A Harvard Surgeon Makes the Case for Hobbies and Interest Outside of Work with Dr. Roy Phitayakorn

by Coach Jill Farmer | Life Journey, Physician Side Gig, Podcast, Resilience, Work Life Balance

It’s almost this idea or analogy of having a garden, and maybe when you were in college that garden was pretty robust or maybe it looked like a greenhouse or what have you. I think of this analogy, now that I think about it, because I actually used to run a greenhouse when I was in college. The flip side, though, is that once they become a resident, maybe it’s more like an air plant or a cactus. You know, it’s just one single thing that they can focus on, they can take care of, they can nurture. And maybe when they become an attending, it can grow again to a whole garden.” -Dr. Roy Phitayakorn MD

In today’s episode, Jill talks with Endocrine and General Surgeon and Associate Professor of Surgery, Dr. Roy Phitayakorn. But this conversation isn’t about his medical career. It’s about Dr. Phitayakorn’s interesting hobby. He buys interesting objects and fixes them up to their former glory. Sometimes these are just things that he likes or sometimes they remind him of his childhood or sometimes he is fulfilling a bigger purpose of being a caretaker and preserving an item for its future owner. No matter what, it also fulfills a big purpose in his life. Tune in to hear how Dr. Phitayakorn’s hobby impacts his life. 

Dr. Roy Phitayakorn completed his residency training in general surgery at Case Western Reserve University in 2009 and completed an endocrine surgery fellowship at the Massachusetts General Hospital in 2011.  Dr. Phitayakorn is an Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School with a practice in general surgery and endocrine surgery at the main campus of the Massachusetts General Hospital.  Dr. Phitayakorn is also the MGH Department of Surgery Director of Medical Student Education and Surgical Education Research and the Co-Director of the American College of Surgeons-accredited MGH Surgery Education Research and Simulation Fellowship program.  

Dr. Phitayakorn has a Master’s degree in Medical Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago (MHPE).  His MHPE thesis won the best thesis award in 2007 and best presentation at the 2008 MHPE medical education conference.  Dr. Phitayakorn was the first Surgical Simulation Fellow at the MGH Learning Laboratory and completed a certificate in simulation-based teaching from the MGH Institutes of Health Professions in 2011.  

Dr. Phitayakorn is an external examination consultant for the American Board of Surgery and develops medical education content for the American College of Surgeons.  Dr. Phitayakorn is also a faculty member for several national medical education courses and institutions including the Harvard Macy Institute, the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Surgeons as Educators course, the Institute of Medical Simulation, the ACS Surgical Education Principles and Practice course, the ACS Certificate in Applied Surgical Education Leadership, and the Harvard Medical School Training to Teachers Egypt, Mongolia, and China programs.  

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Please enjoy the full transcript below

Dr. Roy: It’s almost this idea or analogy of having a garden. Maybe when you were in college, that garden was pretty robust or maybe it was like a greenhouse or what have you. I think of this analogy actually, now I think about because I actually did used to run a greenhouse when I was in college. But the flip side though is that once they become a resident, maybe it’s more like an air plant, or like a cactus. [laughs] It’s just one single thing that they can focus on, they can take care of, they can nurture. When they become an attending, maybe it can grow again to a whole garden.


Jill: Hello, and welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Jill Farmer, one of the lead coaches at DocWorking and one of the cohosts of the podcast. I’m really excited today to be joined by Dr. Roy Phitayakorn. He’s an endocrine and general surgeon at Mass General Hospital in Boston. He’s an Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Harvard Medical School. He also has a rather interesting hobby that I think we’re going to use as the launching point to talk about some of the importance of work-life balance concepts that we talk about a lot here on the podcast. Roy, thanks so much for joining us today for this conversation. 

Dr. Roy: Oh, thanks so much for having me. 

Jill: Tell us a little bit about what is this interesting or quirky hobby that you have outside of your work as a physician, as a surgeon, and as a professor?

