Making time for extracurricular pursuits can be difficult for any adult—and given their demanding schedules, physicians find it especially hard. But balancing a successful medical career with other activities isn’t impossible.
In fact, many physicians devote their off hours to hobbies and side businesses. We spoke with four of them to learn their secrets of maintaining a healthy work/life balance.
Myles Stone, M.D., MPH: Craft beer brewer
Myles Stone, M.D., MPH, got his start in craft beer thanks to a professor who gave him more than medical expertise. The professor and his wife owned brewing equipment they weren’t using, so they gave it to Stone, a family medicine physician at The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.
Stone tested the equipment with a close friend, a University of Arizona researcher who has a Ph.D. in microbiology. The project wasn’t completely foreign—Stone’s friend once worked for Anheuser-Busch, and as a child, Stone learned about business and accounting at his family’s bicycle shop.
After a few trial batches, they combined their brewery and business experience, gathered their funds and opened Borderlands Brewing Co. in an early-1900s building in the Tucson Warehouse Arts District. Together, Stone and his business partner balance their professional careers with running the brewery.
Julia Nordgren, M.D.: Chef
Julia Nordgren, M.D., a pediatrician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Palo Alto, California, has always loved food. So when she saw how her patients’ food choices affected their diseases, she recognized an opportunity to combine her passion with her profession. Nordgren, who graduated from Dartmouth Medical School and completed her pediatrics residency at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, also attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, California, and graduated in 2013 with honors.
Julia Nordgren, M.D., combined her passion and her profession—and now uses her skills to educate patients about the intersection between food and health.
At the Institute, Nordgren not only mastered the art of fixing a perfect roast but also learned how to teach cooking.
As a pediatrician, she uses that training to educate patients about food. She offers personal health and culinary consultations, lectures, wellness seminars, cooking demonstrations and individual counseling sessions.
Nordgren is writing a cookbook, and she worked behind the scenes as a sous chef for WGBH’s (Boston) cooking show, “Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking.”
Paul Paulman, M.D.: Model rocketeer
Family medicine physician Paul Paulman, M.D., flew Estes model rockets when he was growing up. Now the assistant dean for clinical skills and quality at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, he still flies rockets in his spare time and sees science as the common thread between medicine and rocketry.
But rockets are no longer child’s play for him. Paulman completed a three-level certification to fly high-powered rockets. He uses the same explosives as space shuttles do, and he’s certified to launch them as high as 20,000 feet!
Christopher Shih, M.D., FACG: Concert pianist
Christopher Shih, M.D., graduated cum laude from Harvard University and earned his medical degree at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He completed his internal medicine residency training at the University of Pennsylvania and his gastroenterology fellowship at Johns Hopkins.
After Shih performed with the National Symphony on the Capitol Lawn, a Washington Post writer declared, “If Shih is as gifted in medicine as he is in music, he has some serious career decisions to make.”
But Shih didn’t have to choose between the two. Even as a gastroenterologist at Regional Gastroenterology Associates of Lancaster in Pennsylvania, Shih continues to perform in major venues in the U.S. and abroad.
He has played in over a dozen countries and on television and radio programs, including NPR’s All Things Considered, Radio France, Canada CBC, Taiwan CTV and more.
Levering hobbies to achieve physician work/life balance
Having a hobby about which to be passionate is important for most people. However, many of us simply don’t have the time it takes to perfect a passion. With a family, friends and everyday life—not to mention a rigorous schedule—it becomes a challenge.
So how do they do it? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but these physicians say a few things help: finding supporters, being flexible with your schedule, and truly enjoying your additional pursuits.
Supportive family and community
All four physicians say having supportive family and friends is essential. “It’s important to get your spouse on your side so they support your hobby,” Paulman advises—then jokingly adds, “Or at least tolerate it.”
Nordgren agrees that support at home is key. “I have a supportive partner, or I couldn’t have been separated from my family for nine months to attend culinary school on the other side of the country.”
Her husband is also a physician, and Nordgren says it’s helpful that he understands the pressures of a medical career. “That’s what I think is nice about having a duo-physician family,” she says. “We truly understand each other’s careers are important to us and what we do is meaningful.”
Shih also has a family that shares his passion. His wife is a professional violinist, and all of his children play musical instruments. “For my family, music is always in our lives in a variety of ways,” he says. “It’s who we are.”
