Patients sometimes ask how I became a cosmetic surgeon.
Early on I had a stock answer that made the decision sound logical. I told them that I had become a cosmetic surgeon because of careful choices at various forks in the road. The first fork, I used to say, was in medical school, when I had to choose between advanced study in medicine or in surgery. I chose surgery because by temperament I’m a results-oriented, “get it done and do it well” kind of guy. This worked well for me because surgery, in contrast to internal medicine, had a clear path with a definite beginning, middle and end. The next fork was to choose plastic surgery because its precise nature required excellent hand-eye coordination. And I had that aplenty.
All that was true enough, but the story really started long before medical school. It had its roots in an after-dinner conversation with my father shortly after my twentieth birthday. I was in my second undergraduate year at the University of Massachusetts and had come home for the Christmas holidays.
After dinner we sat, blue stuffed chairs facing each other in our tiny living room. “Pop, I have a problem.”
“What’s that?” he replied, alarmed.
“It’s serious. I have to declare a major and I have no idea what I want to be.”
“Oh, is that all? That’s easy.”
“No, Pop, it’s not easy. You don’t understand. I have to declare a major and I have no idea, none at all, what I want to be.”
“I understood you. I said it was easy”.
I resented his cavalier attitude toward what I saw as a monumental decision, one that would set the course for the rest of my life. Almost everyone in my class was facing the same dilemma, and we were in knots. Pop hadn’t finished high school so what could he know? Probably nothing, I thought. However, with two years of college experience I considered myself tolerant. So I humored him as only a twenty-year-old can humor a father grown stupid. “Easy, huh? So tell me.”
“Okay”, he said, “it’s simple. Look at what you like to do when you don’t have anything else you have to do. What are those things that you’re good at? That you fall back on and turn to when you’re just hanging around?”
I was a intrigued. “Well, I like to read. That’s the main thing.”
He smiled. I had a reputation for always having my nose in a book.
“I like to draw stuff. You know, sketch. And I go down to the basement and tie fishing flies.” I hesitated. “And I think about women.” I blurted. I was both embarrassed to admit it and more embarrassed that I had only thought about women.
Pop took my confession in stride. “O.K. You read. You sketch. You tie fishing flies. And you think about women. That’s what you do when there’s nothing else you have to do?”
“Yeah,” I answered, feeling defensive.
“Great!” Pop said. “So that’s the stuff that’s easy for you and that you’re good at. That’s the stuff you’d almost pay someone to let you do, yes? So all you have to do is find a way to make a living out of one or more of those things and you’ll have it made.” He smiled. “And, with a little effort, you’ll be way ahead of the pack.”
I was deeply impressed. What he said made sense. For about 30 seconds I shared his enthusiasm. Then I realized that no one was going to pay me to sit around and read, that I was too colorblind to become an artist and there was no money in tying fishing flies. And what did he think I was going to with that woman thing, become a pimp?
“You’re sure that’s how I should figure out what I should become?”
“Why not?” he replied and he arose, slow and deliberate, and strolled into the kitchen. He turned once, just a little, to smile over his shoulder.
Pop and I never mentioned that conversation again. Over the years I enjoyed telling it as a funny story about my father. One day – thirty years later – in the midst of telling it, I realized something: I was a cosmetic surgeon!
Suddenly I saw it. I read medical journals constantly. I sketched my patients’ faces to give them an idea how they might look. I used fine thread to close their incisions with tiny ties and stitches. And, because more than ninety percent of my patients were women, I thought about them all the time.
I was stunned. My mind worked hard to come up with another career that could have combined all four ― nothing. I abruptly knew that we had created my future in that conversation. My father had always wanted a life for me that was special and that night he had helped me bring it about. Not by offering advice about what he thought I should do, but by asking me to go within, look, and speak my personal truth. At the time, neither of us was aware of the power of that conversation. Yet it set the course of my life.
That conversation … and its resultant journey … was a vivid demonstration that it is the future that pulls rather than the past that pushes. By setting a bold vision for the future and being willing for it to unfold, I created a life that has been true, free and full of endless enthusiasm. While the past may be indeed interesting and informative, it is neither imaginative nor creative. We create a great life by imagining a future and casting that vision into the future. Then we allow that vision to pull us into itself.
A magnificent vision for the future can create a magnificent life.
Thank you, Pop, long since passed. I love you.
Harvey Austin 2014
Reproduce at Will with Attribution