The Problem of the Pedestal

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

In the iconic scene from the Dead Poet Society, Robin Williams encourages each of the students, members of the class to take their turn standing on top of the desk. One by one each pupil files up to the front of the class, stands on top of the desk, and looks out at the world from atop their new perch. The purpose of this exercise is to gain new perspective, a new view on the world. Instead of viewing their world, in this case the classroom, through a single, unvarying lens, they were given the opportunity to view the world from a fresh point of view, looking down at the world from the above. The point made is well taken and is critically important. Even small changes in a familiar situation can be large shifts in perspective and provide new ways that one may think of the world. Visiting the next door neighbor and looking back at one’s own abode provides an entirely different view and understanding of the house in relation to other houses than is typically enjoyed on a day to day basis. 

The reverse is also true. There is always the danger when standing atop the desk that this becomes the new status quo. That looking down upon the world becomes the new normal, the perceived reality. In extreme examples of this, such as the rockstar or movie star, one believes they are truly worth all of the hype, all of the adoring fans which they now enjoy. The top of the desk takes the place as the new status quo, and escaping the deadly grasp of the fame and applause can be all but impossible. The problem of the pedestal is not distinct from the problem of the pupil’s desk. Both are problems of restricted perspective and the acceptance that the current perception of reality from a fixed vantage point is objective truth. The problem is not a problem of the pedestal itself, but a problem of how static one’s place upon that pedestal becomes. The problem of pupil’s desk is not a problem of the pupil’s desk itself, but a problem of the inability to find another perspective. 

Multiple perspectives is the antidote to the problem of the pedestal. Triangulation, that is using multiple sources of information and data to locate an object or person, increases in accuracy with the number of sources of information that are utilized. Gaining multiple perspectives provides the same increase in accuracy. Seeing one’s position in the world, one’s place and role, one’s own striving and shortcomings from multiple perspectives more accurately paints a vivid picture of one’s true standing in relation to the world and others. At every stage in life, multiple perspectives should be sought out. Teaching and learning must occur simultaneously. If you often find yourself in a place where you are placed on a pedestal, seek experiences where you are unranked, unproven, the bottom of the totem pole. If you often find yourself at the bottom of the pecking order, always in the learner’s chair, find a place where you can practice leading and stick around long enough to train any newcomers. 

Seek out many perspective. Often change your view of the world and your place within. If you find yourself embracing the comfort and familiarity of your current perspective, the time has come to add a new perspective.

The best perspective is multiple perspectives.

The Happiest Place

Photo by Jayme McColgan

The happiest place on earth. That’s a lot of pressure. A place that you arrive to and are then forced to think, “this is the best that there is.” As you mill around in the line again it hits you, “It’s all downhill from here”. Later as you exit a creative ride with catchy music playing in the background, it dawns on you again, “I will never be as happy as this again.” After the fireworks show, the smell of Carmel corn in the air, you slowly meander out through the pleasantly lit streets. As you pass through the wrought iron gate, it hits you- everywhere is now a place of less happiness, of greater sadness and disappointment. “Is that it? Is that all?” You find yourself wondering. 

Vacations, recreation, and fun are, of course a great thing. They can snap the ordinary routine, invite us to think in new and exciting ways, and of course give us a respite from the daily grind. There are times when the festivities, the ceremony, and the hype is warranted and even helpful. Times when everyone wants to be carried on the notes coming from the stage, to drift along a glassy river, to pick things solely for pleasure and enjoyment, without any ulterior motive. Yet with happiness and satisfaction dictated as the delta between expectations and reality, promising to be the top, the ultimate experience appears dicey at best. 

Happiness makes a poor goal, a terrible target. Aim for happiness and you are sure to end up with empty hands. Perhaps the only way to actually guarantee unhappiness is to only pursue your own happiness and momentary pleasure every moment of every day. Aim for happiness and you will miss meaning and happiness. Yet if one selects meaning, that is endeavors to fill one’s time with things that elevate the status and standing of themselves and those around them, happiness, true happiness is the natural by-product. 

Perhaps the happiest place on earth is not the place where entertainment and sweet confections abound, but rather where good people work together on interesting problems. Perhaps one doesn’t need to travel long distances, purchase costly tickets, or wait in long lines to find an even happier place. Perhaps the happiest place can be a transformation of precisely where they are at this very moment. 

Make this place the happiest place on earth. 

