How Physicians Can Design Success on Their Own Terms with Dr. Dawn Baker
“So I went to medical school and I kind of lost my way a little bit, which I’m sure we’ll get into and got caught up on the treadmill of achievement. But then I had a wake-up call and that was what helped me to find my way back to my traditional value of freedom. And since then, I’ve just been designing my life to be more and more flexible in terms of my work schedule, in terms of location independence.”
– Dr. Dawn Baker
Dr. Dawn Baker is a real-life role model in defining success for herself. She is the writer, speaker, and lifestyle design coach behind Practice Balance. Dr. Baker is a cancer and infertility survivor who lives her own blend of work and life by homesteading with her family on their off-grid mountain property, enjoying cities and beaches during the cold months, and traveling as a locum tenens anesthesiologist in between. Dr. Baker decided to go to medical school because she saw it as a way to gain more freedom, which was what she really valued. She wanted to marry science, service and traveling. When she went into medical school, Dr. Baker got caught up on the treadmill of achievement, but then had a wake-up call that helped her find her way back to her traditional value of freedom. Ever since then, she has been designing her life to be more and more flexible in terms of work schedule and location independence.
Over time, the day-to-day grind of being a medical practitioner got really difficult for Dr. Baker. After turning 35, she realized it was time for her and her husband to start a family. After a host of complicated health issues, Dr. Baker realized she needed to step back and redefine what was most important to her. Her health issues put her in a vulnerable place, and vulnerability is a hard concept for medical professionals to embrace. She also realized that many of her health symptoms were burnout in disguise, which put her back on the path of moving towards a life of freedom and simplicity but still marrying science and service.
Failure is not always a bad thing, and we tend to have a lot of negativity around that word. As physicians, we have this expectation of perfection, which is not possible. Every one of us fails every day- some in larger ways and some in smaller ways. Dr. Baker shares how her vulnerability helped her show up more authentically in her life and practice. She also gives us a look into how she works with her coaching clients and how she helps them carve out their own paths to career and financial freedom.
- Dr. Baker’s journey and how she landed on the path to career and financial freedom.
- Why it’s important for medical professionals to embrace failure and vulnerability.
- Questions to ask yourself as you start your own journey towards freedom.
Mentioned In This Episode:
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Please enjoy the full transcript below
Dr. Baker: I realized that, first of all, I had failed in taking care of myself and in being self-aware and in really realizing what was going on and what was at the root cause of all of my problems. And I realized that I had gotten caught up in kind of the hustle, as you mentioned, and all of the achievement and then all of the things that I didn’t actually go into medicine to do. And so after I had my surgery, I had to have surgery to have this tumor taken out. I had recovery time. I had time off, FMLA. That was when I kind of got back on to my path of wanting to move toward this career that involved freedom and simplicity but still marrying science and service.
Jen: Welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast. I’m Dr. Jen Barna. And if you’re a health care professional, interested in living your best life on your own terms, you’ve come to the right place as always. The podcast is sponsored by DocWorking: Thrive, success coaching for physicians and other health care professionals. And the question you may be wondering is what is success coaching? Are you defining success on your own terms, or is your culture defining success for you? And the first step in success coaching is just beginning to identify what you value most in your life and helping you to accelerate toward that as defined on your own terms. And I’m super excited about our guest today, Dr. Dawn Baker, who is a real role model in defining success for herself. Dr. Baker is the writer, speaker, and lifestyle design coach behind Practice Balance. She is a cancer and infertility survivor who lives her own blend of work and life by homesteading with her family on their off-grid mountain property, enjoying cities and beaches during the cold months, and traveling as a locum tenens anesthesiologist in between. Dr. Dawn Baker, welcome to DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.
Dr. Baker: Thank you so much and I’m so excited to be here. And I love what you said in the beginning of this. You are just speaking my language for sure.
