Inspiring MedCrunch Interview: Lisa Chu, MD

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In our upcoming interview series, we are going to publish conversations with inspiring leaders in the medical field who approach medicine and their careers from a slightly different angle. In our first interview, we talked with Lisa Chu MD, MedCrunch guest-author, former venture capitalist, teacher, life coach and mentor to many (for more information about Lisa, read her bio below):

MC: Lisa, you have an MD from University of Michigan Medical School, however, you never practiced medicine. Why not?

LC: I knew going into medical school that being a doctor was never my dream. I was brought up in a very goal oriented Chinese family, where medicine was viewed as the most respected thing you could do with your life, and one of only a few acceptable career options for someone who was considered “smart”. I was trained to follow the rules and I guess I studied medicine to satisfy my parents’ expectations of me. But I knew early-on that I did not fit in.

MC: So what career path did you choose instead?

LC: As someone who went straight from college to medical school, and didn’t want to do a residency, there seemed to be three choices at the time: consulting, investment banking or venture capital. I looked at a leading consulting firm but I wasn’t interested in being trained to fit in to a corporate culture. As for investment banking, I wasn’t turned on by the analysis and number-crunching part of it. But venture capital seemed to combine a wide variety of activities and I loved the process of turning ideas into reality. It was also the year 2000, and the dot com boom had just happened, so VC sounded sexy and prestigious. So I ended up finding an internship with a local VC firm while I was a fourth year medical student. I really liked it and was hired by another firm located in Cleveland later on.

MC: But you were not really trained for the investment world. Did you attend any courses in order to acquire the necessary business knowledge?

LC: I attended an accounting course but that was not really helpful to be honest. I learned everything I needed to know on the job. I am a relentless learner and I spent a lot of time teaching myself, reading, investigating, and observing everything that was going on around me. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do. I just dove right in and tried things. That, to me, is the fun of business. I was also determined to do whatever it took to become good at my job. For example, my firm had a team of former Wall Street guys who were hired to do all the number-crunching. I would ask them to send me their Excel files, and I would look at the formulas to figure out how they did the analysis, and then ask them questions. They were usually very happy to help me out. Again, I didn’t wait for people to spoon feed me the knowledge. I went out and got it.

MC: How long did you do it and why did you quit?

LC: All in all, I spent 3.5 years there. I learned a lot, met a lot of great people, and was promoted quickly. I had fun, but as I started to do the things that I thought of as “being successful” and “being a grown up” – things like buying a house, buying furniture, going on vacations, etcetera – I realized these were not the most important things to me personally. I remember a couple of incidents that made me think about who I was becoming in the process of following this particular path. One comment was made in passing by one of my partners at the firm. He said, “Well, this is all about fear and greed, right?” as if that was what everyone knew to be true. It didn’t feel like the reason I was interested in VC. I was more of an idealist, believing that one day I would change the world by writing a check to fund the next Medtronic or something. Then there was another conversation, with a partner at another firm, who was an MD himself and had been doing VC for over fifteen years. He was also a talented musician who had told himself he would pursue music in retirement. One day, he asked me, “Lisa, what is your number?”.  I was confused, and said, “What do you mean, ‘my number’?” and he replied, “You know, everyone has ‘a number’ in this business. So what’s yours? 20 million? 50 million? 100 million? It’s the amount of money you want to make before you start doing what you really love. Your number is when you’ll be ‘done’.” I paused for a while and heard myself say out loud, “I don’t have a number. And if I had 20 million dollars, I would start a violin school.” Then I thought to myself, “I don’t need 20 million to open a violin school, so why don’t I do that right now?”

MC: And then you quit and opened up a violin school for kids?

LC: Yes, I followed two of my childhood dreams by moving to California and opening a  school. That was the start of my entrepreneurial career. I applied all the business principles that I had observed and I created something from scratch. I built a following and a community. The problem was, I never became part of it. I worked hard, invested all of my energy into the business, and made things happen. But I still had this belief that “I am what I do”, and that my job was who I was. I took responsibility for everyone and everything related to my school. It was nearly impossible for me to delegate tasks to anyone else, because I had this view that I was the only one who could do things right. As the school grew in size, I was stretched thinner and thinner, feeling like I was pulled in many different directions, unable to control what I felt I needed to control. It was a very painful way to live, in retrospect, but my only strategy for life at that time was “work harder”. So I did. With each year, things got less fun and more exhausting, and yet I thought the only way things could get better was to get busier, get bigger, and get more productive. Finally, it was physical exhaustion and back pain that made me stop and realize that something had to change. It was extremely difficult for me to allow myself to take a break, but the pain was so excruciating that I finally swallowed all my fears about “what other people will think of me” and I took four weeks off. I did yoga, Pilates, a posture class, and just rested. In that period of “empty space”, a series of teachers arrived in my life. I can’t explain rationally “why” or “how” I came to meet these teachers, but it just happened.