Course Correction

Photo by Casey Horner @mischievous_penguins

One of the most dangerous decisions in life is unmonitored change. In medicine, making a change, whether it be a procedure, a medication, a lifestyle modification, or another form of therapy, requires follow-up. In many cases, this follow-up is equally, if not more important than the actual change. Follow-up may take a variety of forms. In some cases the follow-up is merely a symptoms check at a scheduled point in time. If the medication is for pain, depression, itching, swelling, gastrointestinal irregularity, or a whole host of other maladies, often the most important follow-up is whether those symptoms are improving, staying the same, or getting worse. In other cases, additional testing, whether checking blood pressure, specific blood levels, specialized laboratory tests, or repeat imaging may be the appropriate follow-up. While the change itself is, of course, important, the follow-up is essential. Is the new medication causing cramping? Is there new electrolyte abnormalities? Is there new side effects? The follow-up is critical because, while most changes do not result in immediate catastrophic events, continuing the current course without any plan to monitor and correct comes at the risk of an avoidable, significant adverse event in the future. In medicine this is why follow-up labs, imaging, appointments, and check-ins are vital. 

The same applies to life. Often the change itself is emphasized as the significant and important event. And of course this is true. Whether a new job, a new living situation, a new hobby, or a new relationship whether romantic or platonic, the follow-up is equally important. Starting a new job is a sentinel event, however once that new job is started it is uncommon to reevaluate whether they are accomplishing their larger life goals, whether their life is enhanced, and whether they could be doing something greater with their time. The same goes for a relationship, a house, or a hobby. Starting any of these things is exciting and important, however reevaluating at a specific point or points in the future is absolutely essential lest irreparable damage be done and irretrievable time be lost. 

The importance of the cycle of change and follow-up applies not only to macroscopic changes but also to the microscopic changes. Small changes within the job or the workday should be monitored to determine whether they enhance or detract from efficiency and productivity. Small changes in relationships should be reevaluated around the coffee table at specific, scheduled intervals. Changes to diet, exercise, morning routine, nighttime routine, even driving route, should be evaluated after these changes are made. Small course corrections prevent critical failures in navigation. A ship navigating the sea stays on course by routinely monitoring their position relative to fixed objects. Imaging a ship that navigated by making a change in course without plans to measure their position after a short interval to determine how that change had affected their overall trajectory. It would be highly unlikely that they would maintain their planned course and come anywhere close to their intended destination. Course corrections in life require follow-up lest small changes lead to large consequences. There is a constant, ongoing process of change and evaluation.

Follow-up is essential.

Good People, Interesting Problems

Photo by John Ko

Good people, interesting problems 

Most people do not have a singular driving passion, something that keeps them awake at night, something that wakes them up in the morning. They have many interests and enjoy doing multiple things. Their passion is not like an itch that relentless perturbs their consciousness reminding them that it is there. The majority of people do not have one passion that leaves them simultaneously breathless with excitement as well as nauseous with anxiety. Given the choice between their passion and Disneyland or a trip to an exotic island, most would be found a week later with mouse ears or a dark tan. And this is not a bad thing. 

So what do people without a singular driving passion do? How do they discover themselves or find meaning to their occupation. Are they doomed to years of mundane tasks and meaningless work? Of course not. Rather, this far more common path allows, in fact encourages, one to determine meaning and purpose as they go. Passion than follows. 

Good people and interesting problems are the two key components to finding meaning and pleasure in an occupation. A good group of people is absolutely essential. Hopefully the group is united by curiosity yet is largely heterogenous with people with different expertise, with different backgrounds, and with different ideas. While good people alone is enough to have a good time for a day or two, interesting problems are absolutely essential to long term meaning and purpose. Interesting questions unite the group and focus individuals on a common goal. 

There is a false, yet common belief that there is a dearth of good people to work with or interesting problems to be solved. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The problem is that many of the good people and the interesting problems that are the most visible are difficult to break into, and for good reason- they are already highly functional, developed, and productive. Yet there are near endless numbers of interesting problems and millions of good people that have yet to be tapped. Thankfully, many of these people do not have a singular driving passion and are thus able to unite around a common passion and goal. 