Jen: We are definitely on the same plane in the way of our thinking, and I’m so excited to talk with you because one fantasy that I have is of living in a tiny house and living off-grid and really experiencing life in a less stressful environment and really experiencing nature and moving toward minimalism really, I think, is what I’m trying to do. And for me, that has been a slow process in trying to get there, but you are actually living it. So I’m so excited to hear about your experience, what led you there, and just to dove in on everything we can find out from you about this. So how have you been doing?
Dr. Baker: So things are good. I am, as you said, living off-grid in the mountains of Utah. We live kind of in between the Zion National Park and Bryce National Parks up on a plateau at 8000 feet. And we have 80 acres. We bought this about a year ago. Now we have a stream. We have more than ten different species of trees on our property. We see wildlife every day. It’s beautiful and wonderful and definitely on the path to really that kind of simple life that you were mentioning.
Jen: So tell me, what was it that drew you to this type of a lifestyle?
Dr. Baker: I think that I have always been interested in living kind of an alternative lifestyle, doing things different. Ever since I was a young adult, just meeting and dating and being with my now husband. We’ve been married for 23 years. We were rock climbing and traveling all over the world and living in kind of all sorts of different places, from Thailand to Nepal to Spain to Mexico, Canada, different states in America. And we often lived in an RV or something really small or a really small Airbnb or apartment or something like that. So at the time when we were doing all this traveling and kind of early on with the rock climbing, I was actually an engineer. I wasn’t a medical doctor yet, and I decided to go to medical school because I actually saw it as a way to gain more freedom, which was what I really valued. I wanted to marry science and service and traveling, helped me to realize that, as opposed to just being someone that was making faster microchips for computers or, you know, that kind of thing. So I went to medical school and I kind of lost my way a little bit, which I’m sure we’ll get into and got caught up on the treadmill of achievement. But then I had a wakeup call and that was what helped me to find my way back to my traditional value of freedom. And since then, I’ve just been designing my life to be more and more flexible in terms of my work schedule, in terms of location independence. And we ended up buying this property. It was something that my husband has always wanted to do, is always wanted to have a kind of a homestead property or a farm, ever since his grandfather had one when he was a young child.
Jen: Well, I really commend you, first of all, for seeing the options that a medical degree offers from the beginning. I think a lot of us don’t even realize that at the point we’re in practice that we do have so many options. And one thing that I would love to talk with you about as we kind of get going in the conversation is also the locum tenens work that you do, which does open up so many different options and such freedom in terms of how you practice. So kudos to you for figuring that out very early. And then I’d love for you to tell me a little bit more about your experience of getting into sort of that hustle, of getting through the training, which is such a long road and then a little bit losing sight of what you were aiming for as you went through that. And how did that happen and then how did you notice it and how did you pull yourself out of it, if you can answer that’s kind of a long three part question.
Dr. Baker: Yeah, sure, I can answer it. Definitely. After all these years, I have had a long time to reflect on this. And what happened was I went to medical school, loved it, felt like I was thriving, really enjoy learning new things and challenge. Those are also part of my core values that along with the adventure, peace and the freedom are really things that have always stuck to me. But just like all of us do in the grind of trying to get everything done that you need to do in order to get your degree and to get your training, kind of got caught up on that, that hamster wheel. I call it the hidden treadmill of achievement where you achieve and you get kudos and praise and then you want to achieve more and more and more. And so as residency happened, I started getting a lot of praise for my performance as an intern. I got the Intern of the Year award and just was really riding high. And when I went into anesthesiology, I was pegged as kind of the golden child. I think that I had this moniker. This person has an engineering background and they’re going to become the next echo expert in anesthesiology. There’s kind of this subspecialty of doing perioperative echocardiography and that really pegs you into a certain type of career lifestyle, which would be like academic, large city type of thing. But I did love it and I was good at it and I was told that I was good at it. At the same time, I started actually struggling during residency, so I had this one thing that I was super good at and that people were telling me that I should go into. But the day to day grind got really difficult for me. Also to complicate things, I was turning 35 and I was deciding that after all these years that I had been married, that we really decided that we should probably start a family. And I thought I had all the time in the world and it turns out that I didn’t. I was losing. I had lost my period. And that was the one medical kind of symptom that I had. But I had all of these nonspecific symptoms that were going on. I had a very big lack of motivation. I had a lot of fatigue. I had a tough time when we would go out rock climbing on my weekends, which I would still do. Even though I