November 16:  Loving Subversion Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

Friends, do you already follow Seth Godin’s blog?  His post from Thursday stirred something a little irreverent in me.  It was about ‘allies and accomplices’:

To be an ally means that you won’t get in the way, and, if you are able to, you’ll try to help.

To become an accomplice, though, means that you’ve risked something, sacrificed something and put yourself on the hook as well.

We need more allies, in all the work we do. Allies can open doors and help us feel a lot less alone.

But finding an accomplice–that’s an extraordinary leap forward.

I thought immediately about my fellow Better Angels volunteers.  We have all committed time, talent, and treasure to the depolarizing of America.  We do it in public, in front of audiences and cameras, to reporters and members of our communities.  We openly challenge the prevailing culture of ad hominem, oversimplification, and overgeneralization.  We all come to it from our own internal optimism and hope.  But in the face of entrenched polarization and a culture of self-protection above all, we could never make any headway as individuals.  It is only together—as mutual accomplices—that we can truly claim and exercise our collective agency.

I feel even more buoyed by Ozan’s latest post.  He describes a series of well-known studies showing that people will organize themselves into in-groups and out-groups with remarkable loyalty, even around random and arbitrary distinctions like taste in abstract art.  This, of course, carries grave and important implications for prejudice and discrimination.  Ozan then points to two exemplars of the opposite, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama.  In their most famous orations (see links), these remarkable leaders speak directly to what unites us as the foundation for solving our problems, rather than what divides us.

MLK:  The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

Obama:  The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.  We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.

I get goosebumps just reading the words.

It really feels like a loving subversion—of cynicism, scarcity, antagonism, and fear.

Who’s not better for that?

 

 

 

November 13:  Lightening Up Makes Me Better

 

 

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NaBloPoMo 2019

“Write without fear.  Edit without mercy.” —Unknown?

Hi, I’m Cathy, I’m a perfectionist.  I might be a control freak.  But I’m in recovery.

I kind of like that I proudly published a run-on post of a half-formed idea, then slashed it by one third and published it again.  It’s a fun paradox to inhabit pride and humility at the same time.

Other writers help.  I’ve written before about The Art of Possibility.  Phrases like, “How fascinating!” when I make a mistake make room for self-compassion and -forgiveness.  Very few mistakes, even at work, are life-threatening, and most are made honestly.  This attitude of good humor keeps me from wallowing in self-flagellation.  I can learn and make amends more swiftly and earnestly.  The Zanders’ Rule #6: Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously, is such an easy catch phrase to remember, and takes practice to live in real time.  I’m getting there!

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, full of vivid, joyful, and wondrous stories of human creativity, encourages me to take risks.  Make pretty things, she writes.  Don’t do it for us, don’t do it to help anyone.  Do it because you want to.  Your unique expression has a value all its own, so put it into the world.  Period.

Ozan says, “Do the verb”:

In many cases, we want to be the noun (a songwriter) without doing the verb (writing songs). We tell ourselves we’re going to be an entrepreneur, but we don’t build a product or service. We tell ourselves we’re going to be a novelist, but we don’t write a novel (instead, we tweet about writing a novel).

The key is to forget the noun and do the verb instead.

If you want to be a blogger, start blogging every week.

If you want to be a stand-up comedian, start doing stand-up comedy at open mike nights.

If you want to host a podcast, start podcasting.

…Doing the verb reorients you away from the outcome and toward the process. And if you plan to be a professional at anything, the process–the verb–is all that matters.

With these inspiring innovators’ help, I skip freely along on the path of writing, light on my feet.  When I trip on a rock and face plant next to some wildflowers and an earthworm, I can take off my glasses and stare a little longer from this new perspective.  I’ll likely find something to write about from it.  Sweet!

Even when I think an idea is fully formed, the act of writing expands it.  This week I have discovered deeper meaning in my stories, just by way of typing them.  More material to chew and spew, yay!