One final thought bears mentioning. Often the two of these are inextricably linked. Good people are attracted to interesting problems and interesting problems are often uncovered and refined by good people. If you have an incredible problem and a worthwhile solution, the good people will be naturally drawn in. Perhaps slowly at first, but they will come. Additionally if you find yourself amidst great and talented people that do not have a unifying passion, there are a plethora of unmet needs, common problems, and compelling obstacles to rally around. A good problem will present itself. 

Start with good people and an interesting problem. 

A Greater Game Is Afoot

Photo by Varun Yadav

A greater game is afoot.

Is there something beneath the surface that goes unseen yet underlies, even drives, everything that is seen above the surface? Does face value represent true value or is it a facade disguising something greater beneath? Does the image that our eyes perceive represent truth or is it merely an image masquerading as the truth. This is not to say that the superficial question, our surface impression is wrong or bad, simply that there is a greater reality, a greater game that is not readily apparent. 

Often families of patients who are critically ill will be, very reasonably, highly concerned about the condition of their loved one. Occasionally families or friends will fixate on specific values in the blood work or numbers in the chart. Fluctuations in electrolytes or blood markers become the focus of long conversations and debates. The superficial concern about potassium, sodium, creatinine, or blood cells overlies the far deeper concern regarding the overall state of the patient and their recovery. It is easy to answer the superficial question with a long discussion of electrolytes, buffers, cellular shifts, and repletion scales, yet this merely reinforces the focus on the superficial question without addressing the underlying concern. Addressing the overall condition and goals of the patient is far more reassuring and productive than a biochemistry lesson. Recognizing the greater game is essential to patient care. 

Game recognition is played out, either effectively or ineffectively, in relationships every day. Nearly all of the things that are points of contention and argument are not the points of conflict in and of themselves, but rather represent a greater underlying concerns. Being prompt is rarely about the technical aspects of showing up on time but rather communicating to the other party that their time is valued. Choosing the type of food is not about the food but rather valuing the desires of the other person. The five love languages, described by Gary Chapman, are simply distal manifestations communicating proximal commitment and love. Gifts are not about the object being transferred but are entirely about communicating that one party was thinking about and contemplating the likes and dislikes of the person whom they love. Quality time is not about the number of minutes and seconds but is entirely about intentionally selecting the other person over other activities and relationships. Words of affirmation are not about paying compliments but are entirely about valuing and recognizing the characteristics of the other individual. Physical touch is not about contact between epidermal surfaces but is about choosing to attend to the comfort and happiness of the other. Acts of service are not about the task being completed but about careful contemplation of the needs of the other person and the prioritization of those needs above personal needs. Without recognition of the greater game, love languages are simply dry exchanges, compulsory tasks without the robust and vibrant interplay between two individuals that is the point and goal, the greater game. Recognizing the greater game is essential to relationships. 

Game recognition is essential to allowing creativity and out of the box thinking. When a boss instructs you to shovel dirt from one pile to another to fill in a hole (something I have done at a couple points, usually when it was hot and dry, usually without a clear point), the point is not that the shovel must be used or that the dirt from above ground must be removed. Instead the point is that a hole must be filled in before the task can be considered complete. Recognition of this fact opens up many options for solving the problem instead of limiting possibilities to a single entity. This same concept plays out in radically more complex scenarios from running codes in the hospital to doing procedures to testing hypotheses and publishing papers. Without recognition of the greater game, taking initiative and complex problems solving is impossible. Recognizing the greater game is essential to productivity and creative thinking. 

Perhaps the most difficult thing about recognizing the greater game that is afoot is maintaining vigilance that there is always a greater game afoot. The default is superficial recognition because it is easier, requires less energy, and society is accepting of this status quo. This is one of the powerful benefits to practices like meditation and mindfulness. These practices force us to step outside of the immediate task and refocus on the greater picture. In a world with so much information available to anyone, anywhere, synthesis of relevant information into whole pictures, true games, is inestimably valuable.

The greatest game is to recognize that there is always a greater game afoot. 

Everyone is a visionary

Photo: Greg Rakozy

Everyone is a visionary. Everyone has a vision, an image of who they are, of their place in the world. However, it is up to each individual whether their visions are grand or small, whether they aspire to new heights or prefer to remain within the safety of the known. Throughout history, the greatest people of each generation were defined by their ability to see a picture of the future that no one else could see and their ceaseless drive to make that picture into a reality. Every individual must have a picture of who they envision themselves to be in the future and what they envision the future to be like around them. Without such a vision, without this fixed point, present strivings are turned to meaningless motion within a sea of ambivalence.

