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.

The Books of 2019

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Friends, what books did you read this year?

Which ones did you love?  Which could you not get through?  Why?  What will you read next?

Tonight I share my 2019 list (in the order that I read them; favorites denoted with an asterisk).  Please share your own recommendations in the comments!

*Curious by Ian Leslie.  I will definitely listen to this one again.  I like the distinction between diversive, epistemic, and empathic curiosity.

The Outward Mindset by The Arbinger Institute.  This is the third in a series; the first one, Leadership and Self-Deception, was the most impactful for me.  That one introduces the framework of being as the foundation of relationships, rather than doing.

The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess, MD.  A kind, evidence-based book of practical and compassionate strategies to increase our empathy, so as to make the world better.  I met Dr. Riess at the Harvard Writers conference in 2015, and I have heard her speak at conferences on clinician well-being.  Anyone could benefit from this book.

*Legacy by James Kerr.  Sweep the sheds.  No dickheads.  Basically, check your ego, make a contribution, and play for the team.  In the context of the winningest rugby team in the world, this leadership book is both humorous and humbling.

On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt.  Brené Brown quoted one line from this book, and it’s short, so I decided to listen.  I can’t remember anything from it, and I remember disagreeing with much, but that may be because I didn’t really understand what I was hearing.

*Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger.  Highly recommend this one for anyone on the journey of self-discovery and –actualization.  Hard to swallow the idea that a more advanced form of mind (from self-sovereign to self-authored, to self-transforming ) is not better than a less advanced one—so I have more work to do!

Pathways to Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander.  Follow up to The Art of Possibility, my favorite book, which she co-authored with Ben Zander.  A more spiritual, deeper exploration of meaning making and personal development.  I will likely listen again in 2020.

Atomic Habits by James Clear.  Another gem.  Written confidently, and filled with both abstract concepts and concrete, practical tips on habit formation and change.  You can also sign up for his weekly email with pearls and resources.

The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller.  LOVED this one.  In medicine, education, law enforcement and other fields, we all need to measure our performance.  But it’s too easy to oversimplify and overgeneralize the things we choose to measure, and lose sight of the big picture.  Everybody in a leadership role should read this book.

Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett.  Bennett is an editor on gender and culture at the New York Times.  This book is humorous and hard core.  She calls out sexist macro- and micro-aggressions without mercy and seeks to empower women to stick and stand up together.  I thought it was fun; my male friend could not get through it.  Sometime I’ll ask him more about why.

The Warrior Within by John Little.  I highly recommend this book, if you’re at all interested in the life and philosophy of Bruce Lee.  He was such an enigma, so mysterious, and yet so magnetic.  Growing up I thought he was just weird, seeing him in movies with almost no dialogue and only strange, high pitched grunts.  John Little was his close friend, and describes Lee’s life philosophy.  In 2020 I may look for Lee’s own words to read and contemplate.

Men, Women and Worthiness by Brené Brown.  I recommended this one to my friend who could not tolerate Fight Club.  It’s much more empathic to humanity in general, while still pointing out gender biases, their origins (so far as we understand them), and ways forward to minimize their negative impact on relationships and society, so we may all, men and women alike, fulfill our highest potential.

*Insight by Tasha Eurich.  One of my favorites for 2019.  Self-awareness has two components:  awareness of our own patterns, and also awareness of how we are perceived by, and therefore impact, others.  This book is full of stories, interviews, and also practices and exercises for improving our skills in both realms.  Another must-read for leaders.

The Second Mountain by David Brooks.  I have liked David Brooks ever since I read The Social Animal many years ago.  In this one he gets personal, and I loved it.  It’s one of my favorite things to read something and feel a kinship with the author.

*My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD.  I picked this one up again, I thought for a friend, but it was really for myself.  How cosmic.  So grateful to have read it this year; looking back, I think I needed it more than I realized, and I will probably reach for Kitchen Table Wisdom again in 2020.

Braving the Wildnerness by Brené Brown.  Like Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, I read/listen to this one when I need a little encouragement and empowerment before starting something unique, different, or scary-exciting.  Like all of Brown’s books there are personal stories, but this one is the most raw to date, in my opinion.  Again, that kinship warms me.

The Thin Book of Trust by Tom Feltman.  Also referenced by Brown in Braving, this one was worth the short listen.  There is also an excellent PDF summary, so you don’t actually have to read/listen to the whole thing.

