In my conversation with physician, cellist, writer, and former child prodigy, Dr. Sarah Carter, we discuss the “classical music machine” and how it overwhelms young people and their families; how her feelings of worthiness were tied to her ability to be “perfect” on the cello; how a major depression at the peak of her musical career led to reclaiming her identity; the pain of leaving a classical music career behind and the pushback from that community; and how medical training has taught her to let go of perfectionism and embrace the vulnerability of being human.
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8:37 – How Sarah became serious about the cello as small child and how she was carried along by the enthusiasm and pressure from adults.
10:23 – Sarah shares how her feelings of worthiness were tied to her ability to perform “perfectly.”
11:30 – “The tragedy of perfection” and the high stakes of performance. How missing a shift or playing out of tune made Sarah feel that “all was lost.”
14:04 – How our ability to perform well or poorly gets conflated with one’s sense of self. “If I play badly, it means I’m a bad person.”
15:08 – The paralyzing effects of perfectionism. How perfectionism blocks creativity and artistry.
16:28 – How the deep depression that Sarah experienced at the peak of her musical career instigated a soul-searching and the beginning of her career shift towards medicine. How she realized that she was separate from the cello and that she was more than her abilities on the cello.
21:14 – How the very strong pull for her to do something that was”100% her decision” led to her journey to medical school. The realization that she’d been living a life that was someone else’s dream.
23:45 – I share how my career felt like a “freight train” that I’d gotten on and couldn’t get off of because the stakes felt too high to leave.
25:11 – The importance of taking a fully independent step away from the “freight train.” The importance of doing something for oneself.
26:49 – The “classical music machine” and how it overwhelms talented young people and their families. The weight of responsibility felt by young performers.
28:25 – The experiences of young performers in technically demanding endeavors (i.e. classical music, golf, gymnastics, ice skating, etc.) and the intersections of exceptional young performers and the Asian diaspora. (See: IIRY 7 – Dr. Mina Yang).
31:30 – How the narrowness and perfection and worry and the very rigid idea of what a successful life in classical music could look like steered Sarah towards medicine, where she could be on the “front lines of humanity.” The challenges of going into medicine as a second career.
34:00 – How medical school was also a very regimented path, like classical music. Her doubts about medicine and whether she’d made a good decision.
35:10 – How she let go of exceptionalism and perfectionism in medicine because medicine is “too messy.” How she had to accept that she was in medicine not because she was aiming for perfect but because this is really what she wanted to do.
35:52 – How going to medical school was hard and the challenges of pivoting from a performing arts career into the sciences.
36:18 – The realization that she’d jumped from one machine (classical music) to another machine (medicine).
36:40 – Going through an early mid-life crisis in her twenties. (See: IIRY 3 – Dr. Jeanne Bamberger “Growing up Prodigies: The Mid-Life Crisis”)
38:50 – Sarah’s slow pivot towards medicine. The pushback she felt from the “close-knit” and “challenging” community of classical music and the pain of losing friends and community. How people were upset by her leaving music and how she lost friends.
41:52 – How the “grayness and unpredictability of humanity” is what keeps Sarah motivated in medicine. How a loss of control has freed her from the psychological hangups that she developed from growing up as a classical music prodigy.
44:29 – How medical training taught Sarah to be less perfectionistic and to embrace vulnerability.
46:59 – Why it’s hard to leave a career in classical music behind: “If my depression had been 10% less severe, I would not have switched careers.” The guilt and shame of leaving classical music behind in part because of all the resources, family sacrifices, and investment of time and money and energy.
48:09 – The bias against leaving a career in classical music, even if you are miserable and struggling and how this creates challenges for people who to want to change careers. How changing careers can feel “not okay” and “radical.”
49:37 – Re-exploring what creativity looks like and how classical music is not that creative.
50:32 – How a career change broadened Sarah’s perspectives on creativity and on her own identity.