Why Self-Learners Rule The 21st Century

Why Self-Learners Rule The 21st Century

This is the fifth post of a series on Individuality. Check out the firstsecondthird, and fourth article.

 

Self-learners rule the 21st century. Never before has it been so important and so easy to be an autodidact. Why? Because information is abundant and free.

 

If in times past self-learning was optional, today, not so much. Being able to educate ourselves is an essential skill to get ahead in this century.

 

It goes without saying that the Internet has completely transformed the way we learn and interact with information. Knowledge is no longer a privilege owned by a select few, locked up in institutions of higher learning or university libraries; it belongs to the mass. Anyone can access and generate new knowledge, repackage it and spread it back to the public. The cost of transmitting knowledge is close to zero.

 

Yet there is still a cost to be self-educated in the 21st century. It may not be money, but it still requires time and effort on our part. The good news is that it only depends on us. The bad news is that it only depends on us.

 

I’d say take it as good news, because if you embrace self-learning, opportunities await.

 

Because of information abundance, new phenomena emerge in society. New opportunities surface that previously were not prominent. What kinds of leadership are up for grabs in the Internet age? How do you distinguish yourself amidst the chatter, tweets, snaps, and selfies?

 

Here are 4 core ways you can create opportunities for yourself in the 21st century. Hint: all of them require self-learning.

 

Stories, Not Facts

 

With facts only a few keystrokes away, it is no longer crucial to be the person with an encyclopedic brain. Any ol’ John Doe can fact-check. Plus, no matter how much trivia a person knows, he can’t beat the collective knowledge of thousands of people. Wherein then lies the expertise?

 

The pivotal skill is in what one does with his knowledge. It’s not enough to know; you need to process that knowledge and produce something else. Memorization for the sake of memorization is becoming obsolete, unless your work needs to be done without the Internet.

 

Because information is ubiquitous, people naturally get overwhelmed. Out of this information-fatigue, a need emerges for leaders who can make some sense out of the facts. These are the people who can weave information together into stories, see nuances, assess and analyze. They are the ones who can synthesize across different subjects and disciplines, contextualize information, see connections and errors, and discern the signal from the noise.

 

There’s a new breed of leaders and influencers who curates and guides people to go where they need or want to go. Coaches, mentors, and thought leaders who can say, “Pay attention to this. Ignore that,” are born, because people don’t want to know everything; they just want to know the important things.

 

This guiding skill is a subjective one—no two people can do it exactly the same way. There’s no formula that you can plug in for every circumstance. The ones who can seize these leadership opportunities are the self-learners, those who can tap into their individualities to learn and create. They are the ones who can discover and tell their own stories.

 

Intrinsic Motivation, Not Carrots and Sticks

 

Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare. The world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is here, and it’s here to stay. Traditional universities are adapting to this development. Courses and great teachers, previously enclosed within university walls, are now accessible to the world much at a low cost or for free. Does that mean, though, that everyone now is as educated as a top university graduate?

 

Not really, because most people don’t take advantage of them. So for them, it doesn’t make any difference whether there’s one free course or a 4-year’s worth of college degree out there.

 

Who benefits the most from these online courses? Who would sign-up and follow the curriculum? Who will actually stick to the program and finish the whole way through? Only a very small fraction of the population: the highly motivated self-learners.

 

Have you ever tried taking a free online course? It’s quite challenging, because self-education requires greater discipline than imposed learning. When other things compete for your time, especially when you pay nothing for the course, most people would choose to abandon it. Maybe “choose” is not the right word here; most people will let the course be abandoned.

 

There’s a good explanation for this. When it comes to learning, we are trained most of our lives to respond to carrots and sticks—rewards and punishments. When these things are taken away, the external incentives disappear. There’s no major incentive for the learning itself and no punishment when an assignment is skipped. What remains is the intrinsic motivation, which, if absent, then all the MOOC in the world would not make any difference.

 

To take advantage of the world of MOOC, we’d have to re-program ourselves to commit harder and persevere. We ought to cultivate the love of learning and know how to maintain our own curiosity. Further, we should also know what courses to take that will best serve our time. Is committing tens of hours for a course worthwhile to do in the context of our life goals?

