Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Succeeding Through Effective Failure

The secret to success just might be failure. Not abject failure, of course (although it’s always cool to use the word ‘abject’), nor consistent failure. But failure while pushing one’s limits or while exploring the new and the unknown might be the magic ingredient in the success recipe.

Why? Success is not simply the absence of failure, it is the defeat of failure. Success is over-coming failure. Indeed, without having failed at something some time, how do you know what success is? How do you know what it’s supposed to feel like?

Neither success nor failure need be any particular size. Small successes build confidence, and smallish failures teach. It’s important to qualify acceptable failures, though. Failure caused by sloppiness or laziness is ALWAYS bad. On the other hand, failure encountered while stretching beyond one’s limits, while reaching for something new, large, important…well…that’s the type of failure from which lessons are learned.

It takes a certain chutzpa to put one’s self at risk to fail while in the act of reaching further. I like Churchill’s take on it: “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

Be a little brave while failing.

Sunday Protests

One of my all-time, never fails thrills is a pre-game flyover. I get serious chills and a full coat of goosebumps every single time. Doesn’t matter what event follows, or why I’m watching. Unexpected, surprise fly-overs are an even more special treat, that “oh, you’re kidding…I get to see this even AND I get a fly-over?” It’s like getting dessert first at a Michelin starred restaurant. Never having served in any of the branches of our military I have no special call to feel this way. Yet goosebumps arrive on cue whenever a particularly moving rendition of our National Anthem is played, or if I hear Kate Smith or Ray Charles singing one of our other patriotic anthems.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am quite completely conflicted about the recent protesting of professional athletes done during these tiny interludes of observing our shared nation. I do get, as should all thinking individuals, that the protests themselves are not directed at either the anthem or the flag, and certainly not toward the men and women who have served in the defense of the historical values that these symbols represent. I truly love these tiny moments of patriotic sentimentality. They are, for me, similar to saying “Grace” before our evening meal: a tiny vestige of a once much larger experience.

Sporting events of all kinds used to be a much bigger presence in my life than they are today. Whether playing or watching, it was weird to not have some sort of game front and center. Once I hung up my various sporting implements, and even when I moved away both literally and figuratively from the teams of my youth, I could usually find some sort of sporting event to have on as background noise on a given day. The fact that I watch fewer games, and almost no football, at a time of unprecedented activism on the field is therefore purely coincidental.

Still, I do think about sports, and major sporting events are still a rallying point (or at least a conversation starter) in most walks of my life. To say that this next statement has me conflicted doesn’t really measure up to the truth: the on the field activism of athletes makes me avoid the discussion of sports entirely. It’s not that I feel the athletes have no place expressing their opinions, nor that I necessarily disagree with the opinions they are expressing. The heartfelt conviction that a particular group has been singled out for mistreatment is a righteous cause to which very public individuals could lend their support. By choosing the venue of a sporting event they have removed my ability to choose whether or when I will engage the topic.

By choosing to do it in the manner that they have chosen prevents me from experiencing a tiny thrill that used to at least feel like it was free.

So what? Isn’t that the point of protest, to make the safe and the secure a little bit uncomfortable? Sure, I get that. I really do. It makes little difference to those protesting to learn that people like me really do set aside time to consider the merits of their grievance; creating discomfort is part of the point. Having twice scrubbed my own workplace of all political activity, making it clear that our team is to avoid the creation of similar discomfort in our clients, I sort of feel like my patronage is being abused I guess. Kind of like that old joke “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out”, except it’s a political expression upending my expectation. Certain jobs just don’t mesh with political action in the workplace. Who wants to see their local police officers in uniform and protesting anything at all? Can you imagine listening to your surgeon expound on some controversial topic just as you slip under anesthesia?

You could very well read this and say that my bleating is nothing but one more example of “White privilege” (funny, given my name), the smug mutterings of someone safe and secure and as close to immune from the dangers being discussed. I would understand your position. I would disagree, but I would understand, and more than that I would inherently realize that no amount of discussion on our mutual parts would change your mind. All good. I’m uncomfortable, and a little bit unhappy, and maybe that was always the point.

The risk is that my discomfort may make me stop listening. That’s probably not what the protesters are aiming for.

Careless Joy

Quiet house. Quiet lake. Quiet mind? Not so much.