was super busy and like working 80 hours a week, I would still sometimes go out and do rock climbing locally and I would have to take a nap when I was out there in the outdoors, it was crazy and I thought, what is going on with me? And I really chalked it all up to stress and to burnout. I thought I was just experiencing burnout and it was becoming something that was becoming known. This was something that was being talked about more and more in the early 2010s, I would say 2009, 2010. So I really credit a reproductive endocrinologist who stuck with me and helped me to figure out what was going on. But it turns out to make a long story short, that I had a very large pituitary adenoma that was pressing on my optic nerve. It was causing me to go blind, that was causing me to have problems at work. I was having difficulty doing procedures, especially those that involved ultrasound guidance, and I didn’t even realize that I was going blind. So this diagnosis took me half of my residency and all of the time that I actually just thought I was burning out and that I was having normal aging symptoms and problems with infertility that were related to just kind of getting older and being in a really difficult field. So once this happened, that was the real wakeup call for me. I realized that, first of all, I had failed in taking care of myself and in being self aware and in really realizing what was going on and what was at the root cause of all of my problems. And I realized that I had gotten caught up in kind of the hustle, as you mentioned, and all of the achievement and then all of the things that I didn’t actually go into medicine to do. And so after I had my surgery, I had to have surgery to have this tumor taken out. I had recovery time. I had time off, FMLA. That was when I kind of got back on to my path of wanting to move toward this career that involved freedom and simplicity, but still marrying science and service.
Jen: Well, first of all, I want to say thank goodness. I’m so glad to hear that this has a happy ending and that you found the problem, you identified it and got the cure and successful surgery and everything is going well. So let’s start there. I’m so glad that that’s the case. But also something that you described I think is actually really common among physicians is that successful career, married to some symptoms of burnout and or difficulty staying close to your own values and goals as you’re going through the process, which can end up taking people off course so that they begin to lose track of that sense of purpose that they had when they first started the journey to become a physician. So I just think it’s really interesting that you point that out because I think when people who are outside of medicine hear about burnout, they often think, oh, you know, they think of someone who just can’t function, who’s like their career is falling apart. But that’s often not the case for someone who may be beginning to experience symptoms, which it turned out in your case was completely health related. And so you identified that you were having some symptoms of burnout, but once you went down the path of exploring that, it turned out to be a health related problem that was contributing to that. And it was solvable. And thank goodness we did go down that path to figure it out. I mean, you said something else that caught my attention, which was that you failed. And that’s another thing that I know you and I have both seen people say often in this field because we are so self-critical. And one thing that you really describe yourself as failing, but actually, as I’m listening to you describe your story, I see that you didn’t fail. You succeeded. And so I think that’s something that I hear our coaches talk about often, is identifying or being a little bit easier on ourselves in the same way that we would be if we were talking to someone else, a patient or someone that we love who might describe themselves that way. I’m not a coach. You are a coach, so you can speak to me about that.
Dr. Baker: You’re totally right. You caught me there. I definitely said that I failed. But I think that the word failure isn’t necessarily a bad word.
Jen: I love that, great point. Great point.
Dr. Baker: Failure, I talk about it a lot, actually. I still write a regular blog, which was something that I started when I had this health crisis, and that was what blossomed into my speaking and coaching career. And I talk about on the blog, even to this day, I recently had a speech that I gave where the turnout wasn’t as good as I had expected, and I talked about how you could look at it as a failure, and I’ll say the word failure, but I really mean that it was a failure in all aspects. You’re totally right. Yes, I failed at recognizing my own symptoms and I delayed my own diagnosis. But I did succeed in some ways because I kept on pursuing. I knew something was wrong and I needed a little help. I needed help along the way from some very key people that supported me and that pushed me to still find the diagnosis. And then, of course, I had to have support to take the time off. And I will tell you that was really when I lost that need to be always having the approval of other people was once you have to be a patient and you’re facing pretty much a life and death scenario. It just the other things that you think matter they go by the wayside. And I was on the table in the operating room with people that were my attendings and my supervisors taking care of me as a patient. So you are in this super vulnerable position and it changes the way that you view. And from then on, I just decided that I was going to be real and I was going to be human. And this was part of who I was and part of my journey in being a physician as well. We have such a culture of invulnerability in medicine, and I’m really out to just tackle that and show people that they don’t have to keep that up.