 

Of course as humans we still respond to incentives and losses, but the difference now is that we have to know how to set these up ourselves, not relying on someone else’s watch. Know what motivates yourself and propels you to move. Put money into it if necessary; have some skin in the game.

 

The world of MOOC is not education by checklist: fulfilling requirements to get a degree. Rather, it’s a purpose-driven one. You’ve got to make the courses work for you, not you for them. They need to serve your purpose, your goals.

 

Ch-ch-ch-changes

 

With the democratization of information, the dynamic of knowledge also changes. Knowledge morphs in a much more rapid pace than ever before, so it’s easy to be overwhelmed, feeling like you’re always behind, and always playing catch-up. In many fields, it is no longer sufficient to rely on classroom instructions. That degree you aspire to for 2 or 4 years may be obsolete by the time you graduate. The textbooks you study are already outdated by the time they get printed, because much more new knowledge has been generated during the time the book gets edited, compiled, proofread, and printed.

 

It is no longer enough to know a set of knowledge. One has to also know how to manage the changing world; how to always learn and keep up with new developments; how to contextualize knowledge; how to understand the arc in the history of a field. Skills are needed to keep a pulse on new developments without becoming a wired-rat that chases every new and shiny thing. While keeping one eye on new developments, the other eye needs to discern timeless principles through reflection.

 

These skills, which are lifelong assets, are not normally taught in schools. So what you need to do is to complement school with your own learning, because these skills have become essential to succeed. There’s never a time when you can relinquish the responsibility of educating yourself completely to other people. You need to seek them out yourself, develop your own method, find others who have figured it out, and seek pointers.

 

Gone are the days when you can get degrees and sit comfortably on them for the rest of your life. The types of work that does the same thing every single day is fading fast from our society. Those industrial days are gone and they’re not coming back. Today, life is about re-investing in and re-inventing ourselves.

 

Actions, Not Theories

 

Because new knowledge is unpredictable, it’s futile to sit and wait until you know everything to start doing anything. Action is more important than theories. Move and discover, and the learning will happen along the way. Those lessons learned may change too, though, so don’t hold on to pet theories too tightly. Experiment and see what holds true.

 

Practitioners and empiricists are becoming leaders these days. I should mention that the experiments they do are not the ones outlined explicitly step-by-step with expected results, like in school. These are the experiments that true innovators do, discovery by trial and error. Based on the results, they tweak, iterate, and refine.

 

The skill to experiment, to ask questions and develop methods to answer them ourselves, to think, to do, and to evaluate, is much in need today. It requires initiatives and it engages a person’s mind, body, and soul. It’s not easy, but those that develop it are going to be the leaders in this century.

 

 

I hope I’ve convinced you that it is imperative for all of us to develop and refine our self-learning skill. There simply is too much to lose otherwise. The great news is that this skill is not a magical superpower. Rather, it is more like a muscle that exists in every single person. It can be developed. Its growth depends on its usage and continuous practice.

 

Everyone can be a self-learner. I believe everyone has the stuff needed to be a leader in the 21st century and make an impact in other people’s lives. Use them, start taking actions; don’t wait until someone else tells you to.

 

Want more? Check out the others posts in the Individuality series:

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

 

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Ever owned a Honda? I have one. And I enjoy driving a Honda.

 

While reading the book A Whole New Engineer by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, a brilliant piece on the coming revolution in engineering education, I came across this gem from Soichiro Honda, the man who originated the now-giant car company.

 

In 1951, he wrote this manifesto to his employees in a company newsletter, also known as Honda’s Three Joys. You can find it here.

 

Honda Monthly No. 4

December 1, 1951

 

The Three Joys

 

I am presenting “The Three Joys” as the motto for our company. These are, namely, the joy of producing, the joy of selling, and the joy of buying.

 

The first of these, the joy of producing, is a joy known only to the engineer. Just as the Creator used an abundant will to create in making all the things that exist in the natural universe, so the engineer uses his own ideas to create products and contribute to society. This is a happiness that can hardly be compared to anything else. Furthermore, when that product is of superior quality so that society welcomes it, the engineers joy is absolutely not to be surpassed. As an engineer myself, I am constantly working in the hope of making this kind of product.