When you are riding high, hitting all of your numbers, looking out over a quiet lake as far as the eye can see and embarking on another stretch of smooth sailing, are you the type that rides the crest of that wave with the carefree joy it deserves? Or are you rather the sort that cannot shake the awareness that below your tranquil waters there lies a hidden reef that portends despair should you happen upon it? The question is more than just the old “are you an optimist or a pessimist” saw, I think. At its core lies one of the keys to happiness: can you live in a happy moment without simultaneously giving space to another darker, sadder moment?

During the dance are you always on edge waiting for the other shoe to drop?

None among us lives a life filled with only joy and happiness. Indeed, there are those whose lives are a proverbial slog from one tragic moment to another. Blessedly, in our developed world, these “treadmills of tragedy” are actually quite rare. Likely as rare as the Unicorn lives filled with nothing but rainbows and Skittles. No, for most of us it’s simply a question of degree leavened by, I dunno, attitude I guess. Do we approach the smorgasbord of our lives as ones of “quiet desperation” as so many novelists propose, or do we rather travel in a state of “careless joy”?

Beth and I are hosted friends this weekend at Casa Blanco, the invitation having come spontaneously months prior and quite amazingly accepted and consummated. The one, a classmate from college, I’ve known for 40 years. The other is my classmate’s relatively new love. How they’ve arrived together at Casa Blanco is quite fascinating. One has lived a life which from the outside seems to have been charmed beyond belief, while the other has struggled mightily to overcome significant childhood traumas. One looks back and muses on choices made and how things might have turned out if present day insights might have been available when earlier crossroads were encountered, while the other has doggedly worked through each treacherous road into and out of those crossroads.

What they have in common, at least this weekend, is the apparent ability to live fully within the joy of whatever moment they are experiencing right now, without allowing the intrusion of the “other shoe”. I am quite sure that each has some something that weighs on the balance toward the negative side of the ledger, but for the life of me I haven’t seen it. Pollyanna or a gift? I’m going with “gift” and furthermore I’m going with being able to watch this couple give themselves completely to each moment we’ve shared as one of the most meaningful “hostess” gifts Beth and I have ever received.

Those couple of things in my life (or yours, or my friends’) that are sitting there ruining your winning streak? That other shoe you just know will drop at an inopportune moment? Meh, they aren’t going away regardless of how you decide to engage with the joyful steps in your life, on your journey. Right now there’s a workout to plan and a lake to jump into. Bacon’s on the griddle while I watch the chickadees eat breakfast. Tapping or shuffling, the sound of the shoes is that of happy dancing, and I am taking my cue from our guests and simply listening.

That other shoe will drop whenever but I’ll likely not notice.  I’ll be too busy dancing to worry about it.

Of Tradewinds and Science

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.” –Max Planck

So very much of what we encounter as we seek any kind of guiding truth is not science at all, but strongly held opinion forcefully presented. Think about it for a moment. Think about a few of the really big issues orbiting the intellectuosphere. Climate change. Health. Fitness. The search for the cure for cancer. Heck, the decision on what to have for lunch. So many opinions…so much money…so little true science.

Even more than that, scientific truth is continually bludgeoned by the one-two punch of politics and commerce. True science has always been held hostage by those who have vested interests in what constitutes the prevailing truth at any given time. How many promising avenues of inquiry have been blocked, and how much time has been lost because of the failure to pursue additional lines of inquiry that ran counter to “consensus”? One need only think of inflammation in vascular disease or alternatives to “fat in the diet is unhealthy”, both squelched along with the careers and reputations of their proponents while the single consensus theory was pursued. Why? Alternate theories or parallel theories would siphon the spoils from those who fed at the consensus trough.

It’s quite tempting to hold that this is all relatively new, that it is a function of our highly developed Western societies. Tempting, but ultimately false. Has there ever been a time in recorded history when a new scientific truth has upended orthodoxy and there has NOT been an attempt by the entrenched to not only stop an new line of inquiry but also destroy those inquiring? Think Galileo. From where I sit it seems as if a substantial majority of truly disruptive new scientific truth has arisen from the ranks of those who stood aside the prevailing winds and charted their own course.

What does this mean for each of us as we sit in our own little boats and sail along? The trade winds of consensus are strong, and it seems the weaker the science behind them the stronger they blow. It’s fine to allow these to fill your sails, of course, for the majority of them do in fact propel us along a true course. The best course, however, may lie in the breezes that cross the trade winds. Those tiny little gusts that represent the true essence of real science–skepticism accompanied by inquiry, followed by proof–will ultimately propel us to the proper destination despite the power of the commerce attached to the trade winds.

Every now and again the Newport to Bermuda race is won by a rebel who went off alone and discovered a new truth about sailing. We should be open to the possibility of a new scientific truth in all parts of our lives, lest we find ourselves far behind, capsized in its wake.

