Going to medical school can impart many vital pieces of knowledge from critical thinking skills and pathology of diseases to healthy-living practices and saving lives. But the experience can also teach you the value of a dollar.
In March, I took leave of absence from medical school at Johns Hopkins University to work full time on an education technology company, Osmosis. It was a difficult decision at the time, akin to that faced by many entrepreneurs who've left stable jobs for the uncertainty of starting up.
And while we gained acceptance into a startup accelerator and landed $50,000 in seed capital in less than a month's time, that amount of money is pretty slim when you factor in startup and living expenses. But we weren't fazed. As a medical student, I've spent years perfecting my super-human (subhuman?) bootstrapping skills. Medical students have to keep their burn rate low if they don’t want to be paying off loans till their retirement.
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That experience made me reflect on what other qualities forged on the path to becoming a physician had prepared me for life as an entrepreneur. Now that I’ve been working full time on Osmosis for six months, I’ve honed in on three essential characteristics:
1. Sustained effort. When asked to reflect on his success, Bill Gates famously said, “I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one.” When a college freshman gets the idea that she wants to be a doctor, she realizes that her entire twenties will be devoted to the pursuit. It’s not a decision one takes lightly: four years of college is followed by another four years in medical school and then anywhere from two to seven years of residency.
In the process, medical students develop an unusual capacity for marathon work sessions, far beyond the intense sprints familiar to most college students. I’ve heard a number of my medical-school classmates strongly express a desire to quit, but invariably each of them has returned to the constant grind of night shifts and never-ending exams. As Steve Jobs said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
2. Focus. A powerful ability to focus makes these Herculean efforts more fathomable. Medical students and entrepreneurs alike set clear milestones and doggedly pursue them with laser-like vision. I’ve seen the same look in the eyes of surgeons stepping into the operating room as I’ve seen in technical founders pulling all-night coding sessions to make the product launch date or business founders climbing onto a stage to pitch to investors. These people don’t settle, and as Mark Zuckerberg said, they are “here to build something for the long haul. Anything else is a distraction.”
3. Purpose. Medical students often enter school with the general purpose to “help people,” and then over time specialize. Our white coats grant us a unique perspective on real problems facing real people, providing a daily dose of purpose. It was only when this sense of purpose exceeded the opportunity cost of leaving that the med students I know left to pursue their ventures. Similarly, most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have been driven by a genuine mission.
Yet, if all medical students possess the characteristics mentioned above, why aren’t more of them becoming entrepreneurs? Having worked alongside both groups, I’ve recognized some clear dichotomies: Entrepreneurs are generally risk-seeking whereas med students are risk averse, rebellious vs. obedient, impatient vs. patient, imaginative vs. "imaginectomy," and scale-driven vs. individual-driven. The first four splits appear to widen the further a med student progresses along the path, both because of increased opportunity cost (“golden handcuffs”) and decreased tolerance for experimentation in the clinic or operating room. Bluntly speaking, there’s no room for “Lean Doctor” when it comes to directly treating patients.
However, despite these generalized differences, it appears that medical students are increasingly transforming into entrepreneurs to fix the broken parts of the healthcare system. They bring with them a relentless effort and focus, informed view, open mind and genuine sense of purpose. That’s a good sign for healthcare, and a great one for business.