In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.
Gawande is also an eloquent speaker and speaks on many occasions to students. At the end of this book, he includes five suggestions that he likes to give on how to be a positive deviant, an outlier that outperforms and stands out from the majority. One of these suggestions is to write. Here is Gawande on why you should write (emphasis mine).
Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.
You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.
You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.
Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.
So choose your audience. Write something.
Inspiration. Moments when life gets elevated to a kind of dreaminess. The belief that there’s something more, something better than what the eyes see.
I think about my last decade, about the books I’ve read, about the people I’ve known about, and I notice a pattern. From time to time there are individuals who inspire me not just intellectually, but also emotionally. I may encounter their voices in a book, an interview, or a speech, but a single trait impresses me over and over again. It is this: the ability to treat work as a calling .
What Inspiring People Have in Common
Muses—that’s what they are, spanning across time and interests. From Paul Kalanithi’s poetic reflection on the moral imperative to be excellent in neurosurgery, a work that treads delicate boundaries between the body and the soul, the brain and the person’s identity, Atul Gawande’s pursuit to better medical practitioners as stewards of other human beings, Oliver Sacks’ deep awareness of the humanity in each of his neurology patient, war photographers and conflict journalists’ death-defying commitment to tell the truth, David Axelrod’s hopefulness on politics as a powerful medium to impact the lives of many people, in spite of the corruptions that he has witnessed, Seth Godin’s anthem on true and genuine content as the essence of marketing, that trust is the currency transacted between you and your audience, a sacred thing not to be abused, Hope Jahren’s love for plants and for a science that can’t be measured by its money-making power, but still important to study, Bryan Stevenson’s dedication to advocate for the most helpless in the criminal justice system, to artists and craftsmen toiling to perfect their creation. Each of these individuals treats their work, almost ceremonially, as something sacred. They handle their lifework with reverence, embracing its true value, and applying themselves to it with excellence, rigor, and most of all, love.
They treat work with a deep sense of personal responsibility. It’s not a job that someone else imposed on them, something they would push to someone else if they could. They work with conviction, a commitment to do the right thing even if it’s hard, no matter what the consequences. There’s stubbornness in their hope and optimism, which in its self-fulfilling way propagates to the rest of us. They don’t only exist in book world. Occasionally I meet them in real life too, everyday heroes who see the true essence of their work, the essence of its good, and do them with excellence.
I resonate with this Way of living in the core of my being. I consider these individuals having reached a certain fullness of being alive. These are not perfect people, as their strengths may be interwoven with weaknesses in other areas. They may even be tortured souls in one way or another. But because they have lived, we become better.
Living a calling requires an idealism that must be tested by hardships. The inevitable struggle, an incarnation of the classic idealist vs. realist debate, will manifest itself. How to work with purity in the face of life’s commercial need? What about money? How do we pay the bills?
Some of us don’t have the luxury to be idealists, some may say, and yes, fair points. But let’s face it. The idealists are the ones who ennoble humanity here on earth. Their approaches, infusing meaning to the mundane, lift our existence up and refresh us with honor and nobility. They remind us that there’s something better, some way better.
Searching for True Value
In my own life, I seek for this deep meaning in engineering, in reading, and in writing. What does it mean to do good engineering, not just doing it well? What does it mean to read well, to not just be entertained, but to be taught and to share experiences with the author? What does it mean to write well, to honor the trust that you, readers, have given me by spending your time on this site? How can I produce something valuable, something that would make people better, somehow, as a result of reading the blog?
I consider these worthy questions, never too idealistic to pursue. In fact, without this pursuit, my own idealism and optimism would have died. Like those muses, I want to live a worthy life, do worthy things, and present a little gift to the world during my existence on this planet.
The Power of Choices
Often times, there are disappointed or wistful voices lamenting the fact that society is not as noble as it used to be. There’s this nostalgia of a time and place where humans were collectively better, when everyone valued work as a calling.
I’m actually not sure if such times existed. I don’t think that there was ever an ideal time to be an idealist, for each age and society has always had their optimists, their in-betweens, and their pessimists, with tensions between each group. This nostalgia may be hindsight bias, a cleaned-up version of history, because idealism makes good stories. Stories get told and re-told for generations, and somehow, we convince ourselves that only these good things happened, or that past has a monopoly on good stories.
The truth is, honor and nobility of purpose have always had its oppositions and naysayers. Idealists will always have lovers and haters. There’s nothing essentially different about human nature now, vis-à-vis idealism, than in the past. Idealism and hopefulness have always been inspiring. They have always incited a spectrum of reactions, among which are dismissal and contempt.
But if any age and society could produce heroic idealists, this would mean that there’s nothing preventing me from being one today. In fact, all those who have inspired me recently are my contemporaries in the 21st century.
What’s left between me and having a worthy life is a choice. Sure, there will be resistance, challengers, and naysayers. Circumstances may make it difficult; bills still need to be paid. But ultimately, these external factors cannot override the simple fact that I decide to strive for a noble life. It’s my decision. And it can be yours too.
