A Series Of Tradeoffs

From James Clear’s latest 3-2-1 Thursday newsletter:

Life is a series of tradeoffs, and greater results usually require greater tradeoffs.

The question is not, “Do you want to be great at this?”

The question is, “What are you willing to give up in order to be great at this?”

From my own experience, training to become a medical specialist is a bit like the above. The people who succeed are not necessarily the best exam-takers, but often they are amongst the most persistent and resilient people around. Beyond a certain point, medicine is no longer about memorising more anatomical facts or understanding more physiological concepts. Most doctors know enough of the basics in order to carry out their duties properly (one would hope!). What differentiates people is how they deal with adversity:

What do you do when you’re completely exhausted, it’s 3am, and you get another referral from the Emergency Department?

What do you do when you see your peers in other professions earning lots of money but you’re still stuck in specialty training?

Put another way, the question you should be asking yourself is, “How much punishment am I willing to take in order to achieve my aim of becoming a medical specialist?”

I find this to be a more realistic way of approaching things than simply focusing on the positive side of things. After all, there is such a thing as toxic positivity! It’s the idea that you have to be happy always, as if everything is always going along smoothly when in real life, things that can go wrong often DO go wrong (see also: Murphy’s Law). One way or another, you’ll just have to find a way to deal with it.

That doesn’t mean it has to be all doom and gloom, however. Now that I am a specialist, my aim is to make the way forward better for my juniors. ‘Better’ here may not necessarily mean easier, but hopefully by providing better support and guidance I can help them to become kinder, more empathetic doctors.

The world already has enough clever people, it could benefit by having kinder ones for a change.

Life in a Digital Walled Garden

In the end, it was the Muslim festival of Eid that convinced me that I would not be able to quit social media entirely.

I wrote earlier in the year that one of my plans for this year is to use my time better by quitting social media. My plan was to delete everything except Twitter; I don’t actually use Twitter regularly (if at all), but I wanted to keep the username since it could potentially be useful later on. LinkedIn was easy to delete, just a few clicks and poof everything was gone. Facebook, fortunately or unfortunately, turned out to be a far more difficult thing to get rid of.

Facebook imposes a 30-day wait before actually deleting your account. Any attempt to check your account before the end of the 30-day period resets that clock. In my case, I had almost forgotten about Facebook when a friend contacted me to say one of my old teachers was looking for me but couldn’t find me on the site anymore.

So, back to Facebook it was to get in touch with my teacher!

After that, it was a junior colleague who contacted me on Facebook to ask about applying to Oxford. And one time, I reactivated my account (i.e. canceled the deletion process) in order to look up some information about a business that is only available on Facebook.

So yeah, this is me admitting that I will probably never be able to get rid of this one particular account. This doesn’t mean total disaster though; I said at the beginning of this endeavour that my reason for quitting is to spend my time wisely. I see now that in some cases, spending my time wisely means taking the time to connect with other people wherever they happen to be. If I’m serious about being part of the community, I doubt I can do so effectively without having any social media presence at all.

One good thing that came out of this effort is that I seem to have broken my habit of checking social media endlessly, like a hamster pressing a lever non-stop in order to get more food pellets!

My one concern is what I’ve used as the title of this post: the existence of digital walled gardens. Too often these days, you can’t even read what someone has posted online unless you’re logged in to the site i.e. unless you also have an account there. To a certain extent, this is by design, to allow people the freedom to post something without showing it to the whole world. But the downside of this is that a lot of information that shouldn’t exist exclusively on social media still only gets posted there. One example of this is official announcements from government bodies; I squirm a bit when I see that everything simply gets posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc, or forwarded a million times on WhatsApp, but no attempt is made to improve the public-facing websites of government institutions. Many still look like they came from the Web 2.0 or, God-forbid, HTML tables age with blinking images and visitor stat counters!

Going forward, my intention is to find a better balance between being alone with my thoughts, and spending time with the wider community. After all, there is no point in being able to brag that you “don’t use social media” if that means you have no idea what’s happening with family and friends.

The key, as always, is moderation. If you are, like me, trying to strike this sort of balance yourself, then I wish you good luck.

Rojak Post #1

This post has nothing to do with the delicious dish known as ‘Rojak‘ in Malaysia. Instead, I’ve chosen the title because I’ll be sharing my thoughts on a bunch of topics, without actually having the time or energy to write a proper post for each one of them.

Ready, set, go!

Ambushed With Cake

Boris Johnson is not fit to be Prime Minister. And yet, despite having zero integrity whatsoever, he will probably remain in office for the foreseeable future. How did it come to this? How did we lose our way so much that we tell children they must be truthful, loyal, kind etc. but somehow manage to make excuses for the exact opposite behaviour coming from the Prime Minister?

