I Quit Neurosurgery for Pottery! Meet Cliff Lee.

When Dr. Cliff Lee announced to his colleagues that he was quitting neurosurgery to pursue pottery, they thought he had gone “pots,” no pun intended. Cliff Lee was a hardworking neurosurgeon who sometimes performed as many as 8 surgeries a day, working 12 – 14 hours a day for 6 to 7 days a week. The discipline and ethics of hard work instilled in him by his parents have always guided Cliff in everything he set out to do.

During a conversation with one of his patients, Cliff casually mentioned that he was looking for a hobby which would help him relax. This particular patient was a potter, and invited Cliff to visit their studio. He accepted the invitation. “As soon as I touched clay, I fell in love” says Cliff, “time went by so fast, like meditation. Not too long after that, I started making pottery in my basement, every day after work.”

As his interest and passion grew, he realized that though he was a great neurosurgeon, it did not give him the fulfillment and sense of satisfaction he got from making pots. Cliff Lee ignored all opposition to his decision, took a sabbatical from work and enrolled in a ceramics course. He was smitten. He had found his passion and was determined to pursue it, even if it meant disappointing his parents and taking a whopping pay cut -- from $250,000 a year to a tenth of that.

As a kid being raised in Taiwan, he was surrounded by Chinese ceramics at home and during frequent visits to museums. Lee says his parents were collectors of ceramics, and took the family on frequent trips to museums, including the National Palace Museum in Taipei. “Subconsciously or unconsciously, I was influenced and educated, visually.”  Lee loves to work with his hands. As a young doctor he used them to perform delicate brain surgery. He uses the same talent to create amazing works of art with clay. While Lee sees parallels between being a surgeon and a ceramic artist, he says there are differences. And jokingly quips that “the clay doesn’t talk back to me, and there’s no liability in case I make a mistake. I can redo it over and over again. I just feel this total freedom,” he says.

During my conversation with Cliff, he noted over and over again how much fulfillment and satisfaction he gains from working with clay. This affirms what living in your Sweet Spot is all about; fulfillment first, money secondary. This process did not happen in one day, but it took Cliff about 3 – 4 years to completely quit neurosurgery and pursue pottery full time. All this happened between 1975 and 1980. Today, Cliff Lee’s works can be found in the collections of the prestigious Renwick Gallery, Mint Museum of Craft & Design, Racine Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum in New York and the White House Collection of American Craft, among others.

Image Credits: Cliff Lee image from http://www.craftinamerica.org/artists/cliff-lee/ and pottery images from http://cliffleeporcelain.com




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