Or worse yet gone, as Planck suggests, long before we ever had a chance to benefit.

Better Understanding Conflict of Interest By Studying Bias

So much strum und drang in the air. So many panties in a bunch. The offensitive are on the warpath about, well, everything. We seem to have a surfeit of ethicists among us, proclaiming in nearly real time where anything and everything fits on some mythical ethics grid. To them I offer my own filter, the question I ask before I expend an iota of energy of any kind on the type of “news” that has them all so agitated:

Is what I am viewing unethical, or simply unseemly?

Ethics is a synonym for morals. As such it should be universal and timeless. Ethics should bear nothing in common with fashion.

Speaking of which, it is fashionable in pretty much any field in which expertise can be obtained and the label “expert” attained to lay waste to those so acclaimed by accusing them of having a “conflict of interest”. Traditionally this meant that one might enjoy some sort of tangible gain by trafficking in one’s area of expertise, thereby rendering the expert’s stated opinions somehow tainted. Of late it means that being employed by someone with whom your critic has a beef means your standing to hold an opinion at all is nullified.

Nonsense.

We would be a wiser society if we instead made an effort to sort through the biases held by experts in any field. To demand that one not express any opinion that would support your employ should disqualify the individual who holds such a position, not the expert. To look at the bias that may be present in any expert opinion allows the audience to better evaluate both the veracity of the opinion, as well as its relevance to their own situation. For example, in my day job I have a strong bias to treat any condition that produces meaningful symptoms in my patients.

In truth, in many of the general categories that I cover my remuneration is identical whether or not I treat. Those who bleat on about conflict of interest would seek to nullify all of my thoughts simply because I make my living in the arena on which I opine. Again, this is silly. It is far more useful to read my professional writing through the prism of my pro-treatment bias. In so doing it is far easier to compare and contrast my public opinions with others in my space who may differ. Do they differ on substance, or do they differ because or a countervailing bias?

This is not to say that conflicts of interest do not exist, or that if they do exist that they are never a problem. If you have invented a medical device and choose to use your own device rather than a competitor’s you have a COI. Disclosure of your COI should be mandatory (I disclose all consulting contracts around prescription drugs, for example). If they are of equal quality (equal safety, equivalent outcomes), the COI is mooted. If your device is much more expensive (thereby generating much more income to you), your conflict of interest is unseemly but not necessarily unethical. It should be obvious on its face that using your invention if it is less effective (or Heaven forbid, unsafe) is unethical.

Expertise exists everywhere. Here, on CrossFit.com in the fitness world. Would you disqualify Greg Glassman because CrossFit has been a successful business? How about Jeff and Mikki Martin who have launched a business in the same space? Is their competition a conflict that nullifies their contributions to youth fitness? Among the bureaucrats at the EPA in the care of the environment. Do they not have a contribution to make despite their tax-supported position? Is their (presumed) anti-business bias a reason to dismiss all federal policy? Among the various and sundry talking heads on all of the financial offerings on cable news channels. Don’t you really want them to be rich and successful, especially if you are going to follow their advice?

If we seek to understand the biases that exist underneath the opinions of experts we can better evaluate the conflicts of interest that they inevitably carry along with those opinions. From there is is an easier task to evaluate the character of those conflicts, and better decide whether or not we accept their guidance.

Getting paid to be an expert and to share your expertise is only a meaningful conflict of interest if it is unseemly or unethical, not just unfashionable.

 

Ghosts in the Attic: Lives Remembered

An attic is in many ways similar to the vast storage facilities that lie hidden beneath and above every museum you’ve ever visited. The exhibits you walk through are like the life you see being lived right in front of you. If you are an experienced museum goer the existence of that treasure trove of unseen artwork is something you know is there somewhere. For the archivist, all of that art is there for the asking.

A life remembered lives in the attic or the basement or the back of a closet in the remotest room in the house. Beth spent 3 long days and nights pulling together the totems of her parents lives from the nooks, crannies and crevasses of what is literally the Hurst family ancestral home. No fewer than 4 generations lived significant parts of their lives in what was once a tiny one-room schoolhouse surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms. What an incredibly daunting task, that.

Hearing her tell of her task (we were “together” on speakerphone) was what it must have been like if you could have been an open ear at the excavation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. The attic had an attic; each closet had a closet. Every step further into each space unearthed another layer of the family’s history. Here a deed to the original schoolhouse, there the wedding certificate for her great great grandparents. Was her Dad a good student? Well, he had a pretty solid 3rd grade judging by his report card.