Visions are dynamic, far from static depictions of two dimensional images at a single point in time. Each vision should be ever changing as the collective knowledge is ever changing and the outer reaches of human understanding are constantly expanding. Visions should change as new opportunities present themselves. Serendipitous occurrences should be taken advantage of with great enthusiasm. Thus changes in vision entail a retooling of the vision, not the loss of vision. 

Everyone is a visionary, many just have weak visions. Many fail to construct a compelling picture of who they see themselves to be in the future and an even poorer visions of the world they see surrounding them. Even more difficult, many fail to maintain that vision amidst the plethora of swirling distractions clamoring for their attention.

Clarify your vision, refine your vision. Be intentional about building a greater vision, and once it is build tirelessly strive towards that vision. 

Everyone is a visionary. 

Advocates

Photo by Brecht Denali

Ask anyone to name the most important people in their lives, those who have made the biggest impact on who they are as a person, on how they have grown over the years, and you will invariably get a list of teachers, coaches, parents, siblings, friends, employers, and the like. The unifying attribute amongst the most important people is that each role entails a staunch advocate, an unwavering supporter. Whether a teacher, coach, parent, mentor, older sibling or simply a good friend, each one takes on the role of an advocate. Cheering from the sidelines, pushing and prodding when one has all but given up. 

The classic role of an advocate is that of one who takes up the cause of another, who petitions on another’s behalf. It is the one who battles and wars for the benefit of another, who will not be silent or stand by when outside forces attempt to trample them underfoot. These are the lawyers who entreat on behalf of their clients, the loyal friends who look for ways to bolster one another up. These are the competitors who make one another better, mutually advocating for one another to achieve a higher goal. 

The outstanding advocates in our lives advocate not only on our behalf to others, but on our behalf to ourselves. These are the parents who consistently demonstrate uncompromising standards combined with unconditional love. These are the coaches who exhort towards excellence from the sidelines. These are the friends who say “I always knew” when success is achieved. These are the teachers who stay after hours to challenge their students, the free thinking pastors denying both culture and denomination in a quest for truth, meandering though the way may be.  

When we give up on ourselves, they remind us of our worth, our value, how far we have come, and the prize which lays at the finish line. When we overextend ourselves, they speak caution and calm, reminding us that a long journey is ahead. When we lose our way they are our compass. When we forget all that surrounds us, they are our map. 

The best people are advocates. The best part of a person advocates on behalf of another. Who are we advocating for? For whom have we come alongside to push a heavy cart and lighten their burden. For whom are we cheering for, willing on to success? Who knows that we are in their corner no matter what, there to prop them up, encourage them, and bolster them as they get back into the fight. Do we advocate on their behalf to others, and just as important, to themselves as well? 

In gratitude for the advocates who are in our corner, looking towards being ever better advocates for others in the future. 

Clarity and Energy

Photo by Anton Lecock

During an interview Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was asked what trait he looked for in new hires. Contemplating the question, he responded, 

“Do they create clarity? Do they create energy”  

Energy and clarity, two characteristics that are invaluable not only within the workplace but in all areas of life. 

Not only is the presence of energy and clarity inestimably valuable, but the presence of the reciprocal attribute is correspondingly inestimably detrimental. Apathy is contagious derailing even the best laid plans and strategies. Likewise confusion takes abundant energy and converts it to worthless drivel. To have only one is worthless at best and harmful at worst. Energy with confusion is mania. Clarity without energy is static. Start-ups often have an abundance of energy, a plethora of enthusiasm but lack the clarity needed to win in the long run. Likewise, ideas in academia often stagnate as there is great clarity to a project but little urgency within institutions known for tenure and long-winded discussions. 

Both energy and clarity are essential. Proverbs emphasizes this in contrasting stereotypes of the youth and the elder in chapter 20 verse 29. “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair (ESV).”  During ones youth, energy is abundant. The struggle during youth is containing this abundant energy. The common encouragement for the young is to sit back, to think, to contemplate. Get a group of young people together and there will be plenty of energy with little trajectory. Conversely, the gray hair to which the Proverb refers, speaks to the experience and wisdom which comes from many years spent walking the earth. The common struggle for the elderly is to get going, to muster up the energy to get moving, to get things done. Energy and clarity are required at all ages, yet there is a proclivity to different ends of the spectrum at different ages. 