This is not brain surgery, writing a blog.  I’m not saving lives here!  But it is a challenge, a commitment, and sometimes a labor.  I hear my own voice consistently throughout almost 5 years of posts, and while my style is still consistent, I also see an evolution in the writing.  I’m gratified to continue the discipline, and taking it ever lightly definitely makes me better.

November 11:  Fierce Optimism Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

On Ozan’s Inner Circle forum today, another member posted about his admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It reminded me of a favorite MLK quote, which came to mind on Saturday as I prepared for the Better Angels workshop:  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  I have referred to this quote many times over the years, and a phrase that I often add goes something like, “Bend that arc!  Hang on it with all your might!”  Meaning the arc bends toward justice only because we make it so, by working tirelessly for it, by acting visibly in accordance with our core values, and by consistently walking the talk.

I texted my friend the morning of the workshop: “I’m 90% excited, 10% nervous…Maybe 15%…”  Then I thought about the people I know who like the idea(l) of Better Angels, but don’t want to participate.  I thought about my friends who express hopelessness at any possibility that people on opposing political sides can ever connect, that we can actually work together across our differences to get things done.  I thought about the pushback I might get, that the Better Angels mission is futile, a waste of energy and time.  I felt something akin to a tidal wave rise within me, and I texted my friend again, spontaneously, “I intend to make today a day of fierce, infectious optimism.”  At that moment I knew my goal that day was to take every example and experience of kindness, connection, empathy, openness, generosity, magnanimity, conviction, and hope, and channel it to the workshop and its participants.  Because though it was to be a skills workshop, teaching a way of doing, what we really need are all of the qualities I just listed—they are the way of being that brings the skills to bear in the most meaningful ways.

This idea marinated for a couple of hours while I pictured the venue, reviewed the workshop content, made notes about delivery.  I thought again about my friends who feel like our world is crumbling around us, that so much progress made the last century is being eroded.  I completely empathize with this perspective, and I understand how it makes us feel we have to fight, to be aggressive and confrontational, to come at the opposition full force, like a bullet train.  Do they think listening and speaking skills focused on curiosity and openness too passive and ineffective?  Does optimism, the hopefulness and confidence that things will be okay, make me lazy about the issues that matter to me?

Below are the words I texted my friend to describe what I mean by ‘Fierce Optimism’.  Normally I would not share such nascent ideas on the blog, but whatever, it’s all an experiment, who knows what better ideas may come from this early sharing?

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Fierce Optimism Is:

Urgency with Patience

Or should it read, “Urgency without Impatience”?  What I mean here is simply that most things worth doing take a very long time.  All important social movements occurred (and continue) over generations.  At times confrontation and revolution are necessary.  But they are not enough.  Consistent, slow, organic, grass roots change on the local level is what sustains consistent progress, keeps it from regressing.  The acute urgency I feel to address my deep concerns (for instance, the profound rifts in our relationships) drives me to action.  But when that action is directed at another person, I must attune.  I have to set realistic expectations for how much I can move this mountain today.  Pacing myself, practicing persistence with patience, conserves energy and prevents burnout.  It also allows me to look up every once in a while and adjust to my surroundings, adapt to subtle changes, like when someone starts to soften.  If I’m bulldozing with strong words and heavy dogma, I am more likely to plow over and through any crack in the door of someone’s mind that might have swung open freely had I taken a more gentle approach.

Strength with Flexibility

Better Angels does not seek to make everybody—anybody—a moderate.  Rather, the goal is to hold our positions firmly and with principle, and practice seeing why someone else may hold a different position with equally strong principle.  In doing so, two things often happen:  First, by challenging our own beliefs and values, we can reinforce them.  Telling stories about the experiences that led us to our core values reconnects us with their origins, grounds us in and strengthens our own personal truth.  Second, hearing others’ stories helps us broaden our perspective.  Most of the time we only see things from our own point of view—this is our default setting.  But when we share personal experiences, really learn about each other, the curtains open on a vast landscape of understanding that we may never have imagined.  So while I may still hold my goals and objectives firmly, I can more easily release the rigidity of my method, tolerate setbacks with less suffering.  Earlier this year I listened to The Warrior Within by John Little.  He describes Bruce Lee’s life philosophy, which included a metaphor of the bamboo and the oak.  Both are admirably strong, but under intense forces of nature, the oak may break while the bamboo simply bends, sometimes to the ground, but without breaking.  Both stay rooted where they are planted, but one is more resilient.  Listening with openness and curiosity is not weakness.  Allowing for nuance and the possibility that my mind may be changed in some ways, while holding steadfast to my core values, makes me calm, agile, adaptable, and, I think, more effective.