Dr. Roy: Yeah, it’s definitely quirky. Well, it started, to be honest with you, with fans. When my now wife, then girlfriend, and I were dating. For my birthday, she gave me an old electric fan. It’s a beautiful fan that has this gigantic oversized motor to it, probably from like the 1950s. I started kind of tinkering with it. I took it apart, cleaned it up, put it back together again. Just watching it work really brought joy to my life and my heart. I think, in some ways, it very much parallels why I went into surgery. I mean, I like to work with my hands, I like to fix things that are not working, or at least not working as well as I think they could be working. But that has slowly evolved into, I think, a lot of other kind of old things. They’re not necessarily antiques, but definitely things that I just like, and things that I find interesting. Most of the time, I think nobody else really finds it that interesting, at least based on the prices, I’m seeing them go for on eBay. Certainly, I like them. Sometimes, it reminds me of my childhood. Sometimes, these things just remind me, of our maybe larger purpose in life, is to in some ways, be a caretaker for some of these things. So, I tried to fix them up, but also preserve them for the next generation of owners. So, that’s basically the hobby in a nutshell, is this idea of basically collecting old, interesting objects.

Jill: As you said, you get them working maybe a little more like what their original working ability was. Do you sell them, or do you have a hard time letting go of them once you own them and get them working right again?

Dr. Roy: I think it depends who you ask. If you ask my wife, [laughs] I think she would say that, it definitely it’s harder for me to let go of some of these things than others. I do think we’re here only for a short time. These objects will outlast me, hopefully, for a long, long time. I really see it more as just finding somebody else who will cherish the object as much as I do, as opposed to building a warehouse and slowly getting more and more objects into my home.

Jill: That’s great. Well, it’s really interesting, and we’re going to talk a little bit later about just a couple of the really interesting items that you have brought into the collection. Let’s zoom out for a minute here. You are an extremely busy surgeon, very accomplished. I know extremely well regarded by your colleagues. You wouldn’t say that, but I can because I’ve heard it from them directly. You also have a passion for master’s in medical education and for helping other surgeons be wonderful at what they’re doing and learning how to do it effectively. Somebody might say, “How do you have time to do this?” or, “Why do you make the time with all that other really important passion that you have in your professional life?” How and why do you make the time for this collecting and the stuff in this hobby that you have?

Dr. Roy: I would answer that, I think, for a couple reasons. Number one, I think there is a just kind of overall mental health reason for doing something that’s just different than my day-to-day work. The stakes are not nearly as high and so I certainly can zone out a little bit while I’m doing it. If it’s polishing or cleaning, I think there’s also just something relaxing about these kinds of repetitive movements that you see progress made in increments. I think there’s a lot to be said for just overall feeling like you’re making a difference in a small way. I think another piece of it, to be honest, is sometimes practicing skills that I need to use anyways in my daily work, but in a different setting. Oftentimes, I’ll go into an antique shop or I’ll look at an item on eBay, the person thinks it’s like this incredibly rare thing that is worth a fortune. 

I’ve really learned over the years that it’s just not worth arguing about [laughs] these things, because there’s no way to really meet them in the middle. We’re just starting too far apart. Those negotiation practice sessions really pay off, because I certainly have found in my daily work, sometimes I’m just really, really far apart from someone else, and rather than sit around, just kind of going around and around in circles, maybe it’s best to just break away and just find another person to work with type of thing. That’s been a good lesson, I think, to learn, and certainly safer to do it with old objects than your daily work environment.

Jill: Well, you said two things from a life coaching perspective that I absolutely loved. I want to break those apart just a little bit, because I think there was so much goodness in there. One is that you have this interest in collecting, and then in improving these interesting items that you take on, it’s like changing the channel in your brain. You’re on one channel, a lot of intensity, that requires a lot of focus, that can create decision fatigue, all the things that we know from being in the highly pressurized situations of a surgical suite, and all the other things that come with that. Your hobby is a chance for you to change the channel. What I experienced a lot of times with clients when they allow themselves to do that, it’s a way that they recharge their batteries. Do you find that for you, too, that if you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, that this is a way, even though you’re doing something while you’re doing it, it is a recharging activity?