Complex Adaptive Leadership by Nick Obolensky.  Not gotten all the way through this one, as it has all kinds of references to math, physics, and a multitude of other works in many genres (the footnotes can be a quarter of the page).  But I continue to read it, and will likely try one of its team exercises in 2020.

Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.  I believe the lower case author’s name is intentional.  Poems, stories, philosophy—it’s all in here.  It’s a bit all over the place, but no question, this woman has a purpose on earth and she is working it.  I think it’s about inclusion, respect, and striving for the highest calling of shared humanity.  I pick it up off and on, still enjoying it.

*To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue.  LOVED this one.  Poems and reflections on aspects of life that we too easily take for granted.  Bought copies and sent to friends.  Flagged my favorites and look forward to rereading lifelong in times of tumult as well as peace.

Consolations by David Whyte.  “The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words,” says the subtitle.  At least one word for every letter of the alphabet.  Dipping in and out since late summer.  Gotta take my time with this one, contemplate.

The Will to Change by bell hooks.  Another lower case author name.  I recommend this one—another feminist piece, this time discussing the patriarchy.  On the surface, coming at it defensively, it could feel attacking, adversarial.  But from another perspective, it’s written with deep love and empathy for men and the constraints of patriarchal masculinity.  So, she proposes feminist masculinity as the antidote, with which I fully concur and actively advocate.  Highly recommend this one.

*Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cathilda Jetha.  Another of my favorites for this year.  A hilariously written, evidence-based takedown of all the sociological theories and writings purporting that humans are physiologically or otherwise built to be monogamous.  It does not attack monogamy itself, just our collective, delusional insistence that that is our one natural state.  A contrarian piece, no doubt—deliciously so.  You’ gotta read it.

*The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp.  Another one I will reference often hereafter.  They draw on work by people I already admire, like Byron Katie and Oto Scharmer.  Practical and easy to read, but make no mistake—these commitments are not easy and require much work.  A handbook for the lifelong-learning leader.

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue.  Aaaarrrrgh I only have one chapter left, why do I procrastinate?  Maybe because it’s on aging??  I started this one at the same time as the next book, found fun and cosmic parallels between them, and wrote about them.  Another one to keep and pull out to get cozy with sometimes.

*Self-Renewal by John W. Gardner.  Recommended to me by a patient.  I love this book, but it’s another one that requires time and some cognitive effort.  So it’s slow-going, and well worth the effort.  I’m about 2/3 through.

The Essentials of Theory U by Oto Scharmer.  Recommended to me by one of my fellow cosmic journeyers, the same friend who recommended Changing on the Job.  It’s about individual attitude and how it intersects with group dynamic—sort of.  It’s a self-exploration as well as a leadership book.  Hard to explain, and likely not everybody’s cup of tea.  Been listening on and off since April, always getting something out of it.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan.  My first novel in years, and the first book chosen by my first ever book club (I don’t count the Junior Great Books group in third grade because I never actually read the books).  I liked it, but will not read it again.

*Range by David Epstein.  This one will hang on my consciousness for a long while.  I will remember it in patient encounters, watching TV, reading other books.  Highly recommend.

*The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek.  I have followed Simon Sinek for many years now, and his thesis of Why has basically become the framework on which I construct much of my professional and paraprofessional activities.  Suffice it to say, within the first hour, this audiobook altered again, in a way consistent with my existing values and Why, how I see and will do leadership.  You don’t have to read his previous books, Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, to read this one.  But if you do, you might become a disciple, too.

*Educated by Tara Westover.  I read this one for book club—we will discuss next week, I cannot wait.  The writing is masterful, and that much more impressive because the author never attended school, was not home-schooled, and educated herself to take the ACT and enroll in college, going on to get her PhD at Cambridge and invited to complete a fellowship at Harvard.  Her family story is tragic, unf*ingbelievable, wrenching and, ultimately, quintessentially humane.  I recommended it to all of my friends, many of whom have already read and loved it.

*Shoe Dog by Phil Knight.  My anti-Fight Club friend told me about this one last week, when I told him about Educated.  It’s over 12 hours long to hear, and I finished it today.  The co-founder of Nike tells the company’s 18 year start-up story in this riveting memoir, in which I find so many connections to Epstein and Sinek.  Highly recommend this one.