Conviction with Generosity

This is about the assumptions we make.  Too often we cast ‘the other’ in abstract as sinister, evil, less than.  We hold up the most extreme members of the opposing group as representative of a dull and dumb monolith.  We oversimplify and overgeneralize, and then approach any individual we identify as belonging to that group as an assembly line package, a completely known entity.  We think we know all about them already, even if we have never met them, just because they identify today as “Red” or “Blue.”  In so doing, we make ourselves small.  We become exactly as narrow minded and prejudiced as the folks we accuse on the other side.  How ironic.  Now more than ever, we need generosity.  In my mind this encompasses empathy, vulnerability, sincerity, humility and a willingness to allow the complete humanity of every other person, regardless of their political, religious, racial, cultural, or any other persuasion.  Conviction without generosity too easily becomes tyranny, for individuals as well as organizations and governments.

*sigh*

Well, like I said, these ideas were just born two days ago.  Have I expressed them at all coherently?  Have I shown you intuitively apprehensible paradoxes?  Can you feel the dynamic balance of agitation and peace?  Tension without anxiety?  Potential and kinetic energy?  If not, that’s okay.  I’ll keep working on it.  That’s the essential outcome of Fierce Optimism, after all—we keep working, steadily, to bend that arc.

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The Mark You Make

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Friends, Ozan has written another book!  I know it may seem like it, but he’s not paying me to promote his work, really!  He has offered perks for Inner Circle members, however, like an advance digital copy for preordering, and signed copies when the book is released next April.  In considering what I would ask him to inscribe to my friends in the books I will give them, I realized yet another evocative dimension of my relationships.

If you were to describe your friendships to a third party, or make a meaningful introduction in service of connecting two amazing people, what would you say?  I call it ‘connecting fellow Awesomes,’ and it’s always a pleasure and privilege to serve in this capacity.  I thought to ask Ozan to write to one friend something like, “Cathy thinks the world of you—happy to make such a positive new connection!”  Then I thought, this friend has really made a mark on me.  Then I thought of the mark Ozan has also made, in just 9 months of virtual contact.  And then my mind was blown with the realization of my cosmically marked-up self—the finger, hand, and footprints of all those whom I have contacted.

Years ago I attended the orthopaedic surgery resident graduation dinner with my husband, a happy and fun annual event.  At the end, mingling with faculty and trainees, one of the graduates looked at me and his eyes widened.  “You’re Dr. Cheng!  You were my teaching attending during my third year medicine rotation [7 years prior] at [the hospital where I used to work]!”  I was gratified that his expression was cheerful, rather than distressed or awkward, surprise.  He went on to tell me that I held the team to a high standard of discussion, and that he appreciated my presence and teaching.  I will always remember this encounter with pride and appreciation.

In the past year three patients from my past have resurfaced and told me the positive difference I made it their lives.  I remembered two of them so clearly, both their faces and their names (after 20 years and thousands of patients, I can usually only remember one or other).  Talking to each of them reminded me of all that we had been through together, and I was glad that I had done my job well.

But what about those for whom I have not been a great doctor?  I have had my fair share of patients who left me, for various reasons.  I know I have been seriously disappointing for many.  I wonder how many times I have contributed to patients’ negative overall experience of medicine, and further widened the divide between doctors and patients in our fraught and flawed healthcare system?  Sometimes I look back on my early years of practice and cringe a little—all the writing I do now on empathy, compassion, curiosity, openness, and humility results from years of lessons learned in real time, on real people.  I’m definitely much more adept at it all now than in the beginning.  And I’m still learning—I still get triggered, still fall into old, counterproductive thought and behavior patterns.  Sometimes it feels like I will never be good enough, or enough in general.

