Jennifer Christner, MD,
First Published on the Elam Blog (March 3, 2021)
Like many of us, I have been a part of academic medicine for my entire professional career. I chose this path because I loved the varied things it would allow me to do – teach, mentor, perform research, create new knowledge, be an administrator, organize events, see patients, contribute to national committees and so much more. After more than 20 years in this business, most people looking in from the outside would likely say that I have been quite successful. However, despite this, I felt a growing sense that I was missing something in my life. At one time, I was a dancer, actress, piano player, creative writer. I remember trying to write creatively again a few years after medical school and I couldn’t. It was like I had forgotten how. I felt my creative spirit had been squashed by medical school and I was too busy to do anything about it. Its allure lingered somewhere in the shadows as career opportunities came and children – one, two, three – entered and life went on. Still, in the recent past, the pull to reconnect with my previous self became stronger and I couldn’t ignore its call anymore.
Joining ELAM was instrumental in my having the courage to rediscover my passions for several reasons. First, I was surrounded by a community of women who were strong and vulnerable all at the same time. I don’t know how ELAM did it, but the “random” women who became part of my smaller learning community seemed perfectly picked just for me. I believe we all feel the same way because even now, four years later, we still send group texts and have group calls, and I firmly believe that when this crazy pandemic is over we will indeed meet up together again in person.
ELAM gave me the courage that I needed to follow my own calling, to revel in the knowledge that we all have both troubles and greatness rolled up into one ball of blissful mess. In my learning community, we revealed very personal and “shameful” things to each other. According to renowned shame researcher Dr. Brene Brown, shame is the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered conflicting and competing social-community expectations.”
Am I doctor? A mom? A dean? An actress? A creative? Even daring to writing the word “actress” now brings out tinges of shame and embarrassment. I am still working on believing that it is OK that hobbies and dreams from my youth made me who I am, and that I still long for them to be a part of me. When I would meet with my learning community and we would share pieces of ourselves, it was met with unconditional acceptance. It was then that a part of me began to emerge that needed to be reclaimed. I knew that by doing so I would be a better mom, wife and employee. I wouldn’t need to blame anyone else for my discontent. I wouldn’t fear living a life of regret and I would once again connect with experiences that brought me true joy.
So, I dipped my toe in. I signed up for an adult acting class at our local community theater. I was terrified beyond words, almost didn’t go to the first class, and even in the parking lot considered not going in! As I sat in the car with my hands still gripped to the steering wheel, I saw another woman – who looked to be my age! She looked friendly, so I opened the car door and stepped onto the gravel parking lot. Lo and behold, she smiled at me and seemed to also be wondering if she’d made the right choice. I would soon find out she was friendly, and a fellow physician.
I slowly came out of my shell during that class and afterwards looked for another opportunity. With a different friend from that acting class, I signed up to attend a free improv class. While yet again terrified to enter the building, I was quickly hooked and enrolled in classes, and even joined a student troupe that performed in front of an audience weekly while taking classes! No one knew that improv got me through a particularly difficult time in my life. One of my children had been hospitalized for an extended period. In the weekly rehearsals and then the weekly shows, I performed my very best work during that very stressful period. I think it was because I really didn’t care what anyone thought, and I had so much pent-up emotion that I just let it all out on that stage. And it worked. Why did it take a family emergency to be myself, to let down all the false pretense and live?
I am grateful to have gathered expertise over the past 20 years, and colleagues frequently seek me out for advice on accreditation and how to climb the academic ladder. I love talking about these subjects and helping others navigate these waters. After my experiences with theater, I realized I had one bigger leap to take, and that was to start my own business. Our family has moved a couple times as I have advanced in careers, and we decided that perhaps we were done moving. I knew I would need a steady income to rely on when my current gig was up, and so … my side gig was born. While it’s still morphing and coming into focus, it is one of the best parts of my life. I am passionate about it and feel so alive when working on it. I recently gave a talk on change management to a Vistage group. (Have you ever heard of a Vistage group? I hadn’t until I started my business!) During the break someone came up to me and said, “I’ve known you an hour and have been talking to you for all of three minutes, but I see that your passion is your new company. I look forward to following along with you and seeing where you go.” I was so shocked to hear that a stranger could see my passion that clearly, and more so because he was not the first person to say it.
I am a creative again. I love that I am getting back to being me, with no shame and no regrets. The spark started at ELAM and continued with the love and support of my ELAM learning community colleagues – you know who you are – and I am so grateful to you. Joining ELAM may not result in you starting your own business, but it will expand your horizons and introduce you to new lifelong friends. If you too feel your spark is lost, or confused, or floundering, know it’s OK and you absolutely can retrieve it. And if your spark is confident and shining brightly – fantastic – ELAM will only strengthen it. Come take a peek at my creative side. I would love to get to know you. You can find Christner Strategies on Facebook (Christner Strategies) and Instagram (@christnerstrategies).
Jennifer Christner, MD, ELAM ’17
Dean, Baylor College of Medicine
CEO, Christner Strategies