Consider the many ways his colleagues have had to deploy their creative sides to defend him over the Partygate penalties:

“Ambushed with a cake…”

“…like parking fines”

“I don’t recognise that as a party…”

“…has not robbed a bank.”

I wonder, if you actually talked to these people, do they even believe the nonsense that is coming our of their mouths? If their own children asked them what they were doing defending this sort of behaviour, will they change their tune or simply hide away in shame? Who knows with these politicians!

Speaking of politics, my own country Malaysia is due for a General Election. After all the backstabbing, betrayal, and party-hopping that have occurred in the last few years, I sincerely hope that we will vote out all the perpetrators. The Rakyat deserve better.

DPhil Mini-Update

Meanwhile, work on my DPhil is progressing along nicely alhamdulillah. I recently bought a 2 terabyte portable SSD (the Samsung T7) to backup all my data.

Yes, that’s 2 terabytes of space!

It turns out that analysing MRI data takes up a lot of space on your computer; I now have about 1.4 terabytes of data for my DPhil. That’s 1,400 gigabytes of data, by the way, although most of them are a bunch of intermediary files generated by the analysis scripts.

The next step for me is to prepare for my Confirmation Viva which is the second-last stage of assessment. Basically, this viva is meant to ‘confirm’ that you have done enough work of an acceptable quality to be included in a DPhil thesis. Wish me luck!

Spring in Oxford

If you want to see Oxford at its best, come in spring or autumn. The explosion of colours, the breathtaking surrounding, these are some of the things I will miss the most when I leave Oxford. I’m toying with the idea of printing out a bunch of the pictures I’ve taken, but instead of simply printing them out at Boots or something, I’d like to find a service that can produce high-quality prints in the form of a coffee table book. That might have to wait until I’m back in Malaysia though.

In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!

DPhil Diaries #6

There comes a time in your PhD journey when you just have to put your head down and work your ass off to get the whole thing done. I’m right smack in the middle of that period. Most days all I can think about is how to analyse my data, how to write it up, what figures to create, how to prepare for my viva etc. Sometimes I wake up early in the morning and start working straightaway. Even my dreams seem to revolve around neuroimaging markers and statistical analyses! I described it to my wife as having numbers almost bursting out of my head unless I process them systematically.

Which is why I’m a bit more agitated these days, something unusual for me if you happen to know me. This morning I went to work wearing a Liverpool jersey. Usually there’s no one around especially in the morning on weekends, but today there were a few contractors fixing the electrical wiring in the building. One guy saw me and immediately said “I don’t like the shirt you’re wearing!”

Now, I’m normally a polite person, but I really had to restrain myself from saying “Do I look like I give a f**k what you think? I don’t like your face either!”.

Instead, I simply replied “That’s alright”, and shrugged my shoulders. Don’t like my jersey? Tough, but that’s life for you mate.

I wonder how many people run into mental health issues while doing their PhD. Certainly it looks to me that quite a lot of people in academia are anxious and depressed. One person I know told me that half the people in his Master’s programme have sought help for mental health issues. On the one hand, this is good, the fact that there’s less stigma associated with seeking psychological help. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder, what on earth is wrong that half of the cohort find that they NEED psychological support to begin with?

This is where it helps to have accumulated some years of working experience. For me specifically, it helps put things into perspective. Doing a PhD is not a life-or-death thing. Trust me, I’ve been in situations where it’s LITERALLY life or death, for example when you’re performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on someone, or trying to decide whether to pursue more aggressive medical therapy or continue with comfort care only.

I think it’s good that Ramadhan is coming. Hopefully I will be able to find some peace and tranquility during the blessed month, in order to sustain myself as I strive towards the end of my PhD journey.


The Pleiades

I took this picture from my living room window earlier. Because the night sky was very clear, one can easily see many constellations including Orion, Taurus, and Ursa Major. What caught my eye was a cluster of stars seen on the right side of the picture: the Pleiades.

The Pleiades

From Wikipedia:

The Pleiades also known as The Seven Sisters, Messier 45, and other names by different cultures, is an asterism and an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus. At a distance of about 444 light years, it is among the nearest star clusters to Earth. It is the nearest Messier object to Earth, and is the most obvious cluster to the naked eye in the night sky.

The name sounded familiar. I realised I had heard of the Pleiades being mentioned in a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

If the din were at the Pleiades, even then a person from Persia would have taken hold of it, or one amongst the Persian descent would have surely found it.

Sahih Muslim, The Book of the Merits of the Companions

Awesome, huh?