Dr. Roy: Absolutely. It’s definitely recharging activity. I think it’s so recharging that to be honest with you– maybe I shouldn’t say this on the air. But in my daily work day, sometimes you just need a break. I find, I’ll just go to eBay, they’ll still let me get onto that site, and I just look at some things. It just helps me relax for 5, 10 minutes in between meetings or in between patients and like you said, help you refocus on the day and then just recharge, so I’m ready to keep going. 

I also think it’s also recharging in the sense that when you get to interact with other people who like these items or like these same things, there is a passion that they have for these objects that– although maybe I don’t have necessarily the same passion for it, it’s just nice to see, and almost creates kind of a community of collectors, which is also very recharging.

Jill: Yeah, I love that. Yes, one of our most primal basic needs is community. We have built-in communities in hospitals and colleagues and patients. It’s nice to create a community around something that’s a little different too. It’s not that one is mutually exclusive to the other, but there is some rejuvenation in having something. Again, this changes the channel on your brain and gives you a chance to tune in and recharge on something else. 

The other thing that you said that I think is super helpful, is a lot of times, medical professionals can feel very siloed, like, “Well, I’ve got my work life, I’ve got my home life, I’ve got my academic life, I’ve got my clinical life.” One of the things I’m doing in coaching is to say, “Well, what’s working here in this part of your life, and is there an aspect of how it’s working here that we can pull into this area where it’s not working?” It’s a blueprint. When something’s going well, it creates a little blueprint for us that we forget to look at, to see if we can put it into play in another section of our life that maybe isn’t working as well or a situation, not necessarily a whole section of our life.

I love that for you the experience of realizing that sometimes people’s stuff was a little too precious to them to make it reasonable enough for you to be able to take it on and rebuild it, helped you remember that we can be selective about the places when we recognize that somebody else’s mind is so made up that there’s not a real need to try to bang our head against the wall on that. That’s such a good example of that blueprint in one part of our life crossing over into another part. Am I off base on that or is that how you experience that as well?

Dr. Roy: Oh, completely how I experience it. Honestly, I think it’s also a great way to engender empathy, because in the beginning, you’re like, “Oh, there’s that thing, I’ve been looking for it for like six years. What do you want for it?” type of thing. You can really get ahead of yourself because you start to lose sight of why do you want the object in the first place. Why is this thing driving you? Instead, I think what I’ve learned is that it’s really number one important to remember the goals for doing this. Again, it’s to relax, [laughs] not to get stressed. Then, number two, is that for this person who’s selling the object, for example, this may be the most precious thing in the world to them, or they may have a lot of memories associated with them, maybe it was their grandfather’s and they remember when they first got it or something like that. I think really delving into that backstory, has helped me become a more compassionate person. Especially when you’re dealing with patients who sometimes come off as extremely unreasonable. Rather than push back, I’ve learned maybe I should just go digging a little bit and try and find the story.

Jill: Oh, that’s beautiful. You are extremely high regarded, and I know one of your passions in life is helping to make medical education excellent for med students and residents and fellows. What might you say to one of those med students, residents, fellows, young surgeons, or physicians, when they say, “Oh, gosh, I’m just never going to have time to do anything like this outside of working all the time?” What would you tell them? What advice would you give them if they’re hesitant to want to take on an outside interest outside of their medical career?

Dr. Roy: I tell all of the med students who are matching into surgery, that they need to have an outlet while they are a general surgery resident, and then definitely once they become an attending. Oftentimes that outlet, especially as a resident, is more physical fitness focused or exercise, which I think makes a lot of sense. But it would be nice if they could maintain some other outside interest. I always try to tell them that it’d be even better if that outside interest wasn’t too expensive. But if they have to splurge on something, I think that is a good thing to splurge on, because maybe they don’t have to do it or maybe they’re not able to do it as much as they were able to do it maybe when they were in college or something like that, but certainly, if they could at least get to it once a month.