 

The second joy belongs to the person who sells the product. Our company is a manufacturer. The products made by our company pass into the possession of the various people who have a demand for them through the cooperation and efforts of all our agents and dealers. In this situation, when the product is of high quality, its performance is superior, and its price is reasonable, then it goes without saying that the people who engage in selling it will experience joy. Good, inexpensive items will always find a welcome. What sells well generates profits, as well as pride and happiness in handling those items. A manufacturer of products that do not bring this joy to people who sell those products is disqualified from being a manufacturer worthy of the name.

 

The third, the joy of the person who buys the product, is the fairest determiner of the products value. It is neither the manufacturer nor the dealer that best knows the value of the product and passes final judgment on it. Rather, it is none other than the purchaser who uses the product in his daily life. There is happiness in thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad I bought this.” This joy is the garland that is placed upon the products value. I am quietly confident that the value of our company’s products is well advertised by those products themselves. This is because I believe that they give joy to the people who buy them.

 

The Three Joys form our company’s motto. I am devoting all my strength in order to bring them to reality.

 

It is my hope that all of you, as employees of the company, will exert every effort so that you never betray this motto. I also hope that our agents will understand my desires in this regard so that we may continue to benefit from cooperation.

 

In the post-WWII era of assembly lines, in a mechanistic industry such as car manufacturing, I love that Honda understood that his was a human endeavor. Given that everyone involved was human, it was important to him to establish joy as the essential drive to live and work well. In a sense, this newsletter is very much in sync with our generation’s aspirations of combining work, passion, and play into one.

 

These three joys capture the essence of doing good work, that there’s pleasure in doing something well and doing something right. They’re timeless principles that every organization would do well to emulate.

 

Still curious? Couple this with how engineering needs to be a work with soul, using individuality as an asset in the joyful act of creating something, and how a creator uses his free will to transform a thought into reality.

 

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

This is the fourth post of a series on Individuality. Read the firstsecond, and third article.

 

What is the best way to learn? What is the precondition that ensures a learner gets the most out of whatever it is that she is learning?

 

Great classroom, inspiring teacher, well-written textbook, tools, and interactive software—they all assist learning. But these things are external; they belong to the environment. Is it surprising that the key to maximal learning needs to be internal, something that comes from inside the person?

 

The key to maximal learning is one simple thing: the will to learn. You will learn the most when you want to learn.

 

Curiosity, self-will, the drive to ask, to think, and to do is under appreciated. Yes, it’s talked about in motivational articles and books, but it is still treated as an extracurricular subject. It’s nice to have, but you don’t have to have it to survive. There’s not much program on how to train someone to be curious, especially for adults.

 

We were all curious when we were kids. It was so natural; we went after what we were curious about without much thought. But the growth to adulthood often does not sustain this pattern. I think it’s safe to say that many adults stop learning and being curious at some point.

 

How did we lose curiosity and how to get it back?

 

How to Kill Curiosity

 

Most people associate learning with school; school with the dread of endless classes, assignments, and exams, all of which are imposed upon them. Someone else told them they had to learn. The Pew Research Center in 2015 reported a reading survey that 28% of Americans did not read a book, in whole or in part, in the previous year. When broken down by age, the older people were, the less they read.

 

For most of someone’s first three decades of life, he goes through imposed learning. By this I mean that a set lesson has been prepared for the person and he simply goes through the program step by step. This structure can bring a lot of good, encouraging discipline and systematic learning. It also introduces the person to various subjects before he could develop his own interests. But the weakness in this general system is not in what it commits, but in what it omits.

 

Amidst the abundance of exams and standardized tests, it’s easy to forget to ask the question, what is it that the person wants to learn? How can we encourage him to continue to learn after all schooling is done?

 

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. Robert M. Hutchins

 

When learning is 100% imposed, a person is on the receiving end of someone else’s will and thought, with no account of his own will. If there is no space to exercise his own curiosity and self-will, is it really a wonder that he grows up into an adult with no motivation for learning? If the curiosity muscle doesn’t get exercised, it will atrophy.

