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Finding Joy and Purpose Through Lifelong Learning

March 28, 2022

April 2022

Alexandra Wolanskyj-Spinner, MD

Alexandra Wolanskyj-Spinner, MD
Professor of Medicine, Department of Hematology, Mayo Clinic




I have been thinking a lot about joy and purpose lately. During a recent virtual conference where I was speaking on how to be a lifelong learner in medicine, I asked the participating doctors, “What brings you joy?” A common response was being together at medical conferences, as well as observing a successful outcome for a patient.

The idea of finding joy in learning again came to mind while I was watching the 2022 Winter Olympics and thinking about what motivates Olympians to excel in the face of disappointment, failure, and sacrifice. Similarly, I wondered how health care providers have managed to keep going as the pandemic has raged around the world.

The Olympic Way

Watching Olympians of all ages perform has made me wonder why this group of individuals is so successful. What motivates them to continue the daily grind, the constant sacrifice, and the ever-lurking risk to their physical and emotional health? In the stories of victory and defeat, especially those stories of overcoming tremendous odds, what is the driver to continue? Interview after interview with these elite athletes provides a common answer: “I love this sport.”

This truth is illustrated similarly by looking at college-age swimmers and professional rugby players. Those who are intrinsically motivated by a love of their sport are more successful, whereas those who devalue their sport are more likely to suffer exhaustion and defeat.1

Teri McKeever, the head swimming coach at UC Berkeley who has also trained Olympic swimmers, told The Atlantic in a 2014 article, “The women that I’ve worked with that medal are the ones that really enjoy the process. They enjoy the working out as much as they enjoy the competition. They love that idea of pushing the limits and learning and being challenged emotionally and physically.”

Another positive coping strategy for athletes that was cited in The Atlantic is rational thinking and self-talk. What it boils down to is this: Finding and embracing learning opportunities can increase the chances of success.

Motivation and COVID-19

Andragogy, the art and science of adult learning, was popularized by Malcom Knowles, PhD, in the early 1980s.2 He characterized six key elements of adult learning, including intrinsic motivation and seeking hands-on experiences that align with professional needs.

Likewise, the Pareto principle suggests that if you can spend at least 20% of your professional time engaged in activities that advance your overall purpose in life, doing things you have always wanted to do, find rewarding, and that align with your higher sense of meaning, then professional contentment will be yours. Each of us has unique learning goals that we must define for ourselves, but the theme here is to find and embrace learning opportunities even in the face of adversity.

In medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an unusual opportunity to learn new ways of practicing. In fact, it has been a time of personal transformation and silver linings for many of us. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey,3 73% of more than 9,300 people polled reported at least one unexpected silver lining in the pandemic – often that they got to spend more time with family because video calls fostered connections with distant loved ones. In other studies, people found benefit and meaning in the COVID-19 crisis in posttraumatic growth, gratitude, and mental health, even as they acknowledged the negative impact on work, family, mental health, finances, and so on.4

“Because benefit-finding is an adaptive mechanism, some people will still be able to identify positives,” according to authors writing in the Journal of Health Psychology. “People who are able to find meaning even in the worst of situations can weather those storms better than those who aren’t.”4

Some of the silver linings in medicine relate to the rapid transformation of medical guidelines. As noted in Academic Emergency Medicine, “COVID-19 has pushed medicine as an industry to innovate on how we can continue to deliver quality patient care with increasingly scarce personnel and physical infrastructure.”5

Overall, the health care providers who maintain their sense of purpose have an increased commitment to serving the community, greater respect and inspiration for their calling, and deeper meaning in their roles.

What Medical Professionals Can Gain

We enter the field of medicine with high hopes and aspirations. The intrinsic motivation of lifelong learning means remembering that purpose and why we came to love medicine in the first place. Aiming for mastery by remaining curious and exploring new clinical, research, and educational ideas can drive academic promotion and offer leadership opportunities. The principles of andragogy can help us get back there by using prior experience as a jumping-off point, engaging in activities adapted to our gaps and strengths, finding relevance and impact for our personal and professional lives, and focusing on problem-centered learning and application rather than content. The lessons we have gathered from COVID-19 and the Olympic way can help us redefine or rediscover our fundamental joy in medicine.

Alexandra Wolanskyj-Spinner, MD
Associate Editor


  1. Khazan O. How Olympians stay motivated. The Atlantic. February 7, 2014.
  2. Knowles MS, Bard R, Knowles MS, Lippitt GL, Nadler Zd, Nadler Ld. Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Learning. United Kingdom: Wiley; 1984.
  3. Van Kessel P, Baronavski C, Scheller A, Smith A. In their own words, Americans describe the struggles and silver linings of the COVID-19 March 5, 2021. Pew Research Center.
  4. Kowalski RM, Carroll H, Britt J. Finding the silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis [published online 2021 Mar 1]. J Health Psychol. doi: 10.1177/1359105321999088.
  5. Jacobs BB, Manfredi RA. The silver linings of COVID-19: Uplifting effects of the pandemic. Acad Emerg Med. 2021;28(3):380-382.


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