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I also think about the people whose marks on me were/are hurtful, dismissive, and otherwise wounding.  It reminds me of carvings I see in the trunks of the beautiful aspens I walked among this weekend.  Did the folks who made them set out to harm the trees?  If they thought the tree might die from their knife marks, would they think twice?  Maybe they were overcome with their profound experience in nature and just wanted to mark it in some way, especially if they shared it with someone they loved (so may initials with plus signs and hearts)?  Sometimes we just want or need to be right, competent, respected, and acknowledged.  So we mark our encounters with stubbornness, aggression, or even violence (in its many forms, overt and cloaked).  Like the strong and flexible aspens, I bear scars from such encounters and still continue to thrive.  Such marks have taught me how to care for myself, and also how not to be toward others.

In the end, how do I reconcile these relationship phenomena?  Sometimes we can see and know the mark we make on others.  Many times we cannot.  Nobody is perfect.  My whole life I will scrape and nick those around me, hopefully never with malicious intent.  I can only hope for their generosity and grace, and forgiveness.

Sister Brené Brown, once again, helps me continue.  In her book Rising Strong, she describes a choice, a mental attitude, that can help us all suffer less.  If you have not read or heard the book, I highly recommend it—it’s my favorite of the 5 of her books I have read.  Assume, she says (with the help of her pediatrician husband), that we are all doing the best we can.  That’s it.  We are all imperfect.  Our circumstances mess with us, our patterns mess with each other, and sometimes it can feel like a strange and inexplicable miracle that we have not all killed one another already.  But choosing to give each other this one, simple, and at times colossally difficult benefit of the doubt, could be what saves us all.

We simply cannot extricate ourselves from each other.  So we can just do your best to take care of one another.  And be prepared to apologize, early and often.

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Tribe, Community, and Mission to Connect

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Fruit for Regina’s sweet galettes.  These are tiger figs, available at Trader Joe’s. 🙂

Friends, don’t you love those synthesis/cohesion moments when all of a sudden something important to you—a passion, a core value, a project—is validated from multiple angles?  That happened for me this weekend and I am positively giddy from it!

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My new group of medical students promises to be just as engaging and fun as every other I’ve had, yay!  They are only three rotations into their third year and already wise beyond their training.  This month we discussed tribalism.  They considered stereotypes, barriers to overcoming them, and how they might lead by example.  And they identified experiences in which such barriers are already breaking down.  “Finding your people” came up as both an aspirational as well as a potentially divisive ideal.  We discussed the benefits of ‘We’re Great!’ and the risks of ‘They Suck’ attitudes.  The conversation did not veer into political arenas, but it crossed my mind.  I tried to point out how the skills of professionalism we address in medical training apply well beyond the bedside and medical teams.  Our tribal memberships can save us and also keep us from living fully.  I’m so grateful to have these reminders on a regular basis.

Community

Some of you may notice I reference Ozan Varol increasingly this year (see coda below for why I think he’s so great).  I started following him in the winter after reading his post on why facts don’t change people’s minds.  This summer I joined his Inner Circle, a private forum of diverse and like-minded folks who subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter and wish to connect.  Yesterday Ozan generously hosted a conference call for three of us to get feedback on current projects.  At 2:00pm Central Daylight Time, I logged on from Chicago.  I met Ozan and his wife in Portland, OR.  J, a Canadian, called in from the Dominican Republic, where she has lived the past 24 years.  C, an organizational psychologist interested in humane-ness in the workplace, logged on from Germany.  And R, an education leader working on emotional intelligence workshops for schoolteachers, called in at 12:00am from India.  C, R, and I presented our projects and everybody gave generous, honest, and encouraging feedback to help us all do and be our best.  I could hardly contain my enthusiasm, gesticulating wildly and barely staying in the webcam frame sometimes.