In the next few weeks I will read Mrs. Bridge by Evan S Connell and James Salter for book club, and continue Ozan’s book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist.  Oh and I just picked up tidy the f*ck up by messie condo, loving it already.  Maybe I’ll listen to Collaborating with the Enemy by Adam Kahane.  Also got two books, one by and one on John Muir, to stoke my love of hiking and nature.

So looking forward to another year of reading and learning, friends!  And happy to do it together!

Onward!!

November 30:  Blogging Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

I think I can honestly say this after 4.5 years.

Candidate topics for this last post of the 30 day challenge included People, Relationships, Connection, Movies, and Ma Jiang.  Of course all of these make me better, but tonight Blogging wins.

Writing for a public forum makes me more cognizant of my potential audience, more discerning.  I have to choose my topics carefully, balance honesty and vulnerability with privacy.  It gives me a venue to practice various skills—writing, time management, storytelling, editing, and online interaction.  Since I have committed to visiting the blogs of all bloggers who like my posts, I have also discovered the writing and lives of others whom I’d likely never otherwise come across.  My horizon is widened.

Blogging allows me to put thoughts into the world and find others with similar thoughts.  It’s a diary of experience, a web-log that serves, if nothing else, as a timeline of my personal and professional evolution, which I can then query over time in order to understand myself better.  But I don’t write it only for myself—otherwise why make it public?  I write to connect, because that makes me better, always better.

Maybe I can ask more of the blog in 2020.  Maybe I could make it more focused?  More organized?  More goal-oriented?  Or maybe not.  Nothing has to be decided tonight.  I’ll know when something needs to change.

Meanwhile, my sincere and heartfelt thanks to all who take time out of your lives to read Healing Through Connection.  I hope you get something out of it that makes you better, too.

November 29:  Reflection Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

How was 2019 for you, friends?

Looking back, what stands out?  What gives you pride and joy?  Guilt and regret?  What’s the best thing you learned?  What do you look forward to the most in 2020?

In the first post of this month, I described my last role play experience, one marked by intensity around domestic violence and dense communication skills practice.  Dr. Orit Kalnieri-Miller led the workshop, and I will forever be grateful for her groundbreaking work incorporating reflective practice in medical education.

Wikipedia says reflective practice is

 the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.[1] According to one definition it involves “paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”.[2]A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential.[3][4]

Regular reflective practice, I think, is mindfulness in action.

This whole month I have been reflecting.  Looking back, seeking patterns.  What really does make me better?  Better for whom?  For What?  How does it all help me going forward?  I have probed my habits, my relationships, roles, activities, ideals and attitudes.  Writing the reflections every night as a blogging challenge probably does not give each idea much time to sink in.  But now they are recorded.  They are a collection that I can review over time; I can revise, rewrite, and continue the reflection-learning-practice cycle of self-improvement.  Reading past posts reminds me of where I was then, which allows comparison and contrast to today.

I am, still and always, me.  I’m also always learning and changing.  Reflection helps me to know myself better and more deeply, to claim and exercise my authentic agency in service of the causes that matter to me.  Reflection keeps me focused on my Why.  In the coming year, it will help me identify, refine, and enact my next Just Cause.  Very exciting!

But maybe the best part is that reflective practice is not a solitary activity.  When I have any opportunity to get feedback from those whose perspectives I respect, the learning is that much deeper and more meaningful, even (especially) if it challenges and agitates me.  People mirrors do not always show the reflection I want, or the self-delusions I believe–they call me out.  But sometimes they show that I’m living exactly and fully in my integrity and values.  Both are equally valuable.

So I will continue looking for reflections everywhere.  They keep me honest, and that makes me better.

November 28:  Gratitude Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Haha, DUH!

How cliché to write about gratitude on Thanksgiving, right?  Kind of feels like professing love on Valentine’s Day.  At the same time it’s nice that we have a day designated to acknowledge all that we are thankful for, it also feels a bit contrived, perhaps?

But seriously, gratitude really does make us all better.  Read more about this here and here.  In summary, practicing gratitude seems to correlate with improved physical and psychological well-being, better sleep, increased empathy and self-esteem, and decreased aggression.  But how do we feel this on a daily basis?