 

Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

 

The general arc of our formal education goes from theoretical to practical. Learn the theories first on paper, then go out to practice them years later. The problem is that this gap takes a long time. Some never practice their knowledge until they’re in their twenties. They swim in theories without knowing what they are for; ever heard students say, “Why am I learning this for? I will never use this in my entire life!” By the time they get thrown into real life situations, they would have forgotten the important key lessons and they don’t know what to do.

 

What is missing is the synthesis of all the subjects they have learned in school. How does history connect to math and to the arts and to science? Why as a student in this age do I have to learn all these things? I don’t believe we spend enough time answering these types of synthesis questions.

 

Yet there may be an easier approach to address issues that stem from a theoretically overloaded learning system: practical knowledge.

 

In any class, the practical aspect of knowledge—how does a lesson apply to real life—is always the most interesting part of learning. So why not integrate this as part of the curriculum, not as an occasional insert to the classroom, but as the engine of learning.

 

When the connection between theories and practice happens, two things take place. First, you find out how the theories apply to real life. Oh, that’s what they mean by that. Second, you find out that not everything works like they do on paper, and they are called to make decisions and judgment based on wisdom and character, not just their intellect. This is about practical knowledge, the street know-how to handle what you don’t know, and to exist, live, and work as a full human being.

 

Individuality: An Engine for Learning

 

Exposing students face to face with real life problems would increase the likelihood of someone finding something that incites his interest. Inspiration, instead of lethargy, is more likely. It’s helping them find a personal connection to what they are learning, the birth of their individualities.

 

This feeding to the inner life of a student is the key to breeding self-learners who are motivated to contribute to society.

 

How do we train people who can identify with a problem and seek out the skills needed to solve that problem? How do we empower them and make them believe that they can learn and discover by themselves? If we could teach self-learning, the skill will be an asset that keeps compounding for the rest of the students’ lives.

 

The beauty of falling in love with a problem is that the multidisciplinary synthesis we struggle with in the classroom gets addressed naturally, because not one real life problem deals only with one particular subject. At the very least, it requires you to deal with other people, which automatically necessitate communication skills and empathy.

 

The key point is this: we should use our individuality as an engine for learning. Find what we’re interested in, and learn everything that interest touches. This is even more important when we’re out of school, now that no one’s telling us to study. If we were to grow, then we must exercise our own curiosity and self-will.

 

The good news is that we live in a century in which the democratization of learning is a reality. In the age of the Internet and open source learning, there is nothing that cannot be learned from books and online resources. Experts are a tweet away or an email away, and the 21st century rewards those who are generous with their expertise.

 

Don’t wait. Ask questions, find out what you’re curious about, and pursue it.

 

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey

 

 

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality: What Makes You, You

What makes you, you? This is the first of a series of posts on individuality. To begin, here are 10 thoughts on individuality. Agree/disagree? Feel free to comment!

 

  • Individuality. The you-ness that makes you, you. It’s your personality, your character, your history, your responses to situations, your decisions, all combined into one person, you. It’s what makes you unlike any other person on Earth and what makes no two people exactly alike.

 

  • Everything that makes you who you are—your biological traits, genetic heritage, ethnic background, the place of your birth and upbringing, your current location, all the places you’ve been and worked at, the people you’ve met, the people who have impacted your life, your cultural heritage, your entire life experiences, in the particular order that you experienced them, the books you’ve read, the things you’ve seen—all of these enrich you to tell your own unique story. It gives you a unique lens through which you see the world, a unique perspective that will tinge everything you do.

 

  • This unique perspective is a gift that you can give to the world. It’s your contribution to society and to humanity. Your individuality is an asset that will enrich our collective human experience.

 

  • Individuality is especially an asset in creative works, works that have no prescribed formulas and to-do guides, works that haven’t been done before. Face to face with a blank canvas, a blank page, an empty theatre, a research problem, a work emergency, what will you do? Where will you turn to when there’s no manual around? All you’ve got is your wits, your judgment, your wisdom, and your character. The way you use them to tread an uncharted path will be uniquely yours. In these blank canvas situations, I think you’ll find that your individuality is a well, that in your identity lay a treasure of connections and creativity that can manifest into a truly original work. It will not always come out right, but if you keep digging and mining the well, something great and original will come to life.

