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To what degree do parental occupations influence their children’s choices? Does it even matter what your parents did in their work life? And how is this playing out in the day-to-day lives of older children, especially after the death of key parental influencers?

These questions have been circulating in my brain because of the realization that five of my good friends are the sons of medical doctors, just like my dad. Only one of these friendships began with this conscious realization. Three of them also combined medical practice with teaching as professors of medicine, again just like my dad.

But none my five friends are doctors. All chose other career paths. One has a degree in business; another is a professor of education who became an internationally published author; a third is a retired cultural chief executive officer who writes and lectures prolifically; the fourth is an outdoor education teacher and lawyer; and the fifth is a retired international route commercial airline pilot.

All of these occupations stress responsibility and public service. Several incorporate sub-disciplines and creativity. Three are (or were) conspicuously teachers. Two are distinguished authors. All of their jobs contain occupational stressors, but none routinely deal with the pressures of life and death of patients. In this respect, we’re not our fathers.

I find all five of these friends kind and in varying ways compassionate. They stay in touch with email, visit when in my general vicinity and all offer thoughtful, interesting advice when queried about anything. When I’m in their varied presences, I feel at home intellectually and emotionally. We’re in some respects more like family than friends.

So why did we all veer away from medicine as a career? How did we find ourselves in these diverse roles?

I think all of us were aware of parental interest (if not desire) that we follow in the medical footsteps. I was quietly, even subliminally pressured to consider medicine by my father. As an adolescent, he took me on long summer road trips to promote his concept of pediatric diagnostic and assessment centres, often to speak with First Nations leaders in remote parts of the province.

He had a vision of public healthcare that guaranteed the same quality of care and treatment for all – no matter where you lived or what your family income was. He was also passionately interested in Indigenous cultures. His passions (and our road trips) made me into an applied anthropologist and cultural CEO. He never criticized my decision to follow a different career path.

To his undying credit, my dad didn’t push his enthusiasms into an aggressive promotion of a medical career. He was a great believer in young people discovering their own way in the job bazaar. As long as you were aware of all of your options, and thoughtful about them, he was happy.

I believe my friends and I saw first-hand just what the pressures of medical practice were and are. I certainly saw my father struggle to cope with the pressures he faced, and the wear and tear on his psyche of the constant presence of children’s deaths.

And so my friends and I chose work that combined many of the elements of a career in medicine. As a group, there’s a surfeit of compassion in our lives. There’s care for one another as friends. There’s a great deal of cross-cultural understanding. I also detect a public service ethic that just won’t quit in retirement.

None of us are primarily about money. In fact, money and its making are infrequent topics of discussion. I recall my father responding to a question about his income by saying, “If I was principally concerned with making money, I would have become a real estate developer.”

As I reflect on the role that medicine plays in society and the largely unseen impact it has on doctors’ families, I understand the career choices of doctors’ children with increasing clarity.

For some, medicine is a clear calling; for others, it’s not. Whatever the choice, doctors’ children are schooled at home in the duty of public service and the value of compassion.

Unsurprisingly, they’re also quick to detect these values in others.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.

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