The most memorable books have twists, turns, and surprises. A plot twist is a literary technique involving a radical change in an expected outcome. It involves withholding critical information until the time is right, changing our perception of preceding or current events. There are often hints along the way, foreshadowing what is to come, but realization does not come until the twist happens, and often only appreciated in retrospect. Red herrings, cliffhangers, unreliable narrators are all common elements of a plot twist.
How often have we read a book with the hero on the linear path? They are doing what they “should” be doing. We see the inner conflict; we know there is something more than the bland life offered. The character has so much more potential than this. We urge them to realize it, flip the page anticipating that they will see it, too. But that would be too easy! The hero’s journey has twists, turns, and pain. That’s what makes the story interesting. But even through the catastrophes, we have faith that they will pick up and move on to a triumphant finish.
The hero doesn’t know their life is about to make a major shift, and they will be challenged, like iron forged in a fire. The true potential of the here is evident to everyone but the hero themself. They only realize their true potential after something shocking or devastating comes up, and they conquer it.
But we have little tolerance or understanding of that in our own life. If our career doesn’t follow the linear path, then we think there is something wrong with us, all is lost, there is no hope. We don’t think that there may be a path that may be richer and more fulfilling. This is not surprising for doctors, since a significant amount of our time is spent linearly without as much room for plot twists.
Plot twists are most likely to occur in the three major times in our career when we have the most choice. The first is when we finish training, and the world is wide open. We can pick any job we want, travel anywhere. We may get lucky and find exactly what suites us. A happy ending. More often, we encounter the twists and turns of difficult partners, impossible patient situations, complications that lead us to doubt about our capabilities, and the administrative villain.
We feel the “arrival fallacy.” We arrive at our destination; we expect to feel something profound. But then we don’t, and that leads to disappointment. We forget the idea that the hero’s journey is a quest. We arrive and find new, different, and more challenging problems. Job loss. Work conflict. Divorce. Bruce Feiler in “Life is in the transitions,” described these events as “lifequakes.” But what if this was the plot twist that takes us on to a path with our highest potential?
Even if we found our palace with a prince or princess, the second plot twist occurs mid-career as we wonder: Is this all there is? Our time is running out, and we must decide if we fight another dragon or wander the gardens appreciating what we have built with the battles already conquered.
This plot twist transitions to the final stage, finding our successor. If we have recognized those around us, we identify the successor. They have joined us on our quest, and they have proven their worth. We pass the crown to them and become a hero in their story, and we live on in them. Or we fight them for it because we are not ready to give it up, and we become the story’s villain. We know those characters, too. Heroes past their prime that have become bitter, withholding support because their entire identity is wrapped up in the role. And the successors will always carry on, with or without our help. We choose which we want to be.
So how do we embrace the plot twists in our life? In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talked about owning the story as a strategy for shame resilience. Life may not turn out as expected, and we may feel guilt about the event or develop into shame in how we feel about ourselves. But if we consider this is our story, and that twists, turns, disappointments are to be expected, then we can start owning the story. We see ourselves as the lead character, embracing our flaws, forgiving the missteps knowing that we are the hero of our story. We own our story, and we can own the ending.
A plot twist is what makes the story interesting and memorable. The joy is in the unexpected and necessary to the development of the character. As an avid reader, I often can’t wait to turn the page. But with age, I understand savoring it. It’s not the destination; it’s the journey. Who we are becoming. I am getting to know myself as the character, learning the flaws and strengths, and owning the story. I am enjoying it along the way, and although I am excited about what comes next, I am slowing down the turning of the page and enjoying learning the lessons and what is going on right now. Trusting that I am the hero of the story that will unfold as it was meant to be.
Amy Vertrees is a general surgeon and co-founder, The Common Thread Women Surgeon Coaching.
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