Jetfarers At Large #2: Rafael Lima on Finding Your Place in the World

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For our second interview, we brought on Rafael Lima. If you’ve been reading the site for a while, you’ve probably seen him around here or here, or in a lot of my photos (he may or may not be my significant other…). As a third-year medical student based in Houston, TX, he has accomplished a lot in a short period of time. Today he talks about juggling his chaotic medical student life and chasing his passions at the same time.

When you first meet Rafael, he’s friendly but a little quiet, always seeming like he’s thinking about something. Once he warms up, though, he always seems to have something practical and thoughtful to contribute. He’s very down-to-Earth, but also recognizes that sometimes, identifying and pursuing your passions can be the most logical path forward. 

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JF: What is your 3-minute autobiography?

I’m a first generation immigrant from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and like many other immigrant children, I always felt the pressure of attaining “success” in school and in my future career. I went through high school and college with the stereotypical pre-med mindset of placing a high value on good grades and getting into a prestigious school.

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t think that I ever had what you would call a “passion” growing up. It wasn’t until halfway through college when I found that I really enjoyed teaching. To make money on the side, I worked as a high school tutor through much of college and I was also a volunteer tutor within my university. Going through my science classes, I realized that medicine was actually a great path that would let me continue with that role. I came to a sort-of epiphany at one point when I was applying to medical school that the best physicians I had come to know were great with their patients because they were great teachers.

Initially, I wanted to go to medical school because it was the “thing to do” – it was a badge of “success” in my eyes. But I really only ever figured out my real reason for wanting to go down the medical route when I realized I enjoyed teaching so much. Although I didn’t change career tracks through my life, it took me a couple of turns and reflections to find and pursue my path. Now, I’m currently in my 3rd year of medical school, and I’m involved in teaching first-year students through simulation programs.

JF: What has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your life?

Because of my age when my parents moved to the US, I have always felt “in-between” two cultures. Although I grew up speaking Portuguese in my house, I was never in Brazil long enough to grow up immersed in the culture. When I’d go back to visit my family, they’d say things I didn’t understand because I didn’t grow up in that culture.

On the other hand, I think I was old enough coming to the US that I hadn’t developed a sense of an American identity. My brother, being younger than me, grew up knowing only the US, so I don’t think he ever struggled with this problem. I didn’t understand things like Homecoming, and I was embarrassed to ask my parents about it. This left me feeling like an incomplete outsider, like I had one foot inside the circle and one foot outside.

I think that I finally started overcoming this obstacle when I began traveling. I realized that there were more things that were similar between different cultures than there were that were different. I’d see things in Guatemala that reminded me of things in Brazil. Once I experienced that, I felt more complete in my identity. I didn’t feel like I had to be “in between” anything anymore.

JF: So basically what you’re saying is that travel helped you realize that things aren’t black and white, and that the world is more of a mish mash than anything else.

RL: Exactly.

JF: Describe one of your favorite places in the world (it can be anywhere).

RL: There are so many places, it’s so hard to choose! But if I had to choose one, a place I loved and really want to visit again is Turkey. Turkey took me so much by surprise. Istanbul was one of the few cities in the world where I felt like after a week there, I still hadn’t seen half of what the city had to offer.

When I visited Turkey, it was really different from the US in culture, so everything felt really novel. Hearing the mosques play their prayer call five times a day, trying out the different foods… even though I’d been to Brazil and Guatemala before, it felt like the first real international trip I ever went on. And going to Cappadocia was incredible, too. I really loved Turkey, and I feel like I didn’t get to experience nearly as much as I wanted to in that country.

JF: How do you think traveling has transformed the way you think and live?

My first trip abroad to a country that wasn’t Brazil was to Guatemala on a school-sponsored volunteer project. On that trip, there were so many little experiences I observed that I felt completely relatable to. There were tiny things like watching kids playing soccer in the street after school, seeing a group of men arguing about soccer in a bar on the corner of a street, or seeing teenagers on their phones gossiping with each other.

I think I realized then that across different cultures and countries, we share more similarities than differences. I don’t think this realization was limited to the fact that I was visiting another Latin American country. I had the same experience in Turkey, Vietnam, and Peru. Since those trips, I’ve felt like I’ve been able to open up more with other people and be more empathetic; something that I think will help me as a physician.

JF: What’s something (a fear, or a worry) you think many people have on their minds but are afraid to say?

I think people are scared to take the time and uncertainty of figuring out what their passions are. And so a lot of people kind of avoid that discomfort. Instead, a lot of people try to project it onto their career. They go for a prestigious job or university because they think they can substitute “success” for passion. After all this time, you struggle to get up in the morning because you don’t feel fulfilled or inspired at your job, you start feeling stuck. And I think all of that stems from not trying to pursue or find your own passion.

It’s kind of like a lot of our friends who are working high-profile consulting jobs… there are a lot of smart and accomplished people, but none of them are pursuing that passion. As a result, a lot of people start to hate their jobs.

In medicine, this applies too. There’s a big group of people who try to get into medical school because they think that it’s their passion. But really, they’re trying to justify their pursuit when they haven’t thought about their true passion. So they go down this really long road, and they start to feel super burnt out.

It’s really hard to sit down and reflect on what you’re meant to be. It’s one of the scariest things to do.

JF: What’s the best advice you ever received? From whom?

RL: Back in my hardcore pre-med days in college, when I was moping because I got a bad grade in organic chemistry, a friend of mine said something like, “Who cares what the grade is? That’s not going to matter.”

It wasn’t much at the time, but that idea that my self-worth and happiness isn’t tied to a grade ended up sticking with me. I didn’t have to judge my success based on what someone else says is an accomplishment. This idea has helped me a lot in medical school because we are constantly getting tested and evaluated. It can be difficult to untie your sense of self-worth from the numbers you see on your evaluations, but it makes life much happier when you do.

JF: But knowing that a lot of your future in medicine is tied to grades and scores, how do you detach yourself from all of that?

RL: I think you have to find other ways to judge your success. I think a lot of those values aren’t actually graded or looked upon in medical school. I know it sounds cheesy, but things like compassion – the way you interact with patients, and the way they feel leaving that interaction, is something that they don’t grade you on, but it’s something that’s incredibly important. If I leave medical school having learned how to talk to people and how to relate to them, I think that’s more important [than the numbers] in the end.

JF: What legacy do you hope to leave behind one day?

I’m not really driven by leaving behind a trail of publications with my name, which is something that I think a lot of physicians-in-training see as the measurement of their accomplishments in the field.

Instead, as a physician, I want to be remembered as a person who cared for others and who listened to others. Someone who had a good relationship with their patients. I think most people remember their doctors not by their academic accomplishments, but by how they treated them.

A lot of people have sort of an ego about being in the medical field, and it almost causes them to be detached from the rest of the world. They go on about their resumes and the research they did. I don’t want to be that type of person. I want to be someone who is relatable, who is in touch with the people around me, and not stuck in a bubble. When I look back on my life, I want to make sure that I enjoyed it, that I took in every step of the journey, and that I am remembered as someone who cared.

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Any questions for Rafael? Post one in our Facebook group!

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Kay is a full-time working professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare vacation day to get outside and explore the world. When she travels, she loves visiting the most iconic and naturally beautiful destinations in the USA and abroad. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, running through a park, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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