I wrote to Ozan afterward:  “I’m still wrapping my brain around what you have done here–stimulated so many people to think more critically and also openly… Convened a community of us all and given us a forum to interact, at our own pace and in our own words, from around the world… and invited us to help one another, to contribute to lives that we would never otherwise touch…  What a privilege, a pleasure, and an absolutely ecstatic experience!!!”

Mission to Connect

I think it’s fair to say that part of Ozan’s mission is to connect people.  But not just for the sake of connection—to make us all more thoughtful, curious, and collaborative beings.  A man after my own heart!

Maybe my passion for such connection stems in part from my immigrant roots?  Today my daughter and I embarked on another food adventure at home:  Onigiri and chong you bing (but ours are much easier than the linked recipe!).  The former turned out to be less labor-intensive than I expected, so we made a bunch, both salmon and chicken versions.

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Tonight’s teriyaki chicken onigiri selection

My Korean-American friend of 20 years, Regina, posted photos of her own culinary accomplishments today—savory and sweet galettes.  Mei and I may try those next!  Our ensuing text thread included my laments about the unhealthiness of onion pancakes (but oh, salt, fat, and starch—yummo!).  Her kind reply: “Making food together with your kids, carrying on food culture, bonding, it’s a win-win!!”  I knew I loved her for good reason.  And how lovely that we have stayed in touch all this time!  If not for that, I could never have recruited her to join my work team this year.  And holy cow, talk about a win-win!  Her kindness, generosity, curiosity, openness, and conscientiousness have elevated the team even higher than we could have dreamed—Thank you, Regina!  What a blessing our connection has been for so many.

My new German friend C is thinking of launching a blog to explore humane-ness and its effects and importance in the work environment.  She thinks maybe next year.  Yesterday Ozan and I both encouraged her to start now.  Asked whether I would follow, I said HELL YES.  Not only will writing about her topic develop her ideas and thesis faster; the interface with fellow readers and writers on a blog, the opportunity to join a community of thinkers, and the connection with folks from who knows where, doing who knows what amazing things, may very well yield untold treasures of relationship and development—as it has for me—so why wait?

Tonight my heart bursts with gratitude for membership in such thriving, complex, diverse and overlapping tribes.  I treasure the various communities that welcome me and give me a chance to contribute.  And my mission to make as many and meaningful connections as possible between all people stands validated and sustained once again.

Onward, my friends.  As Simon Sinek says, Together Is Better.

 

Ozan about

Why Ozan’s So Great:

  1. Humility.  So many bloggers and podcasters are so full of themselves.  It’s obnoxious.  They may have expertise and knowledge, maybe even wisdom.  But I cannot get past my aversion to their ego.  I have no such issue with Ozan. 🙂
  2. Goldilocks content.  The blogs are the perfect length!  Enough words to make his point eloquently, and not so many that I lose interest before the end.  He contacts subscribers at just the right frequency–weekly emails and biweekly podcasts.  And the newsletters are also the perfect blend of blog, quote, and other interesting material.  So many other authors inundate the inbox that I first ignore and then unsubscribe.  Ozan has really found the perfect touch.
  3. Resonance.  Though Ozan’s podcast topic is failure, what he really addresses is humanity in all of our complexity and fascinating ironies.  I LOVE that!  And he does it nonjudgmentally, always from the perspective of curiosity and learning.  I really respect that–the generosity of spirit and growth, exploratory mindset.
  4. Consistency and reliability.  Ozan is clearly disciplined and intentional when it comes to this work (and so I imagine he is also this way in life).  His podcast script has a reassuring cadence and authenticity to it.  When he says he’ll reply to all messages, he actually replies (that is what most impresses me about him–his responsiveness and how he makes me feel like I matter).  He says he will update us on something and then he does.  All in all a truly stand up and stand out guy among so many!

 

We Are Really Bad At This

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Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch, Loveland, Colorado, March 2019

How many truly meaningful and fulfilling conversations do you have in a day?

How many such relationships do you have?

