As doctors, we are always fighting a losing battle. Certainly we have our victories and do an immeasurable amount of good – but in the end, death is inevitable. Working in a busy ER, I am reminded of this fact every shift.
Emergency rooms are designed to be acute care facilities that assist people in dire circumstances. Given this environment, it is easy to become callous to the life-altering events we witness and fight against on a daily basis. Some believe that doctors must distance themselves emotionally from the reality of death so that they can do their jobs effectively. I suppose that emotional detachment is self-defense against the scars of the heart that come with witnessing perpetual human suffering.
Nevertheless, there are just some things that are hard to get used to.
How do you get used to telling parents that their infant slipped away in the night falling victim to a syndrome that medicine has yet to explain? Can failed attempts at resuscitation of a toddler who drowned in the family pool while grandma was distracted become as inconsequential as a parking ticket? Does watching a 75 year old man kiss his wife of 54 years goodbye as she gasps for her last breath on her death bed make you think about your marriage?
It does for me. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never get used to things like that. My profession exposes me to immense pain and suffering. I don’t know why some people live to a ripe old age while others are taken so early. It’s the human condition.
What I have learned is that life is short and time is valuable.
None of us know exactly how much time we have in life, but we should strive to maximize it.
Unfortunately, far too many doctors spend their time in the pursuit of money. They get trapped in the rat race trading their most valuable resource (time) for heavily taxed income. In fact, the average doctor is nothing short of a workaholic. He or she works 50 – 60 hours a week and retires between the ages of 65 – 70.
How much of that time represents missed holidays, time with children, or activities with your spouse? How many of us have become the person that Harry Chapin sang about in his 1974 classic “Cats in the Cradle”? The tragedy is that you can never get that time back. Unlike money, time is nonrenewable. As Silvia Hartmann says, “There is no time lottery where you can hope to win an extra million days.”
When I was in elementary school, it was not uncommon for me to get called to the principal’s office. I would gather up my belongings and rush there gleefully. I was a good kid and knew I wasn’t in trouble. That call always meant one thing – my dad had the day off and wanted some company.
Sometimes we’d do fun things and other times it was just routine errands. Either way, it was just me and my dad. I knew my dad loved me and I always felt special when he came to get me. You see, kids don’t care how big your house is or what kind of car you drive. They measure your love based on the amount of time you spend with them.
When I think about time, I think about a concept called opportunity cost. Opportunity cost relates choices with scarcity. In this case, the resource that is scarce is time. Choosing to spend your time working for money has a non-monetary cost associated with it. It is the cost of missing out on the other things you could be doing with that time – making memories with family, pursuing hobbies, taking a vacation, etc. I can’t tell you how many piano recitals, baseball games, and other activities I missed because I was at work.
However, my biggest regret was missing my oldest son’s first steps. I can still remember that phone call from my wife. Now that was a huge opportunity cost. It may sound cliché, but nobody ever engraves “I wish I had worked more” on their tombstone.
Don’t get me wrong, we all have bills that need to be paid. For most of us, that necessitates trading some time for money. However, the real question is what are you going to do with that money?
The average American spends the vast majority of their money and racks up huge credit card debts. Since they don’t save much, they have little to nothing to invest. While doctors have higher incomes, many fall into the same trap. They are destined to trade the bulk of their adult life working for heavily taxed money while missing the truly precious moments with those they love most.
I would rather take what’s behind door number two.
While money may not be able to buy you time, it can buy you freedom – the type of freedom that gives you control of your time. Isn’t it better to spend your time as you see fit? Having the ability to pursue your passions and strengthen your family bonds is a blessing that having money can afford you. Money can allow you to practice medicine on your terms. It can even make work optional.
Accomplishing the freedom of time that comes with engineering your life requires one to live on less money than you make. Some call this paying yourself first. Recommendations vary, but most doctors should save 20% of their income. If the stock-market holds true to past performance and you do everything right, you might be able to expect a 6% – 8% return on your money.
Unfortunately, studies show that the average investor underperforms the market. The financial-service research firm Dalbar has shown this time and time again through their “Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior” report. This is not surprising given the highly volatile nature of paper assets (stocks and mutual funds). No wonder doctors wait until they are close to 70 years old to retire.
Quality commercial multifamily real estate investments can provide significantly better returns with less volatility. I should know as these investments have given me options. I now have more time with my family and no longer feel trapped in the rat race.
I still work in the Emergency Department part-time. However, that work takes a back seat to my duties as a full-time husband and father. My time is the greatest gift I can give them and I hope someday they look back on their childhood fondly and know that their dad loved them more than anything.
To Your Wealth!
Dennis Bethel, M.D.
P.S. Time is clearly your most precious resource. Is your spending and investing habits leading you down a path to financial freedom or is it leading you down the path of servitude and lack of options?
Remember that time is more important than money. If you are looking to regain more time by practicing medicine on your terms or making work optional, then check out this important special report on securing your retirement in the age of declining reimbursements.