Jen: You are so, so right. And you make a great point, which is that failure is not a bad thing. And we tend to have a lot of negativity around that word. As physicians, we have this expectation of perfection, which is not possible. Every one of us fails every day in some in larger ways and some in smaller ways. Like some days is larger ways, and some days it’s smaller ways. And the question is just how we deal with that failure, whether we are able to turn failure into chances to look and see what we can do, prove, or whether we are completely stopped by them. And if we can’t get past what’s considered a failure, then that’s where it’s a problem. But if we’re looking at it as an opportunity to learn which is more of a growth mindset, then it definitely is something that can help us in every aspect of our lives. So I love that you so correctly point that out because that applies to all of us for sure. And you’re absolutely right about the vulnerability part, because I think the culture itself tends to teach us that we’re not supposed to admit vulnerability, that there’s a danger in being vulnerable and we won’t get into it in this conversation because it’s too big of a conversation to have. But I think the way we have our legal system set up here with the risk of malpractice on the individual physician also contributes to that fear of admitting vulnerability. But in the end, we’re, of course, we’re vulnerable. And the sooner we can acknowledge that as human beings and help each other rather than be afraid of that vulnerability, the better off we will all be.
Dr. Baker: Yes, I absolutely agree.
Jen: One question I would love to know in terms of your living off the grid and living in a tiny house, is how did financial independence impact your ability to make that a reality?
Dr. Dawn Baker: A few years back, we learned about the financial independence movement as it started to become popular with physicians. I attended one of the White Coat Investor conferences, which I have now spoken at a few times, and we realized my husband and I, by going through the numbers that we were financially independent and really it’s very relative. Financial independence really depends on what your cost of living is, that you need to be comfortable and to live the life that you want. And we realized that we were already doing it, that we basically already had enough. And I would say that that helped me to push me a little bit further, to go for an even more free work life balance than what I was already living. I was already working part time and I was in an academic practice, but I had negotiated out some of the things that people complain about with that kind of practice. Sometimes I have coaching clients or I see people in the Facebook groups that I’m in where they say, I really just want to take care of patients and I love my job and I love my workplace, but I don’t want to do these administrative things or I don’t want to do the call or I don’t want to do the research or something like that one or all of those things. And I totally identify with that because I had negotiated that out of my academic position already. So I was already a black sheep in my practice. And then I pushed it even further because I realized that I had this financial independence piece where I could be like, You know what? It’s okay if they say no. They gave me the permission to push the envelope and to go even more for things that I wanted that were outside of the realm of normal.
Jen: I love that that is such an important piece of the financial independence concept. And I think you and I have talked about this before, but I like to call it FIORE rather than FIRE. So the FIRE movement and financial independence retire early. I call it FIORE, which I’m probably pronouncing wrong. I know that means flower in Italian, but I put the O in the center of it for the option to retire early. Because I think for health care professionals, financial independence with the option to retire early is really the goal, because once we have that option, we may choose not to retire. It may be that you choose to go part time. There’s so many different ways that you can practice medicine. And if you’re not under the pressure of just having to make a salary to meet very high overhead, then you have so many more options open up before you. And you also, as you say, you gain the confidence to come and ask for whatever it is that would make your ability to have what means success to you to actually make that a reality. So once you came and realized that and you negotiated the work that you actually that works for you, how was implementing the lifestyle that you live? Has it been what you expected it would be?
