We have all heard the platitudes from commencement addresses, “Follow your passion, follow your dreams, and the world will beat a path to your door.”
Although well intentioned, this advice does not consistently work and may lead to frustration and bitterness and missed opportunities. Volumes have been written about that small percentage of the gene pool that makes a meaningful contribution to society through a skill set or device or a perspective. The inventor, the scientist, the entrepreneur—what secrets can we learn from them?
Story 1: There is a magnificent turn-of-the-century mansion in southeast Minnesota. It is the venue for high-end dinners and banquets and celebrations of professional achievements and acknowledgments of individuals who have made major contributions to medicine and science.
Although I have never been invited to play the piano in the grand ballroom (and there is my piano reference for this story), I have on occasion used it for practice. A recent evening honored a beloved colleague after approximately 35 years of service. As I listened to his incredible accomplishments, I thought to myself, “How did this all happen?”
Dr. John (we’ll call him) grew up in the rural South. His college did not rank among the Ivy League. His medical school was fairly pedestrian, and his early career did not signal potential greatness. But what he did have was a curiosity about a group of patients with dreadful cancers arising from the head and neck.
These patients often had very challenging lifestyles beset with alcoholism and smoking. They were not always the most compliant patients, and most came from low-income areas too. My medical colleague was interested in them as individuals, and word soon spread that he was willing to work these patients into his already packed schedule.
He did not start out his career focusing on these kinds of patients and their problems, but as he did the same work over and over again, he became adept at handling their problems. His curiosity fueled an expertise in an area that most colleagues shunned.
He was humble. He was organized. And he had the idea of a clinic focusing only on these patients. This led to the concept of a multidisciplinary collaboration in the clinic with the speech therapist, radiation oncologist, social worker, and nurses and support staff who recognized upfront how challenging these cancer patients could be.
Specialty clinics have now become standard in most medical centers, but the collaborative idea was revolutionary at that time. There were concerns about expense, personnel, and resources, but this visionary physician persevered. He was tenacious and did the right thing for patients who had significant medical as well as social and economic challenges.
At his retirement dinner, held in the mansion (where I was not invited to play the piano), he shared with the audience a self-deprecating humor that he was not the brightest student in medical school. He didn’t exactly ace the standard examinations for competence, but he was hardworking and determined to get proficient in dealing with these sorts of patients. And he achieved international status as a celebrity, not because of his brilliance but because of his curiosity and tenacity.
Story 2: I graduated from New York Medical School in 1970. This was not exactly the Ivy League of East Coast medical schools either. Of my 120 classmates from lower-tier colleges, I honestly do not remember any superstars who were destined for professional notoriety—except for one (insert self-deprecating humor here).
During my first year of medical school, I shared an apartment with another soon-to-be-doctor, Bob, in a rundown area of New York City. It was a place of bars, storefront churches, laundromats, and broken dreams. Alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence—all the evils of the urban landscape were in sharp relief. But I was not a complainer. I was just happy to have been accepted in medical school.
Among us first-year medical students was the recurring question about the path that we wished to take. Was it clinical care, research, surgery, or some other specialty?
Like most of us, Dr. Bob had absolutely no idea what he would be doing. During downtime in the evening, I vividly remember him with a needle and thread trying to sew together two hard-boiled eggs. He also would spend hours tying knots in cubes of Jell-O and then experimenting if he could raise the cube of Jell-O by the string without tearing through the cube.
On occasion late at night he would tie knots around chairs in an almost hypnotic zen-like haze. Needless to say, he became amazingly skilled at these tricks and would challenge us to try to duplicate his suturing prowess. Most of us had no interest in these gimmicks and simply dismissed him as being a little different.
Both Dr. Bob and Dr. John followed the wise advice from Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team. Cuban advised to get really good at something because no one quits something that they’re very good at.
Dr. John became skilled at dealing with patients with complex cancers of the head and neck, and he had organizational insight to create a clinic for them.
And Dr. Bob, who mastered the art of stitching hard-boiled eggs and Jell-O together, became an internationally acclaimed cardiac surgeon who pioneered complex cardiac surgery, which was thought to be impossible from a technical standpoint. Dr. Bob was no longer sewing together eggs and Jell-O but was healing broken hearts in patients who came to see him from throughout the world. He transformed the world of complex cardiac surgery.
Me? I’m still working on that piano thing.