As some of you know, I started a daily thank you note practice in January.  I’m proud to say that on average, I have written at least one note per day since I made the commitment.  Occasionally a few days go by and I write none.  But many days I write multiple.  I love to use my washi tape cards, but sometimes it’s an email or Facebook message, other times I post on a website or in feedback comments to a company.  It’s become a habit now.  Every day I feel gratitude acutely.  I recognize the people who make a positive difference in my life, repeatedly, reliably, and without expectation of anything in return.  My expression of gratitude connects us further, holding us all up through days of mundane grinding.  If I use my washi tape cards there’s also a flourish of color in there.  This practice has given me leave to reach out to authors, companies, people and organizations who may not otherwise know the positive impact they have on any given individual.  It feels good.

Tonight I’m grateful for so many things—nature, the most meaningful work I can imagine, all of my first world comforts and resources.  But no question, I am most thankful for people. My parents, holy cow.  My sisters, husband, children, extended family.  My friends—the family I choose.  Colleagues, students, patients.  Fellow activists and volunteers.  Challengers and worthy rivals.

I will pay more attention and reflection to this last group in the coming year.  When I accepted my new leadership role two years ago, Coach Christine had me identify my ‘allies.’  Of course all of my loving, supportive friends and family came to mind first.  But Christine also pointed out the challengers—those who vex me, the thorns in my side, the dissenters–they are also allies.  Of course!  Some of my best growth and progress is born of struggle, interpersonal and otherwise.  So how can I be but grateful for the people in my life who make it a little harder?  Whatever doesn’t kill us, right?

I hope you all had a loving, delicious, and fulfilling Thanksgiving, friends.  May we all carry some of this warmth and connection forward through the holiday season and beyond.  We only have one another.  We will not always agree.  We will all struggle.  We can only do our best every day.  Grateful for each day to try to do better, again and again.

November 26:  Practicing Peace Makes Me Better

 

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What helps you find peace these days?

With so much tumult in the country/world and Thanksgiving gatherings fast approaching, what will get you through this season and the coming year with minimal suffering and relationships intact?

Lately my inner peace feels tested on multiple fronts.  Anxiety, guilt, fear, regret, and insecurity accelerate their rotations through my limbic brain.  Thankfully, with age, therapy, and loving, compassionate friends, I have let go of self-judgment for experiencing stress and distress.  I don’t resist negative feelings as much as I used to.  I wish I could say this makes them less unpleasant, easier to tolerate.  Sadly, no.  But I am better able to let them pass through me, to ease into peace.

The more I observe, the more I notice that rather than allow and release our emotions, we tend to either deny/repress or fixate on them.  The consequent suffering can be disabling.  I started wondering how peace comes so much more easily to me now than before.  Below is a partial list.  What would you add to it?

***

Breathe

Rose may have saved my career.  One day in early in practice, running around exasperated and cranky yet again, I returned to my spot at the counter to find “TAKE A DEEP BREATH” posted in large font on the wall in front of me.  It was one of those immediate and profound, perspective-shifting, life-changing moments.  One. Deep. Breath.  Everything goes smoother and happier since that day.  Later I learned about tactical breathing, which trains inner peace both mentally and physically.  I’m not facing mortal combat (primitive stress reflex responses notwithstanding), but it helps me find peace all the same.

Smile (especially when I see my kids)

I was a dormitory resident assistant my senior year in college.  Though it was my job to serve as counselor and guide to college life for my fellow residents, it was wise freshman who taught me about exercising agency in the face of adversity.  I can still see her joyful, welcoming face and posture, feel her free and loving spirit.  I wish I had gotten to know her better.  She wrote on my message board, “Smile, Cathy, you’ll feel ten times better!”  Of course she was right.  Over the past 25 years I’m proud to say that I’m much better at finding my smile now.  Thank you, sweet girl.

Quote Michael J. Fox

MJ Fox worry

Focus on the Now

My daughter had an anaphylactic reaction while I was at work.  The sitter called and I could hear my preschooler stridoring in the background.  My son called 911 as I raced out of the office to meet them at the emergency department.  I was shaking and could barely see straight—how was I going to drive?  What if she died?  I still had to keep it together for my other kid.  That was a morbid turn, I remember thinking.  How quickly we catastrophize.  Thank God for the mindfulness training I had recently started.  Right now, everybody’s still alive.  Paramedics are on their way.  They already did the EpiPen.  Things are okay right now.  This mantra occurred to me as I pulled out of my parking space.  It carried me through that crisis and has held me up through numerous others since.  Mindfulness works, my friends.