You can choose to live honorably today. You can choose to treat your work with excellence today.
 This is a twin concept of finding your calling. Similar, but not identical, since I believe one can know one’s calling in life intellectually and still treat the work with no reverence.
“Why You Don’t Have to Know Everything” is a revision of an older essay, “The Thrill of Not Knowing.”
You’re at the beginning of a rollercoaster ride, going uphill, toward the highest point of the track. Higher and higher, slowly, building anticipation. A couple of things are happening. Your palms start sweating, the heart beats faster, and your mind debates itself, “Why in the world did I do this? Get me out of here! But I can’t get off..” or “Ok, it’s gonna happen soon, take a deep breath, be ready…” Finally, you reach the apex, where your stress (or thrill) also peaks. As the rollercoaster slowly turns downward, you see how high you are for a split second, how steep the downhill slope is, and you gulp because there’s no turning back.
The Unknown, whatever it is that we can’t know, plan or anticipate, can incite intense reactions to the limited, non-omniscient human mind. It can make you fearful and anxious, overwhelmingly so in some cases. It can cause nervous breakdown and real physical ailments if not handled properly, along with discontentment and anger. What will my life be? What am I supposed to do, who am I supposed to be in this life? How will this job, this relationship, this new house turn out? What is my calling in life? How does a fulfilled life look like? Am I ever going to be successful?
At one point or another, we feel this restlessness in our soul. Something like a signal that there are things we have yet to do, places we have yet to see, life we have yet to experience.
But just like a rollercoaster ride, the fear of the Unknown does not make up the entire experience. There is another aspect of the story that, in actuality, is the thing that makes people want to go on rollercoaster rides in the first place – thrill. For someone who happens to love rollercoasters, the thrill of the experience overtakes the fear and anxiety during that uphill part.
Not knowing about something, about life, can be a thrilling experience. I’m not talking about being blissfully ignorant. Quite the opposite. I’m talking about being curious and enjoying the process of unveiling whatever it is that lies between me and that thing beyond the veil. Not knowing is what makes learning such an enjoyable process, a process by which one goes from not knowing to knowing. And this is fun. It is so much fun that it’s hard to imagine knowing everything. A life without mystery, how dull would that be?
Often we think that once we know, if only we know this one thing, we would finally have peace. We’ll finally be at a state of rest, not anxious or worried about what will happen. But the truth is that we’ll only find another thing to fret about. We would find out that knowing that one thing is not enough, and anxiety takes over again.
Why live this way? Why not enjoy the process and let go of the micro plans?
In the realm of Christianity, a special case of this phenomenon is something like this: What is God’s will for my life? What is my purpose on earth? Sometimes the questions come with anger and discontentment, sometimes with anxiety and restlessness, or sometimes with a certain sobriety, realizing the import of the answer to those questions.
The question that I would ask, though, is What would you do with the answer? What kind of answer are you looking for? Are you expecting black ink on white paper stating, This is what you will do? Would you rather know the fact, or would you rather discover it?
I’m inclined to choose discovery over being given a statement of fact. I’d rather discover what I will be in 10 years, rather than being told by a hypothetical time traveler from the future that in 10 years, I’ll be doing this and that. But part of choosing discovery–not that it’s much of a choice–is the not knowing part. You only find out a little bit at a time, and I’d suggest that this is the more preferable and exciting way.
My favorite book Education has this quote:
When Adam came from the Creator’s hand, he bore, in his physical, mental, and spiritual nature, a likeness to his Maker. “God created man in His own image” and it was His purpose that the longer man lived the more fully he should reveal this image—the more fully reflect the glory of the Creator. All his faculties were capable of development; their capacity and vigor were continually to increase. Vast was the scope offered for their exercise, glorious the field opened to their research. The mysteries of the visible universe—the “wondrous works of Him which is perfect in knowledge”—invited man’s study.
The radical idea being proposed here is that in a state of perfection–a world without sin and suffering–Adam was still meant to grow and discover. In a way, he too was meant to discover God’s will for his life and existence. The more he were to live, the more he would find out the capacity embedded in his being as well as the mysteries of the world he was placed in.
In other words, life has always been mysterious, inwardly and outwardly, from way back when, to now, to eternity. Discovery is a life essential, and it would be wise to know how to live peacefully with it.
Another quote in the book says:
Heaven is a school; its field of study, the universe; its teacher, the Infinite One. A branch of this school was established in Eden; and, the plan of redemption accomplished, education will again be taken up in the Eden school. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”
Because we do not know all things, we have the capacity to be marveled and blown away. Not knowing is really our capacity to be surprised. And that thrill is a gift of life.
When we don’t know certain details of our life’s purpose, when we don’t understand why we’re going through certain things, we don’t have to be upset or anxious. At least, don’t cling to it. Rather, have trust. Trust in the process, trust in God and His character. Let go of the micro plans and let yourself be swayed and moved a little by life, by the occasions that need your help, and by other things outside of your plans.
Love the journey. Love the discovery. And enjoy the thrill of not knowing everything.