 

  • The paradox of individuality is that the person next to you is just as unique as you are. This presents no problem at all, because multiple individualities in turn can combine to create unique teams that produce unique results. As you are limited to your own experiences, others’ can inform and add to your life and to your collaborative work.

 

  • No two people can solve the same problem completely alike, if they stay true to their identity and not become a carbon copy of someone else. No two doctors perform surgery exactly in the same way, no two people sing a song the same way, no two engineers do calculations the same way. Even in math, a field with rigid rules and laws, no two mathematicians solve math problems the same way. They may end up at the same final answer, but the road to the solution will bear the mark of the author’s individuality.

 

  • Which is why diversity is an asset. Diversity is both a source of creative inventions and the outcome of originality. The combination of diverse individualities will create diverse solutions, which are needed in solving complex human problems.

 

  • Don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. Don’t worry too much that your work should or should not resemble someone else’s. Look internally and ask yourself, what would YOU do?

 

  • When you have found an outlet for your individuality, a work that truly fits who you are, you have found that rare intersection between self-fulfillment and altruism, something that is good for you and for society. It is self-centered, as in it all is anchored in your individuality, and selfless, in that it blesses other people too. It is rewarding internally, yet it is also a gift to the world. (See this post)

 

  • There’s something that only you can give in this life. There’s work that only you can do, music that only you can create, books that only you can write, pictures that only you can take. This is your gift to all of us, and we can’t wait to see it.

 

You are more unique than you think you are.


I asked some friends, What does individuality mean to you? Here are their insightful answers.


IndividualityIndividuality

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Want more? See also how individuality and creativity are related, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.

 

Anatomy of Excellence

Anatomy of Excellence

A post on the anatomy of excellence befittingly takes some grit to go through. But I refuse to dilute it to a bite-sized listicle and I trust your intellect. Excellence deserves the 3500 words. Read it through at once or bookmark it to read it in pieces, but it’s worth getting to the end.


 

What makes people excel? What makes some stand out from the rest?

 

When we measure our performance against the crowd, we typically benchmark ourselves against this somewhat amorphous concept of the average. Average is an interesting concept because it can be understood both as praise or insult. In many areas of our lives, bowling, height, and playing guitar–we’ve all got some—average is probably our fate. But, as Atul Gawande writes in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, “in your surgeon, your child’s pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we want no one to settle for average.” For high stakes situations, “what is troubling is not just being average but settling for it.”

 

In Better, Gawande writes about the three things that make a person successful in medicine: diligence, moral clarity, and ingenuity. I here take the liberty to add to his list and compile the 5 virtues of excellence—the anatomy of excellence.

 

The Anatomy of Excellence

 

  1. Diligence
  2. Commitment to do right
  3. Personal responsibility
  4. Ingenuity
  5. The striving towards something better
  1. Diligence

 

Diligence is the drive to complete the littlest tasks that seem insignificant day in and day out. It is easily overlooked and underestimated because of its simplicity. Gawande writes,

 

The first is diligence, the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. (You just pay attention, right?) But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard.

 

Why is diligence important? It’s important because it’s a mindset, an approach of doing things that’s in it for the long haul. It bears the stamp of the person’s character, not just natural talent, which in the greater scheme of things is more important. Character is what we’re looking for in the person we’ve entrusted work to. Some things cannot be achieved without diligence. Many are filtered out from achieving great things because they don’t want to do the tedious thing; they’re turned off by the unglamorous work.

 

Gawande describes an example of diligence by describing the tireless efforts to minimize patient infections in hospitals due to contacts with doctors and nurses. The solution is simple: they need to wash their hands–wash them well and often. As it turns out, implementing this easy and known solution is not straightforward at all. People get lax, forgetful, lazy, and busy.

 

Stopping the epidemics spreading in our hospitals is not a problem of ignorance–of not having the know-how about what to do. It is a problem of compliance–a failure of an individual to apply that know-how correctly.

 

The efforts to monitor this behavior faced many failures. They didn’t work or worked only temporarily, because changing human behavior is hard. You have to read the book to grasp the frustrations in maintaining this high level awareness of hand washing. The antidote of these infections is diligence–both in the medical practitioners and in the individuals responsible to supervise safety.

