Medicine, literature and busking: Financial advice from Vincent Lam

The 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner chronicles his rise from hungry student to physician and best selling author.



From the September/October 2010 issue of the magazine.


Like many teens, I was conflicted about what to do with my life. My passion was literature. I wanted to write. Meanwhile, I leveled with myself and accepted the fact that I was partial towards solvency, not a notable feature of the writing life. I decided that I would need a job. Medicine, I reasoned, would expose me to the theatre of humanity and thus inform my writing, while allowing me to pay my bills. This roundabout reasoning led to my interest in medicine.

The prevailing wisdom was that medical school admission required high marks, research experience, and demonstrated altruism. I enrolled in a biology program at the University of Ottawa. In my first semester, I nearly flunked out (I was reading too many novels), but pulled myself together in my second semester. I volunteered at a hospital. I applied for a summer research scholarship but was turned down, likely due to my dismal grades. No matter. Lack of funding would not deter me, and I began to make phone calls. I approached professors, explained that I was willing to work for free, and was soon involved in a molecular biology project concerning N-type calcium channels.

This arrangement was perfect, except for the immediate question of money. Although I had created my very own income-free job opportunity, my fiscally neurotic inner psyche could not tolerate an income-free summer. I scratched my head for dough-generating ideas. I inventoried my skills: I could pass a test; I could write a sappy short story; I could devour a novel. These were non-paying skills. I was a pretty good violinist. Aha! During the weekends, I would busk.

One Saturday morning, I donned my tuxedo, chose a street corner in Ottawa’s ByWard Market, opened my violin case, and began to play. I felt some fear of the unknown, a dose of self-consciousness, and an emotional quality best described as entrepreneurial zeal. With the first coins that dropped into my case, I tasted the excitement of having plucked opportunity out of thin air, being paid for it, and played with every bit of my expressiveness and skill. I was rewarded by smiles and words of appreciation, by couples who lingered, and by the clink of coins in my violin case.

At that time, there was no licensing or regulation of buskers in Ottawa. There was only the code which was explained to me by my fellow buskers, and carefully adhered to by all. One mustn’t impede foot traffic, and one only stayed at any corner for an hour, as some street corners were naturally more lucrative than others. I got along well with my fellow street musicians—some were students like myself, some were struggling to break into a professional music career, and some were life-long buskers.

Another principle which I quickly understood was the importance of delivering quality work in a professional and agreeable manner. The happier I was and the better I played, the more listeners lingered, the happier they were, and the more coins clinked into my violin case. At the end of the day, my feet were sore, my finger calluses tingled, and the violin case was awkward because the resin-box at the end was weighed down by several pounds of coins.

By the end of that summer, I had my name on a scientific paper, and more money in the bank than when the summer had begun. The following summer, I landed a well-paid research job on the strength of my earlier lab work, and continued to busk. Eventually, I applied to several medical schools. I arrived at my interviews eager to discuss calcium channels, and how I hoped to do good in the world as a doctor. Instead, I was asked about busking. I had included ‘street musician’ in my curriculum vitae, and this must have been a pink penguin in a sea of black and white applications.

Now that I’m an emergency physician, I understand that medicine and busking have a lot in common—both require professionalism, stamina, and skilled performance in a chaotic environment. At the time, I didn’t expect that busking would be a signpost in the route that got me into medical school. But along with good grades and the research, busking helped me to earn the best possible payoff—a medical school admission. The route of life, it turns out, can be unpredictable.

Why was I so concerned about earning money, anyway? I wanted to pay for school, and I’ve always been debt-averse. Between my busker earnings, money from research jobs, and some help from my parents, I got through my undergraduate degree and a year of medical school before I needed a student loan. Some of the payoff has been non-monetary too—I still believe that taking initiative, working well with colleagues, and delivering quality work eventually leads to rewards. As both a doctor and writer, I still have a bit of the busker in me, whether I’m standing in front of a patient or sitting at my writing desk. A violin case full of pocket change can really add up.

Vincent Lam is an emergency physician and winner of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

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