Sunday, March 11, 2007

Things People Say

I'm reviewing a new book about the American health care system by Arnold Relman, a physician and former professor at Harvard Medical School. It's a good book, but I'm writing not to give my assessment but rather to focus on a couple of sentences from the last chapter, which is titled "An Open Letter to My Colleagues in the Medical Profession":

I suspect most of you chose medicine for the same reasons my generation did over sixty years ago, and the prospect of a good financial return on your educational investment was not at the top of your list. Financial reward was important, of course, but it was not your first priority. Everyone knows that a competent physician can almost always earn a good living, but there are many easier ways to make more money, without working so hard or preparing so long and arduously.
This is the kind of statement you hear bandied about a lot, in reference to a lot of occupations: "No one becomes an X in order to get rich, because there are a lot of easier ways to make money." I've heard comments like this in which X was everything from writer to nurse to college professor to politician to social worker to artist to career diploment. The underlying assumption is almost never questioned. And while I agree that very few people would go into any of these fields with the sole purpose of making a lot of money--and that the same probably applies to medicine as well--I wonder: What exactly are these other fields people are always vaguely alluding to, where it is supposedly easy to get rich?

Are the people who make these statements thinking about business--say, being a corporate executive or a management consultant? I know a bunch of people in those occupations who are very well-off, but they mostly work very, very hard--long hours, weekends and evenings of work, lots of time on the road, etc., etc.

Is law supposed to be the royal road to wealth? Law school is no picnic, and attorneys, especially young ones, are famous for the grueling hours they put in.

What about show biz or sports? Obviously those who achieve success in these fields make huge amounts of money in occupations that sometimes appear less than grueling (although being an NFL linebacker or acting in a Broadway musical is actually quite physically demanding). But no one could describe the path to success in these areas as "easy," not with the daunting odds any individual aspirant faces.

The more I observe life and think about it, the more I conclude that the only easy way to get rich is to marry or inherit money--and that exacts its own sort of price. When it comes to earning money, there actually is no easy or foolproof way.

I think the reason you hear statements like the one I quoted before is simply that, when contemplating the difficulties we each face in our own careers, we tend to assume, without giving it much thought or performing any research, that other people must have it a lot easier.

In fact, they probably don't. Which maybe is some sort of consolation. Or maybe not.

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