 

Through trials and errors, they found a way to motivate medical workers to wash their hands consistently, which was a valuable lesson in itself. Many of the previous efforts were top-down. This time around, they obtained inputs from everyone on the floor, creating a wider ownership to the hospital’s performance and a culture of accountability where everyone was watching out for everyone else.

 

There will not be a time when washing hands will not be important in hospital work. This is not a phase–diligence is necessary, forever.

 

We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right–one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in. We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than life making sure everyone washes their hands.

 

Small details matter. And diligent people who pay attention to these details consistently stand out from the rest.

 

People underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue. No doubt this has something to do with how supremely mundane it seems. It is defined as ‘the constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken.’ There is a flavor of simplistic relentlessness to it. And if it were an individual’s primary goal in life, that life would indeed seem narrow and unambitious.

 

Understood, however, as the prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing any group of people who take on tasks of risk and consequence. It sets a high, seemingly impossible, expectation for performance and human behavior.

 

 

  1. Commitment to do right

 

Moral clarity is doing the right thing because it is right. It wouldn’t be a distinguishing virtue if it were easy, because often the right thing to do is not the easiest, cheapest, or most expedient option. When other priorities conflict, which approach would one take? Yes, this approach requires a certain moral compass, a belief that there are ethics associated with your work.

 

In medicine, human lives are at stake. A mistake or wrong decision by a doctor or surgeon can result in life or death. This makes medicine an inherently moral profession. But even when we don’t see the results of our mistake as immediately as doctors do, it doesn’t mean that our own work is not moral in nature. I’ve argued before that every work has a moral component that requires us to do the right thing. We may not see the direct consequences, but it doesn’t mean we are not culpable or responsible for our mistakes.

 

Gawande explores the difficult questions on the right thing to do with regards to physical boundaries, doctors’ mistakes, and doctors’ involvement in the death penalty. The first, he thinks about nakedness and the boundaries that should be in place to ensure trust between patient and doctor. In the second, he asks how much should doctors be paid and how much should doctors pay when mistakes happen? Lastly, he examines the decisions of doctors who, one way or another, are involved in the death penalty. These are hard and uncomfortable questions to ask, but the act of asking these hard questions–what is the right thing to do–is a mark of excellence.

 

The easy thing for any doctor or nurse is simply to follow the written rules. But each of us has a duty not to follow rules and laws blindly. In medicine, we face conflicts about what the right and best actions are in all kinds of areas: relief of suffering for the terminally ill, provision of narcotics for patients with chronic pain, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment for the critically ill, abortion, and executions, to name just a few. All have been the subject of professional rules and government regulation, and at times those rules and regulations have been and will be wrong. We may then be called on to make a choice. We must do our best to choose intelligently and wisely.

 

Above all, we have to be prepared to recognize when using our abilities skillfully comes into conflict with using them rightly.

 

Part of the commitment to do right is to acknowledge the limit of our knowledge. When do we know what to do, and when do we not know what to do? What do we do at that point? When there’s a possibility of us being wrong, do we have the guts to quiet down our ego and seek the help of others? In facing hard cases, doctors are faced with decisions on whether to keep pushing or stop fighting. In commenting on the ones that display self-awareness,

 

Sometimes they still pushed too long and not long enough. But at least they stopped to wonder, to reconsider the path they were on. They asked colleagues for another perspective. They set aside their egos.

 

This insight is wiser and harder to grasp than it might seem. When someone has come to you for your expertise and your expertise has failed, what do you have left? You have only your character to fall back upon–and sometimes it’s only your pride that comes through. You may simply deny your plan has failed, deny that more can’t be done. You may become angry. You may blame the person–“She didn’t follow my instructions!” You may dread just seeing that person again. I have done all these things. But they never come to any good.

 

In the end, no guidelines can tell us what we have power over and what we don’t. In the face of uncertainty, wisdom is to err on the side of pushing, to not give up. But you have to be ready to recognize when pushing is only ego, only weakness. You have to be ready to recognize when the pushing can turn to harm.

 

In a way, our task is to “Always Fight.” But our fight is not always to do more. It is to do right by our patients, even though what is right is not always clear.

