Marcus Buckingham
How to Help a Loved One

Q:
I am actually writing to ask you about my husband. He is a physician (anesthesiologist) and really wants to be a writer. He would never tell anyone this, but I know that this is his passion! He became a doctor because he felt that it was "God's work." He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone. He stashes loads of money away each month for early retirement and we live in extreme frugality. No one would ever guess that he made a doctor's salary (the cars we drive, the home we live in, the furniture, our clothing). I try to help him ease his anxieties in every way possible. I know that he would be a happier person teaching creative writing at a university. He is my soul mate and his happiness is my concern, not the money. Please help me to help him become a more fulfilled person.

Jessica, age 33

A: Jessica, although your husband has the noblest motivation, taking on "God's work" won't help him or anyone else in the long run unless what he's doing is truly his own work in his heart. There's a fable I recount in my book. A woman is swimming across a lake. She's holding a rock. As she swims, she tires. The rock is pulling her down. People on the shore urge her to drop the rock. She swims on, tiring as she swims. The people shout louder. She can barely keep her head above the water. "Why won't you drop it?" they shout. As she sinks beneath the surface, she cries out one last time, "Because it's mine!"

I imagine you feel like those people on the shore, watching helplessly. But you're not helpless, and neither is your husband. He doesn't have to cling to the life he's built simply because he's built it. There are steps he can take to make the transition to a career that's less stressful and more fulfilling.

First, he should examine whether he truly needs to make a wholesale career change. One of the details you give stands out to me: "He is terribly stressed out day and night about the possibility of hurting someone." If that fear is driving his stress, it may be that the right step is to invest his time and resources in pursuing a different medical specialty that touches less directly on matters of life and death.

If that wouldn't solve the issue, then it's time to move on by building a bridge to the life he wants to have. Often, people feel financially unprepared to make a big career transition, but it sounds as though your husband has been preparing for a long time. In that case, what he needs to do is take concrete action toward change. If he knows that being a writer or a writing instructor will truly bring him fulfillment, what can he do to start down that path? Can he capitalize on his professional experience by writing about it? What courses can he take at a local college? Is it time to enroll full-time in a writing program? If he truly knows the direction in which he wants to move, then the only thing left to do is start moving.