And the pictures! Oh my, yes, there were pictures. Beth and her sisters fell straight down the Schaeffer family tree. Who knew how much they looked like their Mom when they were all younger women? I got to see pictures of the stunning beauty I fell in love with some 35 years ago, a literal restoration of the portrait in my mind’s eye of our days of courtship. Treasures unearthed in the attic.

Stories, journals, histories, legends…they all came out of the attic’s attic and emerged from the closet’s closets. Beth’s “legs” fairly buckled under the responsibility of curation. What to keep? What should go? They are the last of their line, these Hurst sisters. Whatever was consigned to go would be forever gone. There are no more attics; there will be nothing to curate. She felt the presence of not only her parents but of their parents, and theirs, and theirs as well.

Is this nothing more than a melancholy musing on memory and loss? Maybe. There was a lesson in there, though, one that Mrs. bingo and I stumbled upon as we “walked” through those archives together. It didn’t have to happen like that. As it turns out each attic corner, each tiny closet contained notes and stories that lead, like so many tiny treasure maps, to the next discovery. Why had my in-laws not taken us all in hand and walked us together along those pathways? For sure there were stories that should have been buried elsewhere, art not meant to be seen by generations hence (note to self: remember this lesson when it is time), but still, we thought of the joy we could have shared had we just known these treasures were there to share. That’s the lesson my friends, one that Beth would agree afterward was worth the lonely emotional lifting she did as she curated a life remembered, archived like so many art treasures in the attics and closets filled over generations and hidden from view.

Someone may be alive today who’s been filling those attics. Find them. There is joy in the attic. Like so much that is joyful, to share your discoveries with those who created them is just too wonderful to let it pass now that you know that you don’t have to. Ask your parents or grandparents to take a walk with you in the attic. Together.

 

In Which Pooh and Christopher Robin Reunite

Christopher Robin: “I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

Winnie the Pooh: “Never again?”

CR: “Well, not too much. They don’t let you.”

Toddlers rule the world. Seriously. Beth and I are watching the Man Cub and his tiny baby sister (“Pippy”, at least for now) as their parents take an afternoon to be the young couple that they are. A two year old is nothing but non-stop movement, all curiosity and instant gratification in a tiny bundle of Brownian Motion. There’s no sorta minding the toddler while you “get stuff done”, either. When it’s your turn on watch you are either on them like a hawk or you beg to be relieved of duty.

We are (mostly) blessed that our little guy is also quite bright and very verbal. It makes the time quite a bit more enjoyable while simultaneously taxing. “What is it?” pops out every 2 or 3 minutes, and every activity is preceded by an announcement–”I gotta do whatever”–and then accompanied by “play by play”. The announcements are quite handy in that they let you know where the next disaster is headed so that you can be ready to avert.

Having said all of this I am nothing short of astonished by how much more I am enjoying this stage than I did with my own kids. Don’t get me wrong, the sense of discovery and the unconditional love were there when my kids were toddlers for sure. The difference in the experience has everything to do with me: I have given myself permission to enjoy it this time. On Sundays now I muse whenever, whereas if I were a muser back then I would have tried to muse while on duty, an impossible task guaranteed to increase frustration and diminish the joy in both activities.

Therein lies the key, the gift of grandparenthood: you realize that you really do have a choice. If you are wise (or live with a wise spouse like I do) you give yourself permission to do what once upon a time felt like doing Nothing. It’s not, of course. Not for you and not for your little one. For you the gift is to re-live the wonder of discovery in a child while you witness the purity of the experience your grandchild is having. What your grandchild receives is you. All of you, all to themselves, for what feels like to them at the time like all the time in the world.

In the end the most fortunate among us are those who get to live in the chapter that A.A. Milne never wrote. The one in which Christopher Robin realizes that “he” has become “they”, and that it is only for him to decide that it is time for him to return to the Thousand Acre Wood. In the guise of his grandchild he will find that Pooh is still there, that he still loves Pooh and Pooh loves him. There to sit doing what “they” would call Nothing.

With his grandchild at his side, to sit together doing Everything.

 

Life is Longer Than You Think

Life is long. I’ve been saying this for a while now. Life is only short if you are unlucky. More often’s the case that your life is very hard and it’s STILL long.

How often have you heard the term “long and slow wins the race”? I’m becoming skeptical about this one as well. It seems to me that the average speed of the winning racer is, indeed, rather slow. But if you watch the race itself you notice that the most successful “racers” are actually doing serial sprints. Picking their spots and turning it on. Knowing when it’s “Go Time” and being able to floor it seems to be the best strategy in the long-life race.

