The Big Pivot: 7 Insights from a Literary-Assistant-Turned-Future-M.D.
January 25, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
In our new series, The Big Pivot, we feature women who have made major career reinventions. Next up is Simone Blaser, who spent the early part of her career bartending and writing in Paris before becoming the assistant to an agent in the books department at William Morris Endeavor (WME) in New York. She was firmly on a path to becoming a literary agent when, at 28, she did a 180 and decided to go into medicine. Here, she shares hard-won insights on changing course and trusting her gut.
Cultivate many interests, and don’t fear a non-linear path.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a career-driven person—I’ve always followed my nose to the things that interested me. I ended up at William Morris almost by accident: I had studied English in school, so working at a literary agency seemed like a good fit. But I also always really liked science. In college, I spent a summer working in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital. I remember going to observe an autopsy, and the brain matter from one of the bodies was just kind of dripping onto the floor, and I was fascinated by it—that this is what we’re ultimately reduced to. We spend so much time trying to shove more information into our brains, but ultimately, they just end up dripping onto the floor of a basement on First Avenue. I learned from that experience that I was interested in issues of health and life and death, but I didn’t know what form that interest would take. I felt different from the other pre-med go-getters in the program who were so sure they would go into medicine. I didn’t have that kind of certainty at the time.”
There’s a difference between success and purpose.
“Like many agencies, William Morris takes a very structured approach to career paths. You start in the mailroom, then you become an assistant, then an agent trainee, then an agent. Luckily, I got to skip the mailroom, but I knew that succeeding there would mean working my way up within that hierarchy. I was eventually promoted into the agent trainee program, and I thought, Okay, this is going to be my career. I could have a good life doing this. I had always assumed that if I worked hard enough and did well enough, things would fall into place. But after three years, I was still doubting myself and feeling stuck. I had always expected to find something I felt truly passionate about and make a career out of it, and when I hadn’t I thought, Maybe this is just what it’s like to be an adult.”
Take time to reflect.
“Around the same time, I accompanied my dad, who is a doctor and scientist, on a research trip to Tanzania. It was the first time in a long time that I had traveled and gotten out of the New York publishing bubble. I loved being with my dad in the field, and asking questions just for the sake of learning. There was one day where he saved a little boy’s life by giving him an antibiotic, and I was very struck by that tangible way of helping people. You could say that professionally, I was looking for religion—ready to be converted, as it were—and that trip really inspired me. When I got home, I sat down to write about the experience and I ended up writing an essay about how I wanted to be a doctor. It just poured out of me. I think it had been an unconscious feeling for a long time, but suddenly it was very clear.”
Go with your gut—but make a plan.
“Over the month following the trip, things happened very quickly. I wasn’t a typical med student: I was about to turn 28 and I had a liberal arts education. I didn’t even know little things like what the range of scores was for the MCATs, so I had a lot of catching up to do. I decided to apply for the post-bac program at NYU, knowing it might be a while before I could start. I emailed my essay to the admissions department in the summer and asked if they would let me join the September cohort, and by some miracle, they agreed. I was still working at WME, and when I found out that I’d gotten into the program, I was only able to give my boss a week’s notice. She was very supportive, but it was a hectic week. My last day of work was on a Wednesday, and I had to take a math placement test on Friday. I spent the two days in between furiously studying. Thankfully, I passed and started the program in September. So it was really only about two months from the time I went to Africa, had my epiphany, and then started the post-bac.”
You can make up for lost time.
“One of the things that deterred me from going to medical school right after college was thinking, I won’t even make money until I’m thirty! And then here I was, starting the process at 28, knowing I wouldn’t earn money until I was in my mid-thirties. I made peace with that, but I still wanted to accelerate the process as much as possible. One of the reasons I did my post-bac at NYU was because they have what’s called ‘linkage’: if you finish in good academic standing and you get a certain MCAT score, you can go right into their medical school without having to spend an additional year applying. I worked incredibly hard and it was a high hurdle to jump, but I did it. NYU also has an accelerated program where you can finish medical school in three years instead of four, if you know what you want to specialize in, so I’m in my third and final year now. Then I’ll do my residency, which takes three years. I’ll be 36 when I finish that—almost 37. But doing things at this pace allowed me to shave two years off the process.”
There will be sacrifices.
“I have absolutely no regrets about going into medicine, and the deeper I’ve gone, the more strongly I feel that it was the right decision. I feel so stimulated by what I’m doing and learning, but it has still been extremely difficult. Med school can be grueling and brutal. Doing my rotations was a low point. It’s such a steep learning curve, and the doctors who are teaching you all say, ‘If I ask you questions that you already know the answers to, then I’m not doing my job!’ Being on the receiving end of that makes you feel stupid for never having the right answer. It’s hard on the psyche. And from a lifestyle perspective, I’m at a point where my friends are getting married and having babies and starting to have a lot of authority in their careers. Meanwhile, I’m at the beginning of my career as a 33-year-old. My schedule is not my own; I don’t have much flexibility, and I’ve missed a lot of my partner’s important career moments because my workload is so intense.”
It’s okay to think about the path not taken.
“Toward the end of my time at WME, I read an op-ed in the New York Times by Paul Kalanithi, a 36-year-old surgeon who had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. It was beautifully written and so literary—I had never seen a doctor write about Beckett before. I reached out to him and then pitched my boss on the idea of developing his op-ed into a book, which eventually became When Breath Becomes Air. I worked on the proposal with him before I left WME, and when it was later published, it debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. That was a real path-not-taken moment for me. I was well into my post-bac by then, but I realized, Oh, had I stayed at WME, that would have been my first book as an agent. It was validating, yet surreal. That was the moment when I really understood what I had left behind, but it didn’t make me question my decision. In a way, it made me feel in awe of the enormity of the change I made. I am much more joyful and fulfilled now. Before going into medicine, I was driven to do well just for the sake of doing well. But now, that sense of drive has found its purpose.”