About Catherine Cheng, MD

I am a general internist in Chicago, Illinois, mother of two, almost native Coloradan, and Northwestern alum. I want to leave the world better for my having lived, by cultivating the best possible relationships between all who know me, and all whom I influence. Join me on this crazy, idealistic, fascinating journey! Look for new posts on the 10th, 20th, and 30th of each month. Opinions posted here are entirely my own, and in no way reflect the opinions or policies of my employer.

Potential and Kinetic Energy: Onward In Power

Here we are, Day 30 of 30, woohoooooo! What a fun month of reflecting, learning, writing, and sharing! Looking back, I see about eight posts to revisit, ideas to flesh out and expand. I also see recurring themes stretching back to before this blog even started–funny how that always is–I am who I am!

I started this blog in 2015; my goal was to make it a year. After that, I’d decide if I wanted to keep it going. Wow. I love perusing the years and seeing which themes persist/repeat, which fade and re-emerge, and which evolve. And something new stirs now, from the 8th annual 30-day challenge.

After nine years of physical training for menopause preparedness, my vertical jump may be higher today than anytime since I was a student. My balance and core strength are definitely better. I know this because my hang time during burpees and single leg jump lunges feels exhilaratingly long. When I squat, on one leg or two, I feel the tension, strength, and stability in my quads and glutes. When I explode up and my toes leave the floor, it really feels like flying, even if for just a second. I feel confident and powerful, free, and also intentional and in control. I attend to position, landing softly, protecting knees and ankles from injury. I have focus.

The ideas that emerged this month, especiallly the eight, also feel strong and powerful. They have potential. They move. They are, in many ways, the culmination of 8 years–maybe a lifetime, actually–of reflecting, exploring, articulating, synthesizing, integrating, of continuous playing, learning, noodling, seeking. They feel at once like energy stored and released, self-propagating, renewable–light, heat, wind–all of it.

I have lived long enough and through enough challenges now to have pretty good perspective. Nothing stays the same for long; nothing is guaranteed. Hard things happen and I have no control. Worrying and ruminating waste precious time and energy, for no benefit. I can do hard things; I have skills and support. So now I can really, freely, revel in the awesome when I have it. And no matter what hard stuff is happening, I always have something awesome. That clarity shines like the brightest lighthouse from deep in my core, and it orients me–reliably, unassailably–in any storm.

Is this what happens in middle age? Consolidation and magnification, gathering for expansion, the existential equivalent of the strongest and funnest squat jump? If so, I’ll take it! Who knows what’s next, it could be anything! I am ready.

Onward, my friends, there is much work to do!

Water, Gasoline, or Firewood?

Ptarmigan Trail, Silverthorne, Colorado, October 2022, one year after fire triggered by hikers

If you don’t already follow Shane Parrish at Farnam Street, or listen to The Knowledge Project podcast, I highly recommend it. In this week’s newsletter, Parrish describes how he engages his kids when they exhibit ‘ineffective’ behavior (such as picking fights with each other). He coaches them to pause and think about their actions: Is what they’re doing going to make their lives easier or harder? Will it get them what they want? He asks them what things would look like if they poured gasoline, versus water, on their current ‘fire.’ “With water or gasoline, you can start a fire, make it bigger, or put it out. The choice is yours.”

What fires burn in our lives? Which ones warm us, give us light, and bring us together, and which scorch and destroy?

Obviously we don’t pour gasoline on a wildfire, unless we are arsonists or sociopaths. And we all rue the careless camper or hiker who accidentally sets our beloved forrests aflame with an errant cigarette butt or the like. What anaologies to our lives can we make of these events? Maybe the overwhelming emotional hijack of a post-traumatic trigger, a cutting word spoken or argument erupting in the heat of anger and resentment? In these moments, how can we slow down, recognize the gas can in our hands, loosen our grip, put it down and screw the cap on tight? Where did we put that water bottle? Better yet, can we just leave the cigarettes at home next time? ** deep breaths **

That scenario is less interesting to me, though, than the campfire or bonfire. I feel like I’ve written this analogy before on the blog, but I can’t find it. I don’t camp, but I love communing around an intentional, contained flame with good company and comfort food. This is the kind of fire that gathers us, warms us, strengthens our bonds. Right now it’s phone and FaceTime calls, hikes, and generally carving out time to spend together–these are the fires that feed me. The flame of a good, strong hearth requires tending, though. Someone needs to find and bring home the wood; it has to be dry enough but not too much so, and made into the right size. Orientation of logs and branches matters for optimal airflow, so smoke billows skyward rather than swirling and suffocating the gathering. We must stoke and stimulate the flames to keep them going, and fuel them regularly to maintain light and warmth for us all to enjoy. It’s best if we take turns. Like maintaining strong fires, good relationships require us to participate actively, thoughtfully, and regularly.

