I have often been asked by the students I teach for advice about which career path to follow. My response has always boiled down to encouraging them to follow what they are truly passionate about. Thankfully, I adopted this principle in my own life. It has never let me down and has guided me to opportunities and insights I never could have dreamed of let alone contrived. Here is a brief telling of my story and some of the lessons gleaned from it.

When I was a Year 12 student stepping out of the gates of Camberwell Grammar and into the wider world I was clueless about what course or career I wanted to follow. I had a lukewarm interest in many different careers but a conviction for none. I thought perhaps the best approach might be to eliminate things I certainly didn’t want to do. With an aversion to blood and gore, the first thing I eliminated was Medicine.

Lesson 1: It has been said, ‘be careful what you wish for’, but equally it could be said, ‘be careful what you wish to avoid.’

This method of elimination didn’t get me very far though, so I reflected again on what I was really interested in. What I came up with was the ‘mind’. Curiosity about the mind and how it worked expressed itself in many ways such as in how I noticed that distraction and worry not only reduced my ability to function well but also had very negative effects on the body. The mind-body relationship fascinated me. I noticed that when I worried about future events, like the interschool swimming championships, even though the future was in my imagination, my body reacted as if I was in the water with a shark. It made sense to train myself to stay in the present moment and to focus on reality and what I could control in order to reduce anxiety. During Years 11 and 12, I practiced staying in the moment while studying, then I extended this to staying calm and focusing to deal with the pressure of the exam room. At the time, all this made intuitive sense to me, but many years later I realised I was teaching myself what I now call mindfulness.

Lesson 2: Pay attention, even to the things you find uncomfortable, because that is how you learn about life and yourself.

This interest in the mind was the first thing, but I also recognised that I was much happier when I was helping others so my career path needed to include this. Interest in the mind and a helping career led me to study Medicine at Melbourne University with a view to later doing Psychiatry despite my aversion to blood and gore. I resolved to teach myself how not to be ruled by this aversion, which I did. 

Lesson 3: If you mindfully turn towards your fears and aversions then your capacities will grow and the fears and aversions will shrink. If you avoid them then they will grow and your capacities will shrink.

Unfortunately, nearly everything I was taught about psychiatry in medical school had little to do with the mind and everything to do with drugs. So, marooned in the medical course, I maintained my interests. I continued to learn through observation, self-reflection and what I would now call meditation. I had to teach myself about wellbeing, self-care and stress-reduction because it seemed that university was hell-bent on teaching we medical students about stress-production. 

Eventually, after graduation and working for a few years, I navigated to general practice with an emphasis on counselling patients using the approaches that had been so valuable in my life. I wanted to help everyday people to manage the stresses of modern life, to be more fulfilled and, where possible, to prevent illness through a healthy lifestyle rather than having to treat it.

It became clear that my passion wasn’t really in the consulting room and so, in 1988 at a crossroads moment in my career, for some reason I thought to look in the job section of the newspaper – the only time I ever did that. Just looking with an open and curious mind at what was presented, I saw a clinical and lecturing position at Monash University in the Department of General Practice. When I saw the advertisement I thought of all the things I wasn’t taught in medical school but should have been. I lamented to myself that, 'Someone should do something about that.' Suddenly one thought rang loud and clear in my mind, 'Do something about it!' I sat with that for a moment until the mind protested, 'What? Why would I want to take up a lecturing position when my biggest fear in life is public speaking?' I sat with that until another moment of clarity arose, 'Do I really want my life to be governed by my fears?' Of course not. 'If I help one patient that is good, but if I help to educate one doctor then I help 1,000 patients.' I felt I had no other choice but to follow what felt like a calling. 

Lesson 4: A true calling in life is generally to something bigger than ourselves (or what we take ourselves to be). The promptings of the ego are always to things smaller than ourselves.

In my experience, such moments of clarity don’t come often. They cannot be forced, but come to us when we are open, aware and ready to receive them. I made inquiries at Monash and found it to be a creative and fertile environment to finally put down roots. That moment, that decision, set the direction for my life and work. I now had to find a way to not be ruled by my fear of public speaking, which I did. I also had to find a language and rationale for introducing mindfulness, mind-body medicine and lifestyle medicine into the curriculum of our next generation of doctors when it wasn’t being done anywhere else in the world. I have stayed true to that calling and my passion and it has helped in dealing with many challenges and sometimes entrenched resistance. 

Lesson 5: Your innate passion will give you the energy and resilience to deal with challenges and adversity far more than secondary gains like money or status ever will.

It has taught me a huge amount about myself but also helped me to find a truly fulfilling career which has hopefully been useful to others. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve had a wonderful time over 33 years at Monash, met many inspiring people and have found it to be full of opportunities. The next exciting phase in my career has come about through a large philanthropic grant to found the Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies. 

Lesson 6: If we stay true to our passions, develop our talents as best we can, and dedicate our efforts to being of service, then the Universe works in mysterious ways to bring us to where we need to be.

Maybe opportunities do not come by chance but are the product of paying attention to our inner and outer worlds, willingly learning from our mistakes, and making the best of what we have been given to work with. I hope that you too will trust and follow your passion and find your inner calling.

Professor Craig Hassed

Professor Craig Hassed OAM has been working within the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University since 1989. Now he also teaches into a number of other faculties, is coordinator of mindfulness programs across Monash and is the founding Director of Education at the Monash Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies. His teaching, research and clinical interests include mindfulness, mind-body medicine, lifestyle medicine, integrative medicine and medical ethics. He has authored over 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has published 14 books and 16 book chapters. He co-authored with Richard Chambers two free Mindfulness MOOCs (massive open online courses) in collaboration with Monash University and FutureLearn, both of which are rated by Class Central as the two leading online mindfulness courses globally and among the 10 top online courses for any subject in the world. In 2019 Craig was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Medicine.