 

The right thing to do may be a vague concept, but perhaps it is good that it is vague. The key here is the striving to seek what is right and to commit ourselves to pursue it. This is what sets the excellent ones apart from the majority who is satisfied to follow rules blindly.

 

 

  1. Personal responsibility

 

I have found that it’s possible to get rid of a problem by pushing it around, postponing it, or tagging enough people in the effort until it becomes someone else’s problem. When you spread the responsibility of a certain task out, it’s easier to blame it on another person.

 

This is NOT problem solving. And not what excellent people do.

 

What they do instead is this: they lean (hard) into their problem, take ownership of the task, and make it their personal responsibility to get it done and get it done well.

 

This is a rant against the “Not my problem” syndrome. Imagine the person charged with uploading videos to a website, but the videos are long and people can’t find what they’re looking for–the key message as promised in the title–easily. He throws up his hands and says, “Not my problem. I did my job.” In other words, the perfecting of the video is not his job; it’s someone else’s problem. What can I do, I’m just an uploader?

 

Well, there are things he can do. He can point people to the minute and seconds where the key message appears, he can learn to cut and edit the videos, or at the very least, he can deliver the message to the right person on the team that can solve the problem.

 

If you’re a part of a team and you have a message you want people to hear, then it is incumbent upon you to make sure people get that message as easily as they can. And yes, it IS your problem.

 

The key thing here is having personal stakes in the work, making sure that once you touch the task, it will come out better at the other end. It’s about adding the maximum value to the product, as much as you possibly can.

 

Excellent people don’t just accept the scope of their task blindly. They investigate the wider scope–why do they need to do this task, what is the context. Once it is done, who are the recipients of the results? How can they receive this as easy as possible? They make it their business to not just finish the job, but to complete it—complete throughout the life cycle of the job, not just when it’s off their desk.

 

I don’t deny that there are limits to what we can do, that at some point, it really is not your problem anymore. But the point here is the attitude, because likely, the person who tends to say, “It’s not my problem. I’ve done all I can.” is likely not the person who has pushed the farthest in his effort.

 

Lean into your problem and contribute. Not everything is your problem, but the ones that are on your plate, make them yours and finish them with finesse.

 

 

  1. Ingenuity

 

Ingenuity is the creativity someone brings to the table to solve a problem. It is something that will not come out unless personal responsibility exists. This is the deep learning, the nonstop testing, and continual improvements in making your work, your craft, and your art better.

 

My favorite part of Gawande’s book is the chapter titled “The Bell Curve.” It tells the story of a small field in medicine that has been “far ahead of most others in measuring the results its practitioners achieve: cystic fibrosis care.”

 

Part of improving performance is conducting diligent measurements, data gathering, and benchmarking. What doesn’t get measure often doesn’t get improved. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has collected data from treatment centers across the country since the 1960s. It all began with a pediatrician named LeRoy Matthews, who had a bold claim that his patients had an annual mortality rate of less than 2 percent at a time when the rest of the field averaged at more than 20 percent. The average patient died at the age of three.

 

The Foundation assigned another pediatrician, Warren Warwick, to investigate Matthews’ claim. When the results came in, they confirmed that he was a positive deviant. In his center, the median estimated age of death was 21 years, seven times the age of patients treated in other centers. At the time, he had not had a single death among patients younger than 6 years old in 5 years.

 

Unlike pediatricians elsewhere, Matthews viewed CF not as a sudden affliction but as a cumulative disease and provided aggressive preventive treatment to stave it off long before his patients became visibly sick from it. He made his patients sleep each night in a plastic tent filled with a continuous aerosolized water mist so dense you could barely see through it. This thinned the tenacious mucus that clogged their airways, enabling them to cough it up. Using an innovation of British pediatricians, he also had family members clap on the children’s chests daily to help loosen the mucus.

 

This one doctor changed the entire field. By 2003, the average life expectancy of a CF patient is 33 years.

 

Gawande visited two hospitals to compare treatment practices. First, he went to Cincinnati, a place that had middle ranking. He was surprised to be impressed by the quality of medical practice there. Everything was practiced “carefully and conscientiously—as well as anyone could ask for.”

