Viewpoint: Key is learning to be successful wherever you land in your profession

January 15, 2010

Good physicians can serve their patients best by adopting behaviors that might be different from their normal attributes in the rest of their lives.

"Be yourself; everybody else is already taken." -Oscar Wilde

"Whatever you do, don't be yourself." -Unknown

Mary was sent to Europe and was doing very well in a glamorous, but high-pressure position despite all the cultural and linguistic challenges.

"Running a business here in Europe is very different [from] back home," she told me.

I, of course, was proud of her. During a visit to Europe, Mary and I celebrated her success. We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant in Munich, enjoying the fantastic draft beer and delicious German sausages. There was a musician playing a guitar and singing Simon and Garfunkel songs.

A terrible singer myself, I admire people who are talented at it. "He is really good," I said to my sister, who agreed, and suggested that I tell him. Mary laughed, as it was clear the musician had absolutely no idea what I was saying.

"There are musicians like this all over Europe," she said, "unable to understand a