I think it’s almost like this idea or analogy of having a garden. Maybe when you were in college, that garden was pretty robust, or maybe it looked like a greenhouse or what have you. I think of this analogy, actually now I think about because I actually did used to run a greenhouse when I was in college. But the flip side though is that once they become a resident, maybe it’s more like an air plant, or like a cactus. [laughs] It’s just one single thing that they can focus on, they can take care of, they can nurture, and when they become an attending, maybe it can grow again to a whole garden.

Jill: Oh, I love that. I think that’s a really important advice. Even if it is that air plant or cactus, being intentional about giving it a little time and focus is important too, because I would imagine if you were just waiting spontaneously for this magic windfall of time to show up to make time and space for your interests, that it would always get squeezed out. How have you been intentional about making some space for that so that it blends in and integrates with the other important parts of your life and work and career and relationship and doesn’t get squeezed out? 

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Dr. Roy: For me what works best, and maybe this is because of the siloed piece that you brought up earlier, is that I just usually just do the same day of the week, and roughly around the same time each week to do it. I’m a scheduled person for better or for worse. I always make sure then that I have time in my schedule to do this. I actually physically put it in my schedule, and that just works for me. Obviously, if I need a break or something like that, I’ll do it as well. Especially if I know I just picked up something on eBay, I think I’m at the point in my life where I know roughly how much time it’s going to take me to really enjoy cleaning it up and restoring it or what have you, so I just block out that time and really make sure I can just enjoy it for everything that it’s worth.

Jill: I love it. You’re alluding to what my grandpa might have said, “The lost art of tinkering,” taking things to get back to work. What are some of the more interesting items that you’ve been able to pick up and what have you done with them to make them back to their original glory again?

Dr. Roy: Ah, boy. [laughs] A lot of things. I’m actually looking around my office at the moment to see if I could just show you some of the things. This thing here, it’s a saddle bag, apothecary surgeon’s kit type of thing. These handles open up, and you would put it across the saddle of a horse. Then, each of these compartments open up, and there are bottles inside, and then spaces for vials that go in here, and equipment. 

When I found this, it was in pretty bad shape. I immediately started trying to learn about how to restore leather, which was something I never really had thought to try before. Just a word to your viewers, when you type in restoration of leather in Google, there are some sites that it does bring up that you probably do not want to go down, [laughs] or at least was not what I was thinking would show up when I originally typed it in. But I then found great resource actually in different museums. Some of these conservators are super helpful with their time, and willing to really talk me through exactly how you do restore old leather without breaking it, because it’s very, very brittle. This whole thing, and it becoming this whole process of learning how to restore old leather and then cleaning it once you’re done. And, of course, the vials, some of them have atropine and belladonna and opiates in them. So, thy actually can be physically dangerous if you’re not careful. That was also a whole part of the learning process, which I thought was just amazing.

I have a boombox over here, from the early 80s. It’s massive, it’s about probably 55 pounds, because it’s all metal, and there’s hardly any plastic in it, because that’s just the way they were made. That took a while to clean. Once I was cleaning it, I actually discovered it actually has a burglar alarm in it, which I thought was crazy. The only reason I found out was because after I found 12-D batteries to make this thing run again, the thing went off, and I end up with ringing in my ears for a couple days. But it’s just amazing that these things which are already so heavy– I remember as a kid you see them breakdancing, that sort of stuff. I never really thought that someone would try to take it [chuckles] in the midst of all this, but they were quite expensive back then. You can see why when you look at the level of the construction and just all the detail, components that go into it that would definitely not be present in a radio today.