 

Then he went to Minneapolis, where he met Warwick, the doctor who did the study on Matthews many years ago. Having learned from Matthews, Warwick seemed to add something different to the treatment.

 

In an interaction with a high school patient named Janelle, Warwick started with the friendly banter between doctor and his teenage patient. He found out that there had been a slight dip in her lung-function. Three months earlier, she had been at 109 percent, better than kids without CF, and now she was at 90 percent.

 

Most people would have settled for 90 percent, but not Warwick. He started asking, why did it go down, asking Janelle to find out what had been going on in her life. Met with a series of “I don’t know” plus attitude, he went on to do a lecture,

 

“’A person’s daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF is 0.5 percent.’ He wrote the number down. Janelle rolled her eyes. She began tapping her foot. ‘The daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF plus treatment is 0.05 percent,’ he went on, and he wrote that number down.” He went on to describe the different between a 99.5 percent vs. 99.95 percent chance of staying well. On a given day, there seemed to be hardly any difference. But, showing his calculations to the patient, in a year, it is the difference between an 83 percent and 16 percent of making it through the year without getting sick.

 

He eventually found out that Janelle had a new boyfriend and some new school changes that disrupted her treatments. He then insisted on Janelle to come for a few days to catch up on lost grounds. The interaction ended with this, “We’ve failed, Janelle… It’s important to acknowledge when we’ve failed.”

 

Gawande reflects on the core of Warwick’s worldview that makes his center better than average,

 

He believed that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful. Many things human beings do are like that, of course: catching fly balls, manufacturing microchips, delivering overnight packages. Medicine’s distinction is that lives are lost in those slim margins.

 

Warwick’s combination of focus, aggressiveness, and inventiveness is what makes him extraordinary. He thinks hard about his patients, he pushes them, and he does not hesitate to improvise.

 

His ingenuity led him to innovate unconventional solutions to CF, inventing a new stethoscope, a new cough, and a mechanized chest-thumping vest for patients to wear.

 

When you lean hard into a problem, diligent in paying attention to details, committed to do the right thing for your patient, and use your individuality and creativity in trying new solutions, all of that opens up doors of innovation, solutions that are uniquely you. None of this will come out of superficial work.

 

 

  1. Something better

 

In the CF discussion, even though Matthews and Warwick’s methods had improved the entire field, their centers managed to stay ahead of the pack. From the gathering of data over the years, patterns emerged.

 

“You look at the rates of improvement in different quartiles, and it’s the centers in the top quartile that are improving fastest,” Marshall says. “They are at risk of breaking away.” What the best may have, above all, is a capacity to learn and change–and to do so faster than everyone else. 

 

Humanity is gifted with this infinite capacity to grow and those who know how to do this out of their own volition, excel. It is the striving toward something better that distinguishes those at the high end of the bell curve.

 

Paul Kalanithi, another doctor, writes in When Breath Becomes Air that “the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” In Mind, Character, and Personality, Vol 1, Ellen White writes, “’Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living.”

 

There’s always something better to do, some way better to try.

 

 

Gawande concludes that to be successful in medicine is to have and practice these ingredients of excellence.

 

We are used to thinking that a doctor’s ability depends mainly on science and skill. The lesson from Minneapolis–and indeed from battlefield medical tents in Iraq, villages with outbreaks of polio, birthing rooms across the country, and all the other places I have described in this book–is that these may be the easiest parts of care. Even doctors with great knowledge and technical skill can have mediocre results; more nebulous factors like aggressiveness and diligence and ingenuity can matter enormously.

 

The great news is that this is accessible to everyone. Everyone can be diligent, commit to do right, claim personal responsibility, try new things, and strive to be better.

 

True success in medicine is not easy. It requires will, attention to detail, and creativity. But the lesson I took from India was that it is possible anywhere and by anyone. I can imagine few places with more difficult conditions. Yet astonishing successes could be found. And each one began, I noticed, remarkably simply: with a readiness to recognize problems and a determination to remedy them.

 

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

 

These are not natural-born talents. These are the stuffs of discipline, attitude, and approach to life, work, and learning. It can be acquired and practiced by all. Do one, and you may already do better than your peers. But do all of them and you can’t help but be excellent.