Though I wrote my Pit Crew post almost a year ago, its ideas recur regularly.  I have linked to it on multiple subsequent posts.  I share it with patients and reference it in conversations often.  My patients are leaders of large corporations and organizations.  My colleagues and I lead teams in the hospital, the medical group, and the medical school.  My friends lead their families and communities.  When I think about our health and its consequences, it’s about taking care of those for whom we are responsible, ourselves included.

Are you generally the one who always takes care of others?  How does this affect your style and effectiveness as a leader?

Who Takes Care of You?

I estimate that about 20% of the time when I ask this question, my patients say that nobody takes care of them; they do it themselves.  They don’t mean that nobody cares about them.  It’s that they don’t really depend on anyone for counsel and/or support.  They hold everything together themselves.  I always have mixed feelings when the conversation takes this turn.  On one hand I feel admiration and respect, especially when they seem generally healthy—apparently unaffected by physical, mental, and emotional dysfunction.  On the other, I get curious.  How do they sustain this Lone Ranger method?  And what does it cost them?  I believe we all need tight, vulnerable, and safe connections through which we can get raw and real, and work through life’s ultimately messy sh*t.  We need others, even if it’s only one or two, to help us truly hold it all together.  My default assumption is that if we don’t have such connections, we are not living into our full potential.

And today I feel cynical.  I think we are getting really, really bad at taking care of each other.

Driving to work this week I wondered to myself, why do we feel the dearth of mental health services so acutely these days?  Is it that more of us are living on the psychological razor’s edge of mental health and illness?  Are we not diagnosably mentally ill but simply, profoundly, stressed to our limits of sanity and function?  Is that why none of my patients can get in to see a psychiatrist or therapist for weeks to months?  Is that why physicians are increasingly leaving the profession and killing ourselves?  Why do we feel so hopeless?

It’s easy to blame social media.  And I do, partially.  The cruelest irony lives here.  My non-evidence based impression is that cyberbullying bears equally life-threatening consequences as face to face bullying.  If you know of evidence to support or refute this premise, please share.  Negative interactions on social media, which rage so easily like wildfires, are now understood to contribute significantly to the rise in loneliness across the country.  Worse, cultivating truly positive relationships via social media is much harder and more complex, even deceptive.   So on balance the risks and harms of social media may far outweigh the benefits.  There simply is no substitute for personal, physical contact, for sharing the same space, breathing the same air, experiencing another’s full presence.

Worse yet, too often we can’t even get that right!  Ozan Varol wrote about this in his last post, “3 Ways to Be Insufferable In Coversation.”  They are:  1. Always turn the conversation back to yourself; 2. Pretend to listen; and 3. Ask no questions.  How many people have you already met today who do this on the regular?  If you’re honest, how many times today have you committed these relational sins?  It’s okay, we all do it sometimes.  As GI Joe says, knowing is half the battle.  The other half is doing something about it!

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Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, July 2019

So what do we do?

First, Attend.  Pay attention.  How much time do I spend on social media?  What do I get out of it?  When does Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drive my scrolling?  Am I really connecting?  Or am I stalking, comparing, judging, flaming, agitating the echo chamber, and otherwise wasting time and energy?  How can I set alerts and redirect my routine?

Second, Intend.  What is the best use of my time?  If I want to see how my friends are doing, rather than check my Facebook feed, why not call them up?  Send a text, photo, or—gasp—a handwritten note just to say hi, I’m thinking of you?  It may cost you time, energy, and $0.55 in postage.  But aren’t your real friends worth the investment?  You can do it on social media too—if you slow down and think about it first.  Consider the return—brightening someone’s day, feeling that personal connection.  Dopamine drives FOMO, and is also associated with addictive behaviors.  Bonding behaviors elevate oxytocin, the hormone that mediates empathy, safety, and connection.  There is even evidence that higher levels of oxytocin correlate with increased longevity of romantic relationships, or even a person’s own life span (could not find a reliable, peer-reviewed source for this claim—I just believe it intuitively).

