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The Power of “What Else?”

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Think about some polarity pairs you may face. Your personal life and your professional life. Prioritizing yourself and prioritizing others. In your business or organization, you may feel the tension between mission and margin, staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction.

In my case, I had fallen into a cycle of Either/Or thinking. I felt I had to choose between traditional medical education, which consists of grades and test scores, or transformational medical education, which consists of the bedside medicine and interpersonal connections I love. Instead, as Maggi helped me see, the optimal solution would never come out of choosing between, but instead, finding ways to leverage both poles.

Whether it’s making career decisions, interpreting social interactions, or crafting the words to best help a patient deal with a life altering diagnosis, my first reaction, especially when heavy emotions are involved, pulls me toward one pole of the polarity pair at the expense of the other. As I’ve learned through working with Maggi, this reflexive response often stems from insecurity, anxiety, or perceived weakness.

Due to my initial concerns entering the clinical years of medical school, I reluctantly felt the need to gravitate towards burying my nose even deeper in my studies, because I felt my test scores and pre-clinical grades would be my Achilles’ heel in earning acceptance to a strong residency program. There were more times, too. When I felt certain a fellow classmate’s comment came from a place of malice rather than jest, it was because I filtered the world through a lens colored with an ongoing fear of being disliked. And when I defaulted to a robotic response after a man on the cusp of respiratory failure asked me if he were dying, it was because I was so concerned with giving the right answer that I didn’t think to better understand the fears underneath his question. As a result, I failed in giving him both a good answer and his answer– one that would give him peace in his final hours.

So comes the importance of “what else?” By stopping to consider other options, by choosing to see the situation from another perspective, or by challenging our own subjective interpretation of our day-to-day, we open ourselves to leveraging both poles of interdependent pairs. “What else?” helps us move from Either/Or to Both/And and Either/Or.

If it sounds as though grappling with the concept “Both/And” and “what else?” takes time, it’s because it does. That time is one of the most important dimensions of my coaching experience. As Maggi would sit with me for hours, she would create the space for me to explore the depths of my emotions and the way they intersect with my experiences as a medical student. In the process, she helped me build a habit of thoughtful self-reflection as she modeled the type of curiosity and generous listening I hope to bring to interactions with my patients and peers.

Medicine has undergone a stark transition marked by exponential expansion of not only the biomedical knowledge a physician must maintain, but also the interpersonal and emotional demands a physician must manage. As health care has become a team sport, the historic archetype of the physician toiling away at his desk has grown into one with new responsibilities. Physicians must now be both brilliant thinkers and compassionate leaders, managers, and quarterbacks of patient care. These multiple roles often compete with one another.

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One Comment

  1. Margaret Cary

    March 21, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Jack – thank you for your heartfelt writing on your journey together. I have learned at least as much from you as you have learned from me.


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