But Shih stresses that physicians who pursue personal passions need to prioritize their families as well as their other pursuits. He limits the time he spends on his hobby so that he also has time for his family.
“I only perform in three or four concerts a year and only accept the concerts that I would only need no more than one or two hours a day of practice,” Shih says. “When I get home from work, I spend time with the family, have dinner, do chores, do homework with the kids and then spend time with my wife.”
Physicians also need supportive friends. Stone says finding trustworthy partners is essential. “Work with good people. I just can’t stress that enough,” he says, adding, “It simply would not work in any other format. I have an absolutely perfect business partner. We employed a staff that we can trust our business with every day of the week when we can’t be there.”
Similarly, Paulman suggests finding a good community. “Connect with people who have similar mindsets,” he advises.
“Reach out and get the support going that you need. For example, if you are interested in rockets, there are rocket clubs in every part of the country. …You can connect with one of the members of a club and give it a try.”
Several of the physicians we interviewed said freedom in their work schedules also helps them pursue their passions.
For example, Paulman likes to schedule work around his launches. “I try to avoid clinical responsibility when doing a launch,” he says. “It’s only one day a month on a Saturday.”
Nordgren says it’s easier to make time for cooking at this point in her career. “I have a lot more control over my career, so I can schedule my workshops to be away from home for a few days. However, the following three days, I can arrange to be home with my family.”
A flexible schedule helps, but it’s possible to work around a rigid one. Last year as an intern, Stone worked 16-hour days with four days off a month. He had to spend almost all of his free time at the brewery.
“Last year, I thought I bit off more than I could chew!” he says. “Now, coming into the second year, it’s a lot calmer, and the brewery can grow, and we can hire more staff.”
Shih, who also maintains a fairly strict schedule, says making time for his hobby is a matter of setting priorities.
“I hear people say they don’t have time for things. It’s not that they don’t have time. They aren’t making it a priority.” He says: “I think you can do about anything you want to do as long as you have the passion and desire.”
To turn a humble hobby into something more, these physicians say it’s essential to love your passion deeply.
“If it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t work,” Stone says. “The fact that I worked 16 hours at the hospital and headed over to the brewery to do something I wanted to do was absolutely critical.”
While growing up, Shih never thought he would make a career out of music. In fact, he quit playing early in his medical career. His love for music drove him back to it. “If it’s something you are passionate about, it certainly can be done,” he says.
Paulman says building and launching rockets has improved his quality of life. “It gives me something to look forward to, something to enjoy,” he says.
“There’s always a problem to solve or a situation to explore. There are aspects of the hobby that are fun to look at. There’s always a next level. It’s similar to golf in that you hit a good shot, and it keeps you coming back!”
Nordgren is adamant about her passion for cooking. “It lights me up!” she says. “I love to go to food conferences and get to speak with people who love it as much as I do. …Whatever your passion—food, music, writing, etc.—having these shared experiences about things you love and are passionate about, that’s what makes life great.”
If you can find time for them, extracurricular pursuits are incredibly rewarding. They can enrich not only your life but also your career.
What do you like to do?
What physicians do in their free time varies by all the typical limiting factors: career stage, life stage, demands from family and career. Travel, exercise and reading top the list though of favorite pastimes—though number one is spending time with family.
Family time, though, is not a given for all—the percent of physicians who chose it as their favorite activity dropped 8 percentage points from 2013.
For example, Stone credits the brewery with making him a better physician. “There is no doubt that these skills have enhanced my quality of life,” he says.
“The brewery has provided me with an incredible amount of opportunities to develop a different skill set than what I learned in medical school. Problem solving, interpersonal relationships and financial analysis are important. There is no doubt that these skills have enhanced my quality of life. If nothing else, it has given me a far deeper appreciation for the intricacies and economics of running a health care organization. Of course, there are plenty nights when I came home from the hospital and analyzing spreadsheets didn’t sound anywhere as appealing as going to bed. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have learned so much and have had a wealth of experiences over the last few years.”
Nordgren has also found that her hobby makes her a better physician. She’s able to provide her patients with better care and suggest diet changes, but she says her hobby would still strengthen her even if it didn’t have such a direct benefit.
“For me, there’s a very specific connection between my hobby and what I do as a professional,” she says. “That’s not always the case. However, I would say don’t ignore your hobby. It makes you a better person in everything you do.”
Making time for extra pursuits is a lot of work. But all the physicians we interviewed agree: It’s worth the effort.