When did you STOP getting better?

Posted: February 8, 2012 in Self Improvement

I came across an interesting editorial in The New Yorker the other day by Dr. Atul Gawande called “Personal Best.” If Dr. Gawande’s name sounds familiar to you, it is probably because Dr. Gawande is not only a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston but also a best-selling author. The two books of his that I have read are Better and Complications and a 3rd that I have yet to read (but have ordered) is The Checklist Manifesto.

Anytime I see Dr. Gawande’s name attached to something these days, it is an automatic read for me. His writing is insightful, honest, introspective, and inspiring. When I came across “Personal Best” in The New Yorker, I knew I was in for a treat.

So what is “Personal Best” all about? In short, Dr. Gawande takes an honest look at himself and realizes that after eight years as a surgeon he simply had stopped getting better. This realization led him to do some research and explanation into why exactly this happened and if it happens in other professions as well.

Dr. Gawande first explored the world of sports and wonders how they would be different if there were no coaches at all.

When we think of sports, we always think of coaches. Even the best in the world have coaches. I would argue in fact, that the better you are in sport, the more coaches you have.  That being said, Dr. Gawande remarks that he, as a surgeon does not have a coach, or anyone observing him to make him better. (and as he finds out later, to monitor the ‘little things’)

Is this true in other professions as well? In fact, it is. Dr. Gawande explores education next. Research done by the University of Virginia concluded that most teachers feel no need to be coached. The idea of being observed in the classroom or looking incompetent in front of an observer left most teachers skeptical of the prospect of having a fellow teacher act as their “coach.” But again, at what point do these professionals simply stop getting better?

Dr. Gawande took matters into his own hands and called one of his former teachers, a retired general surgeon named Robert Osteen asking him if he would be interested in observing a surgery and then providing feedback on what he saw. Dr. Osteen agreed and so the experiment began. The question was, after eight years of doing surgery what could Dr. Gawande do better?

The surgery was a thyroidectomy for a patient with a cancerous nodule, one that Dr. Gawande had done “thousands of times.” Upon completion of the surgery, Dr. Gawande deemed it a great success. In fact, he wondered if his ‘coach’ could find anything to critique.

As they sat down in the surgeons’ lounge, Dr. Osteen pulled out his notebook and began. He stated that while the surgery went well overall, their were several small things that needed to be corrected. Things like the fact that Dr. Gawande did not realize that for about a half hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound, leaving him to operate with only light from reflected surfaces. Or that his right elbow rose to above the level of his shoulder leaving him limited in his ability to be precise with his work.

Dr. Gawande goes on to say that this 20-minute interaction gave him more to consider and work on than he’d had in the last five years.  

As a student, I often find myself waiting for the day when I am no longer being ‘coached’ and finally able to call my own shots. But at what point will being on my own cause me to plateau as a doctor, business owner, and person?

This begs the question: How much better could any of us be at our chosen profession if we all had a coach? The idea that only certain professions expect to be coached is for lack of a better term, arbitrary and/or short-sighted. I know in the case of teaching that being observed is always looked upon as a negative because the feeling is that if harsh criticism is received that a job may be lost. I can even remember while I was in school when some teachers would almost coach the students the day before observation so we all knew how we should behave and react. Or the teacher would perform this brilliant lesson plan in front of the observer and then the next day, go back to the same boring stuff we were used to. Not only is this not a realistic learning situation, but the teacher would never get better because the feedback they were receiving was not based on how they regularly taught. Please don’t get the wrong idea, this is not a Cameron Diaz-type situation. I have teaching experience myself and respect teachers probably more than any other profession. The point is more that because teachers do not expect being observed to be a positive experience, they are fearful of it. And I think that is where the problem lies.

The bottom line: No matter what profession we are, we must always strive to continually make ourselves better. Our biggest fear as professionals should be staying the same. There is always something new to learn, a little thing to make better, and a negative to turn to a positive, or maybe expanding on something we already do well. The point is we should all welcome critique and criticism as it allows us to continually advance and be better at what we do. Or as Dr. Gawande puts it,

 “The top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you?”

 For the full text article of “Personal Best” please click here.
  1. Carly says:

    Great article!

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