Betterment is a perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality. To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only humans ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a doctor is to live so that one's life is bound up in others' and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility. The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.
Atul Gawande M.D., M.P.H., from the book Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance
No one in my family is a doctor. I'm frightened by and in awe of doctors in the same way I'm frightened by pain, yet completely in awe of the transformative power it wields, mentally, physically. So when I read a book, written by a doctor who is also a writer and -- turns out -- a human, too, I can't help think about it for a while. Mainly, I wonder, do any of his words make sense when applied to my own life? My own humble work?
We all want to be better.
Better at our jobs, better at our relationships, better at being human. My hands don't save lives, but they work. Could I take Gawande's advice to the medical profession for how to be better and apply it to the work lying here in front of me?
I'll not list his specific suggestions for becoming a "positive deviant," but I'll make the suggestion to read his work; he is an exceptional writer and speaker.
What I will do is list the questions I found myself asking of myself while I read, and still ask now:
Am I curious enough?
You don't know everything -- even about your own work -- so what else can you discover? Do you know who your peers are? You probably know who's led the way, who you disagree with, or admire or long to mentor with, but more importantly, do you know the work of the generation surging behind you? Do you know who nips at your heels? Is the tide rising or lowering? What if you sought these people out and asked them questions about their lives, their motivation ... what would you learn? This information could inform your work, make it better. Aside from curiosity, one could even call it kindness.
Am I being a whiner? Again?
How many times have we gathered and found ourselves slipping into the same complaints with the same groups of people? How many times have you really solved problems with this technique? Maybe we could have alternative topics in our back pockets, a way of steering a conversation gone sour, not to ignore a topic, but to at least give it a rest for a while. Maybe we'd be better at finding solutions, or at least finding a sense of peace if we weren't so pissed off about the unfairness of it all, all the damned time.
What could I be analyzing?
If you try to find answers in the way science does, by counting, comparing, analyzing the differences and outcomes, then odd connections may lead to insight about your work or yourself. Gawande writes, "If you count something interesting, you will learn something interesting." We can all be better counters, better comparers, better analyzers.
Do I really have something to say?
If you are writing -- as you should be -- and finding and willing an audience to read your words, then are you also editing? Are you distilling thoughts in a meaningful way, or burping up some free-writing to send out into the world? Because it could be that the place for the latter is a private journal. Not every thought needs to be shared with everyone, all the time. Be a better editor. Write meaningfully. Succinctly.
And lastly, why do I resist change?
Because you are afraid. To be better means taking risks. But even if a risk makes you worse for a while, the experience may make you better, eventually. Be patient. Wait for "eventually." Stop resisting change and see what happens.
In the meantime, pay attention to the little things, all the small clues that add up to something much larger and require immediate action. Someone you love might need a doctor. And he'll need to be still and rest for 72 hours so he can get better.