Happy Birthday: Advice I would give my 21 year old self

I turned 41 recently, which prompted me to think about how much has changed in 20 years. What would I say to that 21 year old woman, the one working away at her chemical engineering degree, falling in love with her boyfriend, trying new things like rock climbing after growing up a music nerd? Here's what I would say:

Stuff is not the answer. Even though graduation is a year away, you're already looking for that perfect engineering job, the one that will spawn envy amongst your classmates. The one with the big starting salary and cushy benefits. It will be tempting to rent that spacious apartment and use all your extra money to buy cute work outfits. But be conservative. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. It would be a better use of your work and life energy to maximize your savings and deferred income and live a little simpler. Because those nice clothes and that nice pad don't define you, and they don't matter. Success is better measured by how much freedom you have to do things you like outside of work, to pursue other interests, or to possibly change careers someday (don't think that won't happen!).

Trust your instincts. Everyone encourages you to keep on this current path, but something is nagging at you. Listen carefully. Take that trip. Consider that career change even though you're barely starting this one. Very little in this life is irreversible, and you're young and healthy, so what's to lose? [Side note: I did do these things, which eventually put me on the path to medicine, but there was a lot of second-guessing along the way.] Speaking of instinct, it will come in handy someday when you just don't feel right but aren't sure what is wrong with you. It's going to be something serious, so you best not ignore it for too long. [Side note: I did ignore it for too long, but it all worked out ok :).]

You ARE strong. You see yourself as a clutsy, uncoordinated human being who has subsisted so far on book smarts. Yes, you're intelligence will get you far in life. But you will complete much harder tasks than next month's thermodynamics test. You can't imagine it now (you say it will never happen), but you will climb a 5.12 someday. Then you'll get cancer and you'll have brain surgery and you'll survive it and you'll recover. Then you'll climb a 5.12 again. You think you're weak and squeamish, but someday you'll be sticking tubes and needles into people for a living, and eventually you'll have to stick needles into yourself on a regular basis as well. Even though you can't stand it when someone disapproves of what you're doing, you'll sometimes go against what people in authority tell you to do, and you'll sometimes forgo the advice of well-meaning loved-ones. Own your choices.
"Always in the human experience, we find that some of the most difficult things that we've ever gone through -- the biggest tests or challenges that we're ever given as human beings -- actually are doorways to a new level of growth and new possibilities." - Rainn Wilson
Live in the present. You like to have a one-year plan, a five-year plan, and a ten-year plan. Hell, you get upset if your Friday night doesn't go according to plan! Life rarely aligns perfectly with expectations. Stop living in the future and forming your ideas based on the past. Embrace the growth mindset and be flexible.

Look inward. You, as many people do, tend to look to outward cues for appreciation, approval, and accomplishment. But everything you seek is already within you. You are loved, and you are love.

What would you say to your younger self? Try this on your next birthday (or any day for that matter) and see what comes out of it!


  1. Hi Dawn,

    Happy birthday! I love reflective messages such as yours. There certainly is truth to wisdom with age. Your last point really resonated with me. I would also tell my 21 year old self to look inward. I was very concerned with outward approval, instead of looking inward and loving myself regardless of outcomes.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful weblog and wise words! Sorry if I'm commenting where I shouldn't be, but I wasn't where to ask this question. I'm just a med student but I noticed you're an anesthesiologist. That's really awesome! :) I'm interested in anesthesiology too. Have you by any chance written on anesthesiology and why you chose it? I'd love to read a post about this if you've written about it as I value what you've written here and I'm sure your thoughts would be amazing on this as I'm having a hard time deciding on a specialty? I know I'm probably dreaming as this might not be possible in medicine (so disillusioned sigh), but I'm hoping for a specialty where I can have somewhat of a life outside of medicine. That's my main goal, which I hate to say is the case as I feel guilty as maybe I'm not as devoted as others, but I'm just so burned out already, and want to focus on my family more who I have been missing a lot. I know I definitely don't like surgery as I don't like the work. I don't really like the wards (e.g., social issues, writing admission or discharge notes), but ironically I really love general IM a lot. I also like the ICU. I feel they're the doctors I imagine I've always wanted to be, but the big negative is I don't like the lifestyle of general IM or the ICU. I also like the ED a lot, and maybe that's another option, but I have heard night shifts are hard later in life. Family medicine is ok too but FM is maybe too slow-paced for me. I really like anesthesiology, as again I love the limited patient interaction but also I feel like the general medicine is amazing and I love "doing" things, but I keep hearing about the gloom and doom with CRNAs taking over and practices not hiring partners anymore, but maybe it's not true? I'd love to hear your thoughts if you might have written about this somewhere (sorry I can't seem to find any past posts but maybe I'm not looking in the right place or I missed it)? Thanks so much! :) Kate

    1. Hi Kate, thanks so much for your inquiry and suggestions for a future post! You're right, I have not written much about this topic but I have spoken to medical students about it in presentations many times.

      I will work on one and get it out shortly! In the meantime, I suggest that you spend some time learning about your personal likes/dislikes/values in general. Here are a few posts that may help:


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