Dr. Baker: Oh, expectations are so hard because they’re a double-edged sword. You know, I don’t know if it’s what I expected. I mean, I try not to worry about that anymore. I think that I lived so much of my young adult life worrying about expectations. I don’t think about that too much, but I will say that I’m very happy. What my work life balance looks like now is just a very limited, part time locum tenens arrangement. So where I was working with the university that I mentioned, I wasn’t able to live in two places at once or kind of still do that very seasonal or part time work. And I even did talk to them about it and they said no. And I said, okay, that’s fine with me. I am going to leave respectfully now. And that that was okay with everybody. It worked out that it was an amicable separation. And I moved on to traveling and traveling happens to work for my family in the stage that it’s in. So that’s what I do clinically. And then my non-clinical work that I mix in is doing the coaching, sometimes traveling to do speaking arrangements or speaking gigs or I’m on Zoom. And then my other time is filled with just a lot of for me, very fun, but simple things. I’m quite a person that delights in simple pleasures. I love going out and taking walks on our property with my daughter. We were just looking at frogs the other day that are, you know, swimming in the stream and hopping around, weeding. I take pleasure in doing my laundry and just things that a lot of people take for granted and outsource I really love doing. And even the days that we do go, we live near a town. It’s about 50 to 60 minutes away, depending on the weather and the traffic. And we drive down a beautiful canyon. And so even that drive, that commute, if you will, is just enjoyable. So I just find that nowadays I am really much more mindful and I am enjoying the real simple things in life.
Jen: What would you advise someone who is thinking that they would like to embark on some a similar type of lifestyle, but they’re just at the beginning of getting started?
Dr. Baker: These are the kind of clients that come to me quite a bit actually, for coaching or for consulting. And I say that the first thing is to recognize how far along you are on that treadmill of achievement. How tied to the achievement? How much self-worth do you get from it, and how much is your identity of being a physician or of your particular work situation that you’re in right now is really tied to your identity. So looking at that and then also examining the rules that you’ve set for yourself, these rules in quotes that you’ve made like to be a successful physician, I must X-Y-Z or in order to be a good partner in this group, I have to blank those kind of rules because they may or may not be true. A lot of times people need to examine those and figure out that they’re living by a set of rules that that they really don’t need to live by, that they can separate themselves from. And then the next step is increasing your self-knowledge, going through values exercises. I have a free values exercise on my website when people give me their email address to get onto my newsletter, which I send like very rarely. It’s like once a month or something like that. They get this values exercise and it’s super helpful for people to sit and think and identify their values, identify the things that that take away from their energy, the things that add to their energy, the kind of things that they want in their life, the aspects that that they really are either missing in their current roles or that they want to cut out of their lives. And then there’s that financial aspect, too, that you already mentioned and that we talked about a little bit, which is what are your finances right now? Are you overextended? Are you living beyond your means? What kind of things can you do to figure out? Can you go through your finances? Can you decide if there are things that you need to remove to make it feel more free for you to make a change? And then also defining enough, defining what is enough for you? What do you need to live on to be happy? What kind of a lifestyle do you want? Do you want to move to a different place? Do you want to spend $1,000,000 on an 80 acre property? And then what is going to be on that property? Do you want a tiny house on the property or are you going to build a Aspen chalet? So those things all matter as far as where you go from there.
Jen: Absolutely brilliant. I love every piece of what you said and just separating that out and going question by question would be such a helpful exercise. So can you tell me where people can reach you if they’re interested in learning more?
Dr. Baker: Yes. Everything for contacting me is on my blog and it’s pretty easy to remember. It’s Practice Balance.com. I made the name so long ago. I love it still because it’s a noun and a verb. You have the balance of your medical practice or of your work life balance practice because it’s always a continuous practice and then it’s also a command. You should practice balance and so you can find me on my website, you can contact me on my website, and then I’m pretty active on Instagram and my account handle is Practice Balance there, too.
Jen: Wonderful. Dr. Dawn Baker, thank you so much for joining me today on DocWorking: The Whole Physician Podcast.
Dr. Baker: Absolutely. I’m so happy that we had this conversation.