Living Into Your Legacy

Vinny Arora, MD

This article originally appeared on the Society of Hospital Medicine’s The Hospitalist.


The word legacy has been synonymous with death to me. When so and so dies, we discuss their legacy. I had a powerful experience that changed my mind on this word that is befitting for this Legacies column.

Seven years ago, I was sitting in a room of powerful women and I was the youngest one there. I wasn’t sure how I got there, but I was glad I did because it changed my life. At the time, I was panicked. The exercise was called “Craft your legacy statement.”

But, this exercise was different. The ask was to “live into your legacy.” Craft a legacy statement in THREE minutes that summarizes what you want your legacy to be … and then decide the three things you need to do now to get there. So, here is my exact legacy 3-minute statement: I am an innovator pushing teaching hospitals to optimize training and patient care delivery through novel technologies and systems science. Clearly, I did not aim high enough. One of the other attendees stated her legacy simply as “Unleash the impossible!” So clearly, I was not able to think big at that moment, but I trudged on.

Next, I had to write the three things I was going to do to enact my legacy today. Things went from bad to worse quickly since I knew this was not going to be easy. The #1 thing had to be something I was going to stop doing because it did not fit with my legacy; #2 was what I was going to start doing to enact this legacy now; and, #3 was something I was going to do to get me closer to what I wanted to be doing. So, my #1, resign my current leadership role that I had had for 8 years; #2, start joining national committees that bridge education and quality; and #3, meet with senior leadership to pitch this new role as a bridging leader, aligning education and quality.

Like all conferences, I went home and forgot what I had done and learned. I settled back into my old life and routines. A few weeks later, a plain looking envelope with awful penmanship showed up at my doorstep addressed to me. It wasn’t until after I opened it and read what was inside that I realized I was the one with horrible penmanship! I completely forgot that I wrote this letter to myself even though they told me it would come and I would forget I wrote it! So, how did I do? Let’s just say if the letter did not arrive, I am not sure where I would be. Fortunately, it did come, and I followed my own orders. Fast forward to present day and I recently stepped into a new role – associate chief medical officer: clinical learning environment – a bridging leader who aligns education and clinical care missions for our health system. Let’s just say again, had that letter not arrived, I am not sure where I would be now.

I have been fortunate to do many things in hospital medicine – clinician, researcher, educator, and my latest role as a leader. Through it all, I would say that there are some lessons that I have picked up along the way that helped me advance, in ways I did not realize:

  • Be bold. Years ago, when I was asked by my chair who they should pick to be chief resident, I thought “This must be a trick question – I should definitely tell him why I should be chosen – and then pick the next best person who I want to work with.” Apparently, I was the only person who did that, and that is why my chair chose me. Everyone else picked two other people. So the take-home point here is do not sell yourself short … ever.
  • Look for the hidden gateways. A few years ago, I was asked if I wanted to be an institutional leader by the person who currently had that role. I was kind of thrown for a loop, since of course I would not want to appear like I wanted to take his job. I said everything was fine and I felt pretty good about my current positions. It was only a few weeks later that I realized that he was ascertaining my interest in his job since he was leaving. They gave the job to someone else and the word on the street was I was not interested. I totally missed the gate! While it wasn’t necessarily the job I missed out on, it was the opportunity to consider the job because I was afraid. So, don’t miss the gate. It’s the wormhole to a different life that may be the right one for you, but you need to “see it” to seize it.
  • Work hard for the money and for the fun. There are many things Gwyneth Paltrow does that I do not agree with, but I will give her credit for one important lesson: she divides her movie roles into those she does for love (for example, The Royal Tenenbaums) and those she does for money (for example, Shallow Hal). It made me realize that even a Hollywood starlet has to do the stuff she may not want to do for the money. So, as a young person, you have to work hard for the money, but ideally it will help you take on a project you love, whatever it is. You’ve won the game when you’re mostly paid to work for the fun … but that may take some time.
  • Always optimize what is best for you personally AND professionally. While I was on maternity leave, the job of my dreams presented itself – or so I thought it did. It was at the intersection of policy, quality, and education, with a national stage, and I would not need to move. But, I knew I could not accept the travel commitment with a young child. While I wondered if I would have regrets, it turns out the right decision professionally also has to work personally. Likewise, there are professional obligations that I take on because it works personally.
  • Figure out who your tea house pals are. A few years ago, I was in San Francisco with two close friends having an epic moment about what to do with our lives as adults. We were all on the cusp of changing our directions. Not surprisingly, we could see what the other needed to do, but we could not see it for ourselves. We still text each other sometimes about the need to go back to the Tea House. Sometimes your “tea house pals” are not necessarily those around you every day. They know you, but not everyone in your work place. This “arm’s length” or distance gives them the rational, unbiased perspective to advise you, that you or your colleagues will never have.
  • Look for ways to enjoy the journey. Medicine is a very long road. I routinely think about this working with all the trainees and junior faculty I encounter. You can’t be in this solely for the end of the journey. The key is to find the joy in the journey. For me, that has always come from seeking out like-minded fellow travelers to share my highs and lows. While I tweet for many reasons, a big reason is that I take pleasure in watching others on the journey and also sharing my own journey.

Here’s to your journey and living your legacy!

Dr. Arora is associate chief medical officer, clinical learning environment, at University of Chicago Medicine, and assistant dean for scholarship and discovery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. You can follow her journey on Twitter.