studied control to disguise his anger. “Don’t,” he warned. “You’re throwing away your whole career. I can make that happen.”
Which was quite true. The word would go out, and with his disapproval I had no future in endocrinology. But in my mind I wasn’t walking away from a career. I was standing up to someone who had tried to humiliate me in front of the group. My impulsive rebellion was instinctive and yet very unlike me.
As it happened, I did wander in the wilderness for a while, but my career wasn’t over, because my adviser was so arrogant that he had antagonized a lot of people, one of whom took delight in hiring me if it snubbed my adviser. That part was luck, you might say. Or was I following a hidden path that was working its way forward, apparently at random but actually with complete knowledge of where I needed to go?
In India the right way for a person to go is known as their Dharma, and “right” means that the whole universe is organizing your way forward. To many people this sounds like a mystical idea, and yet all of us can say, at one time or another, that things turned out in an unexpected way beyond our control. The biggest obstacle to finding your Dharma is ego. My blowup could be called a clash of egos, mine against my adviser’s. The outcome was that mine got flattened. In an instant I lost a prestigious fellowship and wound up working nights at a suburban ER to support my young family.
Courtesy of Youtube/The Chopra Well
There would be many other turning points over the next fifteen years before I found myself immersed in a fascination much deeper than my original one for endocrinology – a fascination with the mind-body connection. The ego stumbles to stay connected to a person’s Dharma. You have to learn that your biggest allies along the way are instinct, intuition, staying true to yourself, standing up for your truth, and self-awareness. Your adversaries are naked ambition, blind competitiveness, self-importance, a craving for status, and following second-hand opinions as if they are your truth.
Most people are divided between their allies and their adversaries – I certainly was, and must confess still am, when I find myself in moments of struggle. The ego is a permanent part of the self, and a valuable one. But when it decides to run the show, your inner world becomes distorted. You start to live according to an image you want to protect rather than searching for the connecting thread – the Dharma – that subtly unites every moment of our life. What I learned from my career train wreck was to trust my allies, and as the years passed, one of them – self-awareness – became the ally I could rely on the most, no matter whether I was going through hard times or times of great fulfillment.