Third, Get Curious.  This was the first skill I (re)learned in life coaching, ‘way back in 2005, and it serves me well every single day.  If we let go of the competitive, scarcity-based thinking that surrounds us, what more could we learn?  What novel and inspiring stories could we hear from anyone we meet, or even our closest friends?  If we listen to understand rather than to reload and refute or one-up, what vexing problems could we solve, together?  Just wondering about it makes me feel lighter and more optimistic, what about you?

Subscribe to Ozan’s newsletter, the Weekly Contrarian, to get his list of solutions to conversation insufferability this Thursday, 9am Central Time (I have no financial interests in Ozan’s site; I just really admire his work and the community of critical thinkers he has convened).  And today, I challenge us all:  Monitor our attitudes and facial expressions.  Manage our self-absorption for a few minutes at a time.  Look strangers in the eye and smile as if they’re already our friends.  Ask a Facebook friend what they did this weekend that really made them feel alive and well.  Let’s all get our caring on, shall we?

 

The Status of Women, 1999-2019

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What happens for men when women speak Feminism?

I intend to ask this question to more men in my life from now on.  What do you hear as Feminism?  Where do you think it comes from?  What do you think women are trying to accomplish by talking about equity and representation?  What moves a man to ally with women in this movement?  What keeps him from doing so?  What are the risks, costs, and benefits for us all when he does and does not?

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Women in Sports

The US Women have just won their fourth World Cup Soccer title, kicking balls and ass, I like to say.  What an accomplishment, and how far they’ve come since winning the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, the year I graduated high school.  I don’t follow soccer, but as an American woman, this victory carries meaning for me.  At halftime this morning I read about Brandi Chastain, the 1999 US World Cup champion midfielder who famously, spontaneously, took off her jersey in unadulterated celebration after firing the winning penalty kick in double overtime against China to win it all.  The New York Times featured her story yesterday, commenting on the evolution of our perceptions and treatment of female athletes over these 20 years:

In that pivotal moment of arrival for women’s team sports in the United States and around the world, viewers saw Chastain removing her jersey and twirling it like a lariat, spinning around and falling to her knees, pumping her arms in exultant triumph. What resulted was perhaps the most iconic photograph ever taken of a female athlete, a depiction of pure spontaneous joy.

It was a moment of freedom and liberation, Marlene Bjornsrud, a longtime women’s coach and an influential sports executive, once told me. She called it a “casting off the burden of everything that kept us down and said, ‘You can’t do that because you are a woman.’ It was a moment that screamed, ‘Yes, I can.’”

Title IX was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, one year before I was born.  So I took it for granted that girls could play sports just like boys in school—not every sport, but most.  I also took for granted the inherent assumptions about women in athletics—that we cannot be as fast, as strong, or as competitive as men.  I have so much more appreciation now for icons like Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Pat Summitt. I think about the WNBA, and women coaching in the NBA, NHL, and NFL, and I marvel at how far we have come.  Take a look at this timeline of women’s sports in the US to get a fuller perspective.  I know many will say we have a long way yet to go.  But today, let us joyfully celebrate all that we have accomplished already.  Wahoo!! [fist bump and dancing woman emojis]

 

Ortho women residents 1999-2013 jbjs jan 2012

Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, January 2012

Women at Work

I’m thinking about the culture of orthopaedic surgery.  In the twenty years since I graduated from medical school, I see more and more women in this field (as well as other surgical specialties), which makes me proud.  While women comprise only 5% of practicing orthopaedic surgeons, 15% of American orthopaedic residents are now women, which is roughly double the percentage in 1999.  But what’s it like to be a woman in orthopaedics?  How do these women present, perhaps differently, at work compared to in their personal lives?  Is it truly safe for them to be themselves as surgeons?  The American Orthopaedic Association held their annual meeting recently.  My orthopod friend returned from the conference and commented that the rare women leaders in his field seem ‘fierce’ and ‘tough’—but in a good way?  It struck him to wonder if they are just like that in general, or do they have to be that way to navigate their male-dominated specialty.  He wondered how they would be seen if they displayed sensitivity and emotion, “because a man can be seen as sensitive and kind” and not only does it cost him nothing, his social status is likely to be elevated because of it.  My friend was not sure this is the case for his female colleagues, and he seemed both empathetic and powerless at the idea.  Looks like gender parity may take a bit longer in medicine than in sports.