MC: What convinced you to close the school and go into coaching then?

LC: It was a gradual process, even though the actual closing of the school appeared to be sudden. I guess it started with attending a workshop called “Real Speaking” created by Gail Larsen, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I stood in front of six strangers for three days and told the truth. I told stories that had never come out of my mouth before that weekend. I gained the courage to take the steps toward becoming more authentic about who I am in my daily life, rather than playing a role that fit other people’s expectations and hiding the truth inside. Immediately after that workshop, I got introduced to the Martha Beck life coaching methodology. I never knew what a life coach was – and frankly never respected the whole field of “coaching”. I think I equated it with therapy and assumed that people who “needed” coaching were weak and unable to cope. However, my experience in Santa Fe opened me. I felt what a tremendous gift it is to witness another person tell their own truth – no matter what it is. I felt stronger as a result of just listening to six other human beings stand up in total honesty, sharing stories that I might have previously considered shameful, frightening, or impossible to survive. I knew that I needed to be more courageous with my life, and that I could make the biggest impact on others by being exactly who I am, not by dressing up and imitating others. Martha Beck, an author and columnist for Oprah Magazine, has the mantra that our best life comes from “finding your own North Star”. Within a month of returning from Santa Fe, I found myself reading all of her books, enrolling in her life coach training program, and also enrolling in a certificate program in “Sound Voice and Music Healing” at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. In the process of those trainings, I gained the courage to begin to live by the truth in my heart, and to stop evaluating myself constantly against other people’s external benchmarks. This was a huge shift for me, since I discovered that my greatest fear was disappointing other people. I closed my school because it felt necessary and right for me at the time. I had to create space to ask, “What’s next?”, and I had to overcome my fear of disappointing so many “other people” in my life – my clients, my students, my own parents, my teacher, and others. I think many people share this sense of obligation to “everybody”. We each have our list of people we’re trying not to disappoint, and we arrange our lives around them, without asking what’s true and what’s possible beyond these illusions of limitations.

MC: Who do you coach?

LC: I mainly coach people in medicine and health-care who – like me back then – have the feeling that they just don’t fit in, that they still have not found what they are looking for. I also create programs to restore joy, creativity, and balance to the lives of adults who consider themselves “caring professionals” – by that I mean, anyone who cares about what they do and holds themselves to high standards, from mothers to CEOs.

MC: Do these folks have to come to San Francisco to see you?

LC: No, I offer coaching sessions over the phone. Also, I offer online courses throughout the year. You can visit the “Teaching” page on my website to see the latest offerings, or sign up for my monthly e-mail newsletter to receive updates. I’m working with a new online learning platform called Ruzuku and it enables me to create multimedia, interactive learning experiences to share my material with people anywhere in the world. All that’s required is an internet connection.

MC: Is there any final advice that you want to give to someone who has always had the feeling that something just is not right in their careers or in their lives?

LC: Learning to trust yourself is a very personal process, but know that you are not alone in your searching. The work of discovering who you really are, and what you are really here to learn and be, is the most important work you can do, not only for yourself, but for every person you encounter in your life. The work of becoming courageous, authentic, truthful, and compassionate is the greatest service you can be in the world. What you give to yourself in these areas has a positive effect in every situation you encounter, every relationship you create, in your life. I realize that I defined “work” very narrowly as the transactions that led to getting paid money, and through that narrow definition I formed my self-image. I am learning that what I get paid to do is actually a very small part of who I am and my impact in the world, and my “real work” is so expansive, so creative, so exciting, and such a gift to be able to experience every single day. My “real work” is to be exactly who I am – living, learning, growing, trusting, and loving – and to share it in every moment that I live. Maybe it sounds simple, but it is real work, in the most satisfying sense of the word.


Lisa’s Bio:

As a life coach, musician, writer, teacher, and speaker, Lisa Chu, M.D., supports and encourages adults who are seeking to live more creatively and passionately. She completed medical school, but left medicine before doing a residency, in order to follow her dream of creating a life of passion, creativity, and authenticity. She has since been a partner-level investment professional in a venture capital firm, the founder of her own violin school, the creator of music improvisation workshops for personal growth, and the co-creator of an acoustic rock band. Learn more about Lisa.


Recommended reading by Lisa:

Steering by Starlight (non-affiliate link), by Martha Beck

Mindset (non-affiliate link), by Carol Dweck

The Artist’s Way (non-affiliate link), by Julia Cameron

Related Links:

Lisa Chu on creativity for physicians.

Lukas on words against depression.

Franz on using death as a change agent.

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Franz is an internist with a specialization in cardiology. He co-founded the e-learning company 123sonography and MedCrunch. Franz is Associate Professor for internal medicine at the Medical University of Vienna. In 2001 he did his MPH at Johns Hopkins University as a Fulbright scholar. Follow Franz at @franzwiesbauer.

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