As our collective care and attention perpetuate warmth and light, the best thing is when we attract others to join. When they hear the crackling flames and campfire songs, the laughter and joy emanating from intentional communion, they want to connect, and we widen our circle of friends. Cold and dark no longer feel so daunting; we feel safe and secure; we belong.

As we enter the coldest and darkest part of the year, I’m gathering my firewood and piling it high. Come to think of it, I must also tend to the forrest where the trees grow… An analogy for another time, perhaps.

Fireweed flourishing in its ideal habitat; nature healing itself

Being An Officer

Chief Executive. Operations. Financial. Information. Wellness.

Officers.

What’s it like to be one, I wonder? How do you see yourself? What is your purpose? Whom do you serve?

I recently heard some business executives refer to themselves as ‘officers’ of their company, and it struck me, as if I were hearing the word for the first time in this context. The vibe was not arrogant or self-aggrandizing. It came off not as corporate speak, as some label used to separate (elevate) themselves from others in the organization. The feeling really reminded me of how Simon Sinek describes marine officers in his books–the ones who lead from the front, who put themselves in harm’s way first to accomplish a mission. The leaders I heard spoke with an air of respect for the role ahead of themselves personally. It was almost reverent, in a way, like being an ‘officer’ of the company meant, as Sinek puts it, not just caring about being ‘in charge,’ but caring for the people ‘in your charge.’

Officers sit at the top of organizational hierarchy. They enjoy rank, default status, and the highest pay and benefits. They also shoulder the greatest responsibility (and ideally, accountability). In the military this includes for people’s very lives. In business this includes people’s livelihoods, and thus also their lives and those of their families. Setting aside for now the premise that boards, and thus the execs who report to them, function to advance the interests of shareholders above all, I’m thinking about how hierarchical corporate structure and its attendant attitudes serve us, each and all of us, relationally.

I perceive three primary, intersecting answers to “Whom do you serve?”: 1. Shareholders 2. Mission 3. People of the organization. The first two can be abstract; the last is very concrete. I strongly believe that leaders who prioritize the health and well-being of their people above all else are the most successful. I don’t necessarily mean success in the conventional business sense–profits, stock price, US News & World Report ranking. I mean relational success–manifest in organizational loyalty/pride, team cohesion, mission focus, low turnover, and high moral and community standing.

I think organizations with relationship-centered leaders cultivate and elevate officers who respect, acknowledge, and attend to workers at all levels in their perspective and decision making. They ask, “How does this affect our people?” before, “How does this affect our bottom line or brand?” When the latter come under threat, they will look for every available solution before sacrificing the health and well-being of their people, even when doing so is the easy and obvious path to balancing books and looking good. Led by this example, lower level leaders can feel safe to behave similarly, and the culture of safety cascades down to the lowest level worker. Cultures like this foster creativity, collaboration, innovation, and then multi-dimensional success.

I write all of this so easily as a non-officer. I understand that leading large, complex organizations is a practice in agile and dynamic balance of disparate interests in the midst of shifting markets and diverse stakeholders. I try to assess leaders fairly, and always with the heavy burden of their work in mind.

Still, I hold our highest designated leaders wholly accountable for their relational output. They set the cultural tone and attitudes for the organizations they lead. As a worker, I want to follow my officers wholeheartedly and without reservation. They have a hand in cultivating that loyalty in me. I want to show up every day proud to be part of an organization that does good–more good than just making money for the folks who own company stock, more good than meeting some external benchmark of ‘excellence’. In order to do that, I need to feel that my leaders establish and uphold a culture that cares about me as a person, as a member of the organization who matters and contributes. I want to be seen as, to feel like a unique and valued individual, not just a money making cog.

The officers I heard speaking of their roles with self-awareness and benevolence inspire me. They palliate my cynicism that corporate power and status bloat ego and ecclipse selflessness. They make me consider my own role as physician. Though I no longer hold any designated leadership title, I still lead–like it, want it, know it or not–just by virtue of my MD and role on the patient care team. I argue, too, that any team member also leads to some degree. We all take our cues from one another; we self-organize around collective priorities and norms of behavior, reinforced implicitly more than explicitly, every day. Even so, we may often think of ourselves as mere minions, that we just come to work and ‘do a job.’

What if we all thought of ourselves more as Officers like the ones I heard? What if we all took some personal responsibility to uphold a culture of valuing one another as important contributors to a mission of caring and meaning? Could we, as a groundswell from the bottom up, elevate and inspire our own officers’ attention to and value of the whole of us, from the top down? Can we all support and uphold one another from all corners, more visibly, audibly, and audaciously? Wouldn’t that be amazing?