At work in general, women’s status varies considerably.  But research points to common issues such a 22% pay gap and too few women in leadership (5% of US corporate CEOs), though these are improving.  One need not look far for abundant evidence that having more women on the corporate team improves earnings and morale.  Much is also written on strategies for improving gender equity at work.  Two of my favorites are exit interviews and work-life balance initiatives for all employees, not just women.  But as I wrote last week, it’s not just about including women as participants in the workforce.  It’s about truly appreciating the diversity of experience, biology, and contribution that women bring to any group they serve.

 

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Women and Men

There is no way I can do justice to this topic in the remainder of this post.  So let me just share some ideas and resources I will continue to explore in the months and years to come.

I asked at the beginning what happens for men when women speak Feminism.  A corollary question is what happens for all of us when we hear the words ‘toxic masculinity’?  My guess is men get defensive and women get aggressive.  Personally I love the phrase because it’s so incisively descriptive.  But it can also be a flashpoint phrase, one that immediately incites conflict and emotional hijack.  Let me be clear: toxic masculinity does not imply that men and manhood are toxic by nature.  Quite the contrary, the phrase refers to a culture of expectations of men that is just as toxic for men as it is for women.  Male surgeons may well benefit from being sensitive and kind, but not too much so, lest they be seen as weak.  This is a vast oversimplification, by the way; the history and complexity of toxic masculinity are explored articulately here.

Readers of this blog know how much I love Brené Brown.  Her explanations of how shame (where toxic masculinity is born) manifests and organizes around gender—and why it is toxic for both men and women–are the most poignant and real.  Read her first hand comments to Ms. magazine here, and a stay-at-home dad writer’s interpretation of them here.  If you seek a nonjudgmental, objective, and real-life exploration of the complex dynamics between men and women, read The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly.  Sister (she’s not old enough to be Aunt) Brené’s books are the most accessible form of evidence-based, all-around relationship advice I have ever read, and I’m so grateful for her.  From the Ms. Interview:

What role do you think vulnerability played in the #MeToo movement?

Know what I love about the #MeToo movement?—and, me too—I thought until I was 25 or 30, that sexual harassment was just the price of entry.  The greatest casualty of trauma is the ability to be vulnerable. So this #MeToo movement is re-defining and re-claiming vulnerability, and putting vulnerability in the context it belongs in, which is power and courage. 

 What gives you hope?

The thing that scares me about the world today is the same thing that gives me hope. I believe we’re witnessing white male power over. It’s making its last stand right now. And it’s scary because last stands are dangerous, and people get very backed into a corner. I think this is the last stand, and that we’re going to see a shift, mercifully, from white male power to inclusive power with it too. And I think from that paradigm, we can do anything, change anything, and be anything. 

And it’s not just women who can claim agency against misogyny and sexism.  Men who identify as feminists serve as allies for gender equity and respect.  But men can also help themselves and each other break free from the restraints of machismo and chauvinism.  Movements like The Good Men Project and Evryman give men a forum for honest, vulnerable emotional expression and connection.  Just like women surgeons and corporate executives, all men need inclusive spaces where they can feel true belonging, where they are free to be all of themselves—hard emotions and all—for all our sakes.

Men I admire in this space include Nate Green, Ozan Varol, and David Brooks.

* * * * *

To lift my spirits here at the end of this long post, I’m listening to a song on repeat: Woman, Amen by Dierks Bentley.  It’s such a shining anthem of a man’s unabashed love and appreciation for his partner.  I can also imagine modifying the lyrics and hearing Faith Hill singing about her man Tim McGraw.

Thanks for reading to the end, friends.

Our relationships kill us or save us, and we really need to be better at taking care of each other, locally and globally.  We, men and women alike, are all in this together, inextricably, in sickness and in health, forever.

Only Love can save us.  Let’s get on it.