Jill: I love that. It’s so infectious to hear you talk about it, because one of the things that’s very evident is this as an outlet for doing something that you value a lot, which is learning. I think a lot of times, my physician and surgeon clients are under the misnomer that the only thing they should spend any time learning about is specifically related to professional knowledge, and then they get a little burned out on that. Recognizing that loving learning other things, and really making some intention and time and space in your schedule for those other things actually enhances your capacity to learn more when the time comes in your professional area as well. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Roy: I completely agree with you. In fact, I would argue actually learning new skills, I think, is especially important, at least as a surgeon, because it also helps me understand what it’s like again to be a medical student, and not know how to tie a knot, not know how to suture. Again, as I’m getting older, it’s getting harder and harder to remember what that was like. Whenever I try to learn a new skill, I recently just tried to learn how to play the ukulele, which is another whole story. But the point is, is that it’s really challenging. I look like I’m having a small seizure or something as I’m trying to coordinate my left hand with my right hand, which is oftentimes what I feel like the medical student looks like when they’re trying to learn a new skill. 

It really helps me to step back and say, “Okay, so if I’m the student in this case, what do I tell myself to really try to learn this skill?” It always occurs to me, okay, first thing is deconstruct the procedure. Break it down. I try to break it down for myself and really watch some more YouTube videos, maybe get some feedback from somebody who actually knows how to play. All these different things really, I think, helped me become a better teacher to my students.

Jill: Dr. Roy Phitayakorn, this has been so enlightening. Thank you for sharing not only insights into your own collection, and what motivates you and your hobby outside of work, but helping us to see how it can really enhance and give more joy, passion, meaning to people’s lives and help them become better physicians and surgeons as well. It was really, really great to have you. Of course, general and endocrine surgeon at Mass General Hospital as well as an associate professor of surgery at Harvard, thanks so much for joining us for this conversation.

Dr. Roy: No, thank you. I’m always happy to enable any of your listeners with these collecting hobbies. Just let me know.

Jill: Thanks all of you for tuning in to listen to this edition of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. We have something new and exciting to tell you about, so I want you to hop over to DocWorking Thrive is getting ready to launch in a very short time, and what that is, is a subscription service for physicians. It includes an excellent self-paced course called Stat that is all about quick wins for living well. It is group coaching. It is a Facebook group where you have a chance to connect to other physicians and coaches to ask questions about things that are happening in your life. It also includes weekly video tips to come and give you advice on important things in your life. We’re really excited about this. The price is almost too good to be true. It’s so good, and I really think it’s going to be a fabulous support network for physicians. So, we hope you’ll hop on over, check out DocWorking Thrive today. Until next time, we’ll see you on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.


Amanda: Hello, and thank you for listening. This is Amanda Taran. I’m the producer of the DocWorking podcast. If you enjoyed our podcast, please like and subscribe. We would also love it if you check out our website, which is And you can also find us on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and on Instagram. On Instagram, we are @docworking1, and that is with the number one. When you check us out on social, please let us know what you would like to hear on the podcast. Your feedback really means a lot to us. And if you’re a physician with a story you’d like to tell, please reach out to me at [email protected] to apply to be on the podcast. Thank you again and we look forward to talking with you on the next episode of DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.

Jill Farmer is an experienced physician coach who has been helping doctors live their best lives, increase their success, and move through burnout for well over a decade.

She has delivered keynotes, programs, and training everywhere from Harvard Medical School to the American College of Cardiology.

She has personally coached hundreds of physicians, surgeons, and other busy professionals to help them be at their best—without burning themselves out. Her coaching has supported professionals at places like Mass General Brigham in Boston, Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University in Chicago and too many others to list.

Jill wrote the book on time management for busy people. Literally. It’s called “There’s Not Enough Time…and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves” which debuted as a bestseller on Amazon. Her work has been featured everywhere from Inc. to Fitness Magazine to The Washington Post.

Nationally recognized as a “brilliant time optimizer and life maximizer,” Jill will cut straight to the heart of your stress to liberate you from its shackles. She has two young adult daughters. She lives with her husband and their poorly behaved dachshund in St. Louis, MO.

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