“Rule #6: Don’t take yourself so Goddamn seriously.” From The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.
This can be a hard lesson for physicians. We do such serious work, after all. There is always another patient to see, another result to review, another call to answer—now! But I have to pee, when can I pee?
In my first year of practice, I remember a particularly hard day. I was running late (I’m still always running late) and the patients that day were all complicated. No simple UTIs or colds to give me some air. I huffed and grunted my way through the visits, occasionally buzzing by Rose, my medical assistant, to answer messages in between. My bladder felt like it might actually explode, but I could not stop to go to the bathroom—there was no time! I was so afraid to fall even more behind, to fail in some way. Eventually, Rose posted a sign above my workstation: “TAKE A DEEP BREATH.” It was an instant reality check: I couldn’t go on like this, I’d burn out before my career even started! Immediately I realized how unnecessary, and downright silly, was all the rushing and grimacing—and I laughed out loud. Since then I have never again reached that depth of anxiety and sullenness in a workday. I am forever grateful to Rose for her sign, her loving reminder to slow down and take perspective. God bless her.
If we’re not careful, we physicians could all easily drown in the drama and strain, over and again, every day. And is that really what our patients need from us—to be Frazzled balls of tension and urgency, bouncing haplessly from one task or person to another, barely holding it together (and in)? Is that what we want for our colleagues and staff, to have to put up with our irritable and pressing demands?
It doesn’t have to be that way. In my third year of medical school, on my inpatient internal medicine rotation, Chip Dye was my senior resident. The service was busy; we always had a full census of sick patients. But I never felt harried or anxious because Chip set the tone for the team. Always smiling, always willing to answer any question, and finding any opportunity to laugh, he made it safe to learn. He exuded confidence without arrogance, calm without sloth. After rounds he led the team to attend morning report (daily educational conference and community gathering). He always made sure we ate. And there was always time to pee.
It’s not that he underestimated or ignored the work that awaited us. He just knew that we would accomplish it all better in a lighter, happier state of mind. When it came time to buckle down and divide tasks, Chip prioritized them with realistic expectations and we all got to work. No muss, no fuss, no stress. It would all get done because we laid out our plans in advance. We self-respectfully reserved time and space for meeting basic bodily and communal needs. Thanks to Chip for leading by example.
We can always have some Fun at work, no matter how hard the day gets. Whether it’s telling a silly joke, watching a ridiculous viral baby video, or posting a fun meme on the workroom bulletin board, lightening the mood helps everybody get through a little easier. Laughing relaxes us. Stephen Colbert is quoted as saying, “Do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” And if we can overcome our fears of not getting it all done, of not being enough, we will all be better off—physicians and patients alike.