“Being” an adjective

Last year one of my favorite women surgeons and I were having a conversation about where she is in her career, the role of mentors in professional development, and the idea of transitioning at some point in one’s academic career from being a Doer to being a Helper.  The eloquent way she stated this was simply, “I am trying to be more of an adjective and less of a verb.”

It’s a concept that has stuck with me and that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about since she said that.  She is completely right that for those who are successful in academic medicine that your early career, and even the early part of mid-career, are predicated on doing things.  The system tells us that we should be participating on committees- not just showing up, but actually contributing to the work.  We should be reading and researching, publishing in the highest impact places we can manage, and getting extramural funding.  We’re teaching, and we want to be good at it.  And, of course, we’re doing our primary jobs by taking care of people (and in the care of academic surgeons, further developing our technical skills) and constantly learning and growing as we do that.  The first three years out of residency or fellowship are just plain hard.  The expectations are for lots and lots of doing.  As faculty in your first 10 or so years out of training, you’re a verb.  If you’re not a verb, you’re probably not meeting the expectations of the academic environment.

So, what does it mean when you get to switch to being an adjective, and when does that happen?  Do you wake up on some Tuesday morning and decide, “Today’s the day!  I’m an adjective now!”?  Or is it more of a process, that you recognize a few areas in which you can pull back on doing and can start using your knowledge and experiences towards helping?

I don’t know that as academic surgeons that we can ever fully move away from being a verb; it’s who we are, and if we’re not being a verb, we’re probably not learning and growing.  In my mind, the verb part of the process is always there.  But her point about being more of an adjective?  That makes sense, and sometimes there are areas in which we can still be a verb but can be an adjective for someone else.  My senior partner when I came out of Fellowship was the perfect example of this- he was still doing at full speed.  But he also was also always able to help me as a new burn surgeon trying to blaze a trail in academic surgery.  He asked me thoughtful questions, he coached me when I need guidance, and I always, ALWAYS felt supported.  In other words, he balanced the tension of being a verb and being an adjective beautifully.  Now that he’s retired, I still get to use his as an adjective from time to time, and it’s always helpful when I do.

I started my faculty job here at Utah just over 10 years ago and if one thing has become clear to me in the last year or so, it’s that it is time for me to be conscious of starting to make that same transition.  I’m still very much a verb in many parts of my professional life, and I am still happy to be one.  I’m also looking forward to figuring out how to be the best adjective that I can be.