The first question must always be aimed inward. Am I someone who generates energy? Am I someone who generates clarity? Most importantly, are there areas where I am weighing the energy down through complaining and indifference? Are there areas where I am creating confusion through using too many words or perhaps because the plan remains unorganized in my own head? 

The second question is then aimed outward. Who around me embodies both of these things- bringing both clarity and energy to every situation. Conversely who around me embodies apathy and confusion? In what ways can we bolster the former and sequester the latter? The longstanding success of every endeavor depends on the combination of these two. With energy short term gains may be realized as energy is contagious. But clarity is required to build a long term trajectory, an organization that is capable of withstanding a changing environment. 

Proverbs 29:18 reads, “Without vision the people perish (KJV)” . Without clarity everything is lost. Proverbs 6: 10-11 emphasizes the importance of energy. “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest– and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (NIV).” Both energy and clarity are required in tandem.

Do I bring energy?
Do I bring clarity?

Guarding fire

Guard carefully the fire that burns inside you. Remember how feeble the flame was at first, how it quivered in the frigid air, how the slightest breeze threatened to extinguish it. Remember how you nursed it along, with bits of the choice fuel, using your body to protect it from the winds. Remember the feeling when it sprang to life and grew of its own accord, when the flame multiplied into a robust fire.

Do not take for granted the comfort of the flames, the warmth it provides for it can always be taken away at any time. Left untended, even for a short while, the flame, once robust and seemingly invincible, may slowly fade and die. Without fuel, without air, the flame will go out, returning your world to darkness and cold. 

Guard your fire with your life, for it gives your days meaning and your movements purpose. Guard your fire for it is your life, for without it your days are meaningless and your movements void. There are those all around who’s fire has gone out. Empty shells who continue on an uncontemplated trajectory simply because they know not what else to do, who trudge on because a body in motion will stay in motion and there is no force, no will, no fire to direct them in a different path. 

Guard your fire well, tend it with all your might and you will be kept warm on the coldest days and your vision clear through the darkest nights. Stoke your fire and fuel it well and it will light the fires of those around you. The fire that burns within you will provide the spark, the energy to activate a fire in your neighbor. 

Guard your fire well. 

Tend your fire with care.

Again

Repetition is the basis of excellence. Do it until you get it right. Keep doing it until you cannot do it wrong.

Repetition is where learning starts. As toddlers and children, repetition is how memory is built, muscles are developed into functional units, and how language is learned. The importance of repetition extends all the way to the masters and experts within a field. Malcolm Gladwell emphasizes this in the book “Outliers” where the 10,000 rule is noted; the idea that at least 10,000 hours is required to master a field or discipline. In many cases, the hours are likely significantly more. How much time is 10,000 hours? How many repetitions is that? How many iterations, are held within those 10,000+ hours? Striving towards mastery one assumes that extra effort, beyond the 9-to-5 is being exerted, with time in the evenings or on the weekends devoted to ones craft. At 60 hours a week, for 48 weeks a year, the 10,000 mark is reached in just under 4 years. Incidentally this is approximately the amount of time for an undergraduate or graduate degree. 

There are disparate reactions to this. The first is surprise at how long this is, the second surprise at how brief. If mastery is accomplished in significantly less than 10,000 it is likely a field in which mastery is not highly valuable. The emphasis here is that this is MASTERY, not merely competence. Whether medicine, computer programming, law, or any number of other tasks, basic competency can be achieved at or below 10,000 hours. Yet to be a true master, to be exploring the fringe of the known and the unknown, requires enormous repetition. 

Many attending physicians have incredible stories. Many have lived through many eras of medicine- some before HIV drugs were discovered, others when cancer therapies were still in their infancy. Even decades after a particular patient, they can envision specific patients, specific disease manifestations, or other interesting aspects in the case. Often they even remember the family of the patient. These repetitions, achieved over decades, not hours or years, are where true mastery is developed. 

Often repetition feels monotonous, like the background drone of an airplane. When it goes on for long enough there may even be a sense of futility, a sense of repetition without improvement or purpose. Perhaps there is a sense of numbness, perhaps even a loss of purpose for brief periods along the way. Yet it is in these repetitions that true mastery, expertise, is developed. Anyone can do something once. A blind squirrel will eventually find a nut. Only a master performs Every. Single. Time. 

Do it until you get it right. Keep doing it until you cannot do it wrong.

This is the basis of excellence.