The Optimist and the Cynic

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Are you an optimist or a cynic?

I consider myself to be, wholly and without question, an Optimist—with a Big O.

In The Art of Possibility, Ben and Roz Zander describe a cynic as a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again.

By this definition, cynics are not altogether hopeless and negative; they are simply wary and cautious based on past experience.  Still, I judge cynics and find them tiresome.  I reject their gloom and doom outlook.  Sometimes I really just want to throttle them.  In their presence I turn up my outward optimism to happy headbanger volume.  I can tell this makes them a little crazed—they see me as Pollyannish, idealistic, and naïve—and likely wish to strangle me, too.

And here’s the thing:  I also possess a deep cynical streak; one that can really overtake my consciousness sometimes.

Every day I campaign ardently to empower myself and those around me, pointing to all the ways we can claim our agency and effect positive change.  I advocate for using all of our kindness, empathy, compassion, and connecting communication skills, in every situation—take the high road!  Be our Best Selves!  And yet at the same time, a darker part of me, my shadow side, silently tells a contemptuous story of the forces we fight against.  I paint a sinister picture in my mind of impediments made of ‘the other’ people—the small minded, the pessimistic, the underestimating, unbelieving, rigid, unimaginative, distrustful, conventional, supercilious, and condescending themThey are not like usThey are the problem.

Of course this is not true.  It’s just a story I tell—a counterproductive and self-sabotaging story.  How fascinating.

Sometimes I tell this unsympathetic story aloud, out of frustration, impatience, and exasperation.  Sometimes I actually name people and label them all those negative things I listed.  It feels justified and righteous.  But then I feel guilty, as if my worse self kidnapped the better me and held my optimism hostage until I vented against my better judgment.  I wonder when my words will come back and bite me in the butt?  What will I do then?

I suppose I can only claim passion and disappointment.  Sometimes I let the latter get the best of me and allow shadow to overtake the light.  It happens to the best of us; I can own it.  There is no need to disavow the disappointment and disillusionment, the dissatisfaction with what is.  If I didn’t care so much—about patient care, public policy, physician burnout, patient-physician relationship, and relationships in general—I would not suffer such vexations.  And it’s because I care so much that I fight on, to do my part to make it better.  I stay engaged in the important conversations, even if I have to take breaks and change forums at times.

Yes, I, the eternal optimist, harbor an inner, insubordinate cynic.  While most of me exclaims, “Humanity is so full of love and potential!” another part of me mutters subversively, “Also people suck.”  Some days (some weeks) the dark side wins, but it’s always temporary.  The Yin and the Yang, the shadow and the light, the tension of opposite energies—that’s what makes life so interesting, no?  We require both for contrast and context, to orient to what is in order to see what could be. 

The struggle for balance is real and at times exhausting.  And it’s always worth the effort.

Thank you, Mr. Zander

Zander Cheng

Dear Mr. Zander, I met you almost 10 years ago and you transformed my life.

You and Ms. Zander gave the keynote address at the second ever Harvard conference on coaching in healthcare.  I was one of only a handful of physicians in attendance.  You discussed the central tenets of your book, The Art of Possibility.  I could not wait to get my copy signed, and you also graciously agreed to a photo.  I have since read and listened to your book at least a dozen times, and every time I gain something new and relevant.  The names of the practices ring in my consciousness on a regular basis:  Give the A, Rule #6, Be a Contribution, Lead From Any Chair, and Be the Board.  I describe the practices and their benefits, still, to anyone who will listen.

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Back in 2015 I boldly contacted the Boston Philharmonic to see if you could speak at the American College of Physicians Illinois Chapter Meeting.  You actually spoke to me on the phone and considered coming!  I was honored.  Though it did not work out (I knew it was the longest of long shots), it amazed me that someone as sought after as you would personally take a phone call from a random, unknown doctor in Chicago.  Later that year, when I attended the Harvard Writers conference (the birthplace of this blog), I had the honor of observing a master class where I witnessed you love some young musicians into their best selves.  They believed in themselves because you saw them, loved them, and believed in them.  That is the best thing any teacher can do for a student.

Throughout these last ten years, I have continued to seek, study, and attempt to apply learnings from authors, teachers, and mentors like you, people who see the world as broken as it is, and also the hope of humanity’s strengths and connections.  There is no shortage of people trying to help us all be better, for ourselves and one another, and no more urgent time or need for this teaching than now.  I count myself beyond fortunate to have benefited from your influence and inspiration so early in my life and career, to have you as my model.  No doubt I am only one of thousands, if not tens (hundreds?) of thousands, whose lives you have transformed for the better.  I wish you an ever broader and higher platform from which to reach countless more people and organizations.  I wish you peace, health, and joy in all your endeavors and relationships.

Please know how much you have meant to so many.

Sincerely,

Catherine Cheng, MD

 

Living Large in Seventh Grade

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid?  I didn’t either!  To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before.  It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context.  I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply.  It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist.  The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid.  I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top.  I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so.  “Bullshit,” was his reply.  I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’  And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth.  You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.

Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life.  Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this).  He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today.  I love quizzes like this.  I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times.  Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder.  The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.

But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence.  We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole.  At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being.  The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:

While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us).  It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.

Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age:  We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration.   Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic.  But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute.  Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.

Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another.  We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts.  We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.

Onward.