If life is long we need to re-interpret some of our other strategies as well. “Carpe Diem”, live for the day, becomes somewhat more complex if we anticipate that we will live another, and another, and on and on. We typically view “Carpe Diem” through the prism of the classic thought experiment, the “get hit by a bus” scenario. As in: “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow would I be pleased with all I’ve done thus far, with what I did today?” In any life, long or short, this line of thought has merit; one should strive to max out each day, wring the most life out of every single one.

A long life prompts one to rise up and view a life not from 3 feet but from 3,000 or 30,000 feet as well. What happens if I DON’T get hit by a bus? If I look at the path I am now on, the trends I have established with the decisions and actions I have taken thus far, is what I am doing and where I seem to be going likely to create a life I will look back upon with pride and with a smile if I DON’T get hit by that bus?

The reality is that you are driving the bus, pedal to the medal at times and just cruising at others, carrying as your passengers the friends who get on and off over the long life. It may be more important to avoid hitting someone else with bus you are driving than it is to worry about being hit by a bus yourself.

For the duration of the trip, however long.

Essential Tech? Really?

The author of an article in last week’s Sunday Times asserted that Google and Facebook are “essential tools.” Jonathan Taplin states that everyone has “no choice but to use them.”

Facebook as an essential tool. He really said that, presumably with a straight face and no irony intended.

The reality of the developed world is that search is indeed essential at some point in most lives. Google owns 90% of search traffic, but there are at least 3 other search engines that are adequate at worst, and likely comparable in terms of information acquisition (if not ad awareness) with Google. Facebook, on the other hand, is little more than a toy in the hands of its users, and likely a dangerous one at that. The nameless, faceless scientists behind the curtain in Oz…er, Facebook…want to get you there, keep you there, and control what you do there. Facebook (and its kissing cousin Instagram) is purposely addictive, and face it, the super-majority of what you may do there is far, far from essential.

It’s very helpful to be able to call up information at the touch of the finger (a sales guy answered a complex, archaic golf question for me yesterday in about 27 seconds). Quite frankly I’m at a loss to think of a single essential aspect of FB in daily life.

My dentist still puts out magazines to help me kill time in the office.

 

Hubris and Humility

“You want to shine but not so bright that you burn everyone in the room.” –Pharrell Williams

The hubris/humility axis an interesting ride, isn’t it? Like you I am watching Matt Frasier run away with this year’s CrossFit Games men’s competition. How will he respond when he is interviewed after his victory/coronation? Where will he land on that H&H line? It’s fascinating to watch someone who is truly extraordinary at what it is that they do walk the line. Indeed, it’s probably not possible to stand out if you don’t stand way to the ‘hubris’ side at some point, at least while you are at whatever it is you do.

This year marked the 26th annual White Family visit to Cape Cod. Like so many of our recent trips this one was filled with talk of illness and cures. We told stories from my Dad’s past (the world’s most arrogant heart surgeon was a favorite) and sadly from my mother-in-law’s present. The morning of my departure was spent seeing patients for whom I’d done surgery, alternately sharing in their delight at vision re-discovered and fending off what felt like over-enthusiastic praise. Like Matt, I’m really good at what I do, and quite frankly when I am about doing what I do I literally go into each “contest” convinced that there is no one in the world better than I am at that particular time.

Is that hubris, or just the confidence that any “athlete” must take into the arena at game time?

The difference probably rests on a couple of things. One must be ever aware that everyone has limits. True, if you are very, very good at what you do your limits may be so far to the right of the Bell Curve that it can seem like they don’t exist. Succumbing to that sense is precisely when confidence becomes arrogance; someone or something is going to break, eventually. One wonders how that arrogant heart surgeon handled the inevitable defeats in the OR.

Pharrell’s quote likely points us to what it is that separates the arrogant from the humble, the realization that what you do well does not necessarily elevate you above those for whom you do it. One who allows himself to bathe too long or too often in the reflected light of his excellence gets burned just as surely as everyone and everything else.

Frasier, like Froning before him in the CrossFit world, will quite likely acquit himself well in his victory interview. He will allow that he worked very hard at his craft, and that his hard work paid off handsomely. His humility will show in that he will also point out that he was given many gifts, born with certain skills that he could then hone through his work and thus produce this singular achievement.

In the end what humility means is the difference between thankfulness and self-satisfaction. Again, Pharrell Williams: “As long as you’ve got your light, people will see you.”

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