“You Should Have A Fulfilling Career”

“You Should Have A Fulfilling Career”


Leonard Zwelling

The article in The New York Times Magazine on August 25 was about Venus Williams and whether or not she gets the full credit she deserves as a trailblazer in women’s sports when her sister Serena’s accomplishments have eclipsed hers. But the title quote is from another tennis legend, Billie Jean King. It was in the middle of the article about Venus because Venus is still out there competing even though her best days are behind her and her sister has out done her. King’s point is that a professional ought to participate in the full arc of his or her career. Going out on top is overrated. As King goes on to say, “You should go up the mountain and down the mountain all the way, just like you do in real life.”

I believe that King is on to something.

In academic medicine, people often try to go out on top. They retire from a presidency or as provost or as some other high level position of rank and authority. But some people don’t. Some will retire from being chairs of a department and continue to contribute as teachers and investigators and, of course, physicians. If you like what you’re doing, why stop? Venus Williams is such an athlete, continuing to compete even as her best tennis is in her rearview mirror.

In professional sports, it is not uncommon for a great athlete to win a championship and then quit, Michael Jordan did it. So did John Elway. Willie Mays didn’t and it was hard to watch him try to perform after he could no longer run down fly balls like he used to. But maybe he was enjoying it.

Academic medicine is different than sports. There is no doubt that people can contribute mightily even after they are no longer doing their best research or running a fifty-person laboratory. These people should be thanked and their contributions recognized even if they are not bringing in three NIH grants any longer.

When I finally retired from MD Anderson after no longer being able to pass muster for tenure renewal, I did so a year before I had to and did so for another opportunity, which, unfortunately, did not work out for me. Still, no regrets in either case. Clearly I was on the downward side of my career in academics when I returned from Washington, DC in the late summer of 2009 and although I was able to help out a bit in Smithville, my time making major contributions to MD Anderson research were over. I had lost interest and I had lost that ability. My final contributions had been made in administration and I had been relieved of my vice presidency in 2007, so my career at Anderson was pretty much over anyway. Nonetheless, there were valuable lessons learned about the institution and who my true friends were in the time between my firing, my tenure in Washington, and my ultimately leaving in September of 2013. I would not have traded it for the world.

I write this to all of you out there who, rightly or wrongly, think you have reached the mountain top and may well be on the downward side of your journey. Hang in there. My guess is that you still have a lot to give and there are people, especially young ones, who would benefit from interacting with you. Even when I could no longer care for patients due to lack of practice, or had closed my lab and given up my leadership role in medical education, there were still things to get done. Even now as I am officially retired, I am writing most days and that has been both educational and edifying. No regrets.

Billie Jean King is right. It is wise to experience the full range of a career—going up and going down. There is much to be said of both trips. But most of all, you cannot appreciate the up until you experience the down and all the memories are precious because all of the people and experiences have been.

So lengthen that career if you can. Not only will you not regret it, others will benefit.

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