Let Go Outcome

See quote by Michael J. Fox.  No matter how much we plan, what we expect, or how prepared we are, we just don’t know what will happen.  This practice is also an extension of mindfulness.  I can only control my own attitude and action right now.  I can cultivate relationships that influence others, attempt to enroll them in my ideas, and recruit them on my mission.  But I cannot control their reactions, their behavior, or the myriad circumstantial dynamics that facilitate or stymie our activities.  If we work steadily for our highest goals, stay on the path of honesty, integrity, and authenticity, and commit to ethical process, then we can deal with any outcome.

Stop Chasing Confirmation

Early in marriage and parenting, I used to fight.  I would flood my family with more and louder words, convinced I could prove my point and win.  The more I spoke (yelled), the more blank and silent my loved ones became, and the louder and larger I got in their faces, demanding understanding, agreement, acquiescence.  [Please feel free to laugh out loud while cringing here.]  These encounters inevitably ended in frustration for all of us.  Somewhere along the way I noticed people demonstrating the behaviors I demanded, even though they had never agreed to them.  Maybe there’s a better way?  Perhaps if I state my case calmly and lovingly, and let go of the immediate outcome, the doors in their minds might stay more open and I can still get what I want, without all the hurt feelings and wasted energy.  *sigh*

***

Four more days, friends.  Almost there!  Thank you for your views, likes, and comments!

November 25:  My Journals Make Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

“You both have multiple journals that are all partially written in?” I asked, feeling vaguely twitchy.

On an online forum where I like to think I’m making new friends, three of us have bonded over our shared love of journals.  I wrote to the group last week, “I may have almost as many blank journals as I have books–the potential in them, the invitation to fill them with experience and life–they just make me so happy.”  The other two musketeers described their journals of various sizes, shapes, and designs, scattered about their homes.  They get written in whenever inspiration strikes.

That idea made me a little uncomfortable—that thoughts and ideas might be strewn about in different books, lying randomly around a home, disconnected, alone!  Hence the question above that I keyboard-blurted tonight.  I thought at first, “I can’t do that.”  Then I realized, I do do that—I have at least 4 journals going at the same time.  But I do organize them (not that my friends don’t—I have asked them to clarify).  I have a personal one, where I keep all original content. This one has at least three different designs of washi tape tabs, for blog ideas, presentation ideas, and other recurrent themes.  One is for work–a record of meetings, tasks, initiatives and their progress.  In a third I take notes at conferences or other formal learning.  Yet another holds insights from coaching calls and exercises from LOH.  I carry at least two, sometimes all, of them around with me every day. It’s common for me to have at least two out and be writing in both of them at the same time–taking notes from a meeting or presentation in one, then writing reflections, insights, and revelations in the other.  I often flip them over and write from the back covers, to keep lists and other short, serial records.  I attach email printouts and sticky notes, and when I reread I highlight and write in the margins.  These are well-used and well-loved books.

***

In 2010 I went to a Mindfulness in Medical Education retreat.  I was physically ill that week with a respiratory virus.  But I had been mentally and emotionally unwell for months, turbulent and restless inside.  All I could do was ruminate, turning thoughts, conversations, and memories over, raking the same terrain, uncovering nothing new, no insights to show for all that psychic energy spent.  On the first night of the retreat we were given some quiet time and a pad of paper.  I filled my mug with hot tea, climbed into the bay window, and started writing.  For a month I had had inexplicable and persistent cubital tunnel syndrome—inflammation of the ulnar nerve at my right elbow that caused such sensitivity and pain in my forearm that I could hardly stand wearing long sleeves.  That night I unloaded the whole of my pent up frustrations onto that legal pad, many pages worth—a total brain dump.  I always journaled growing up, and somehow it had been years since I had last penned for myself.  I had forgotten how cathartic, how therapeutic, it was.  The next morning my arm felt normal.  I have kept a journal ever since, and that pain has never recurred.

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Another friend mentioned recently that he may leave his house without his wallet or his keys, but he never steps out the door without his journal.  I can totally relate!  Now I suspect there are more of us than I thought.  It’s the most satisfying feeling to have a reliable, accessible repository to record insights, ideas, and discernments, whenever they occur.  When I cannot do this—usually when I’m driving—it’s like having to pee until I can get out the journal at the next stoplight (or pull over).  It occurs to me occasionally to stop accumulating blank journals.  I’ve already set a moratorium on buying yoga pants and washi tape (for now).  But if a blank journal calls to me, I will buy it.  It’s good for my soul.