With some people, everything they do is done extremely well. But with most people, there are one or two things they do incredibly well, and the rest is about average. Others-the one-trick ponies-are great in one or two things, and terrible at many others. Having the ability to assess realistically how one performs in each endeavor and working diligently to improve those skills, will aid personal and professional success.
There are a few people I know who, whatever it is they do, do it extremely well. One is a gifted surgeon who is a great public speaker, excellent athlete, and talented poet. Another is a person who is a natural leader, a remarkably quick thinker, with total recall for details of various projects, very funny, and has a personality that dominates a room. No doubt you know some people like that as well.
The key word, however, is "few." With some people, everything they do is done extremely well. But with most people, there are one or two things they do incredibly well, and the rest is about average. Others-the one-trick ponies-are great in one or two things, and terrible at many others.
History gives us some striking examples. Ulysses S. Grant was the general who, after being assigned command over all the Northern armies, relatively quickly inflicted severe damage on the South, forced the brilliant tactician Robert E. Lee to surrender, and ended the Civil War. A terrific military leader, Grant performed more in months than previous Northern generals had achieved in years. But before the war, he was a failure as both a farmer and a bill collector, and had to ask his father for a job (assistant in a leather shop). After the war his tenure as president was considered a huge disappointment (including by Grant himself). "Although Grant was personally honest, he not only tolerated financial and political corruption among top aides but also protected them once exposed."1
The famous English ophthalmologists Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) and Thomas Young (established the wave theory of light, proved accommodation resided in the lens) were unable to build successful ophthalmology practices.
How do the people with success across diverse fields do it? My assumption is that those people are good at inventorying their skill sets. If a person is lean and 5´ tall, he or she doesn't focus on basketball as a sport. If a person is heavy and 6´ 6? tall, he or she doesn't aspire to become a jockey. If, like one of the people described in the introductory paragraph, a person lacks a singing voice, he or she makes sure never to sing in public (rap doesn't count). In other words, they play to their strengths. My belief is that they probably have the ability to assess realistically how they are performing in each endeavor, and work diligently to improve those skills, not at the high level characteristic of everything else they do.
Did you have professors in college or medical school who were famous and literally geniuses but who were incredibly boring and ineffective lecturers?
What's interesting to me is why some people allow themselves to be incredibly successful in some things they do and extremely poor in others. Is it that they are unaware of their weaknesses, thinking only about what they do well and for which people express admiration? Or do they just not care?
As ophthalmologists you probably interact with people in those two camps. Sometimes you see a gifted surgeon who cannot show up to clinic on time or who has difficulty retaining good staff because of an abusive management style. Sometimes a brilliant academician-a wonderful teacher with hundreds of publications-is appointed department chairman only to be fired after a relatively short time for one reason or another. Sometimes a hardworking industry salesperson, knowing all the details about the company's products and no doubt trying his or her best, is just totally inappropriate with staff in the doctor's office or at a meeting.
Here's a true story. A sales rep for an ophthalmic device company recently yelled an ethnic slur at me and some friends during a break in a meeting, and did it loud enough for probably 50 people to hear. He was holding a beer in his hand and no doubt thought he was being clever. I could not believe my ears and had to ask the people around me if they heard the same thing. Not knowing this person at all, I spoke to his boss who told me that the person was a good employee. I forgive the guy. It was not a slur against the Irish, which we can all agree would have been unforgivable. But why would anyone do something like that?
My buddy, an ophthalmologist in southern California, tells me that it is harder for ophthalmologists in private practice to be one-trick ponies with big egos because they do one thing well (i.e., prima donnas) than for those of us in academia.
"If you're a good physician in solo practice but are rude to patients and referring doctors" he said, "you'll go bankrupt. And if you keep losing all your good staff, your life is terrible. So you quickly learn that you better improve in the areas where you're weak."
Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org