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On transitions and identity: A reflection by Stanford’s Philip Pizzo

Philip Pizzo, MD, began planning for life after medicine before he had barely begun to work as a doctor. As a resident in pediatrics, Pizzo, the former School of Medicine dean, heard about several older doctors who were struggling. One, a surgeon in his 70s, had been forced to stop performing surgery because his patients were experiencing an increasing number of complications. Another had been a chemotherapy pioneer, but he hadn't been keeping up with new research and had been sidelined.

Not me, Pizzo vowed, I'll move on before that happens to me. He tells the story of his journey through later-life career transitions in a deeply personal, yet highly relevant commentary that appears this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Relevant because Pizzo's problem — what next? is now the right time? who am I now? — is shared by an enormous, and growing, number of people. In fact, roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day, Pizzo writes. Life expectancies, here and elsewhere, are climbing as societal norms about aging and retirement are shifting.

"The promise of the golden years in 'Sun City,' while still appealing to some, does not offer a prescription for renewing a sense of purpose or creating new life directions," he writes in the piece.

As a young resident, Pizzo thought he had a plan: After medicine, he would return to school, earn a PhD and become a historian. He started listening to history books as he ran. "I felt some reassurance that I could have a new and purposeful career path when the time arose," he writes.

Pizzo's career, like so many, had twists he could not have foreseen decades before. He became dean, for example. Nonetheless, when he relinquished that position, after nearly 12 years of service, he felt pain and loss and "experienced surprising questions about personal identity and self-worth. Did my knowledge or experience still matter, and was I still relevant or useful?"

Pizzo knows that to some that admission may be shocking. The dean of a major medical school -- someone who had far exceeded all societal expectations of success -- questioned his identity?

"Some might argue that my situation is atypical," Pizzo wrote in an email. "But I think that is the reason why it brings emphasis to these issues. We are all impacted, and we all need to think about our transitions."

Pizzo, Scope readers know, went on to found the Distinguished Careers Institute, which works to help individuals answer those questions and prepare for new roles that meet social needs. His email explains:

I recognized that my plans and pursuits were relevant to an ever increasing part of the population. That is, the vast majority of people would not have thought about transitions and alternative career paths and yet they would welcome an opportunity to do so. Indeed, countless individuals have said to me that when they heard about DCI and explored it they found it was exactly what they were looking for -- even though they hadn't realized it existed. For many, it has resolved the anxiety of uncertainty and created a path forward.

And although he isn't officially a historian, Pizzo is still pursuing that passion -- his current focus being 19th and early 20th century Europe.

Previously: Talk about death — before a health crisis, says Stanford's Philip Pizzo, Former medical school dean discusses learning and longevity at Stanford 125 event and Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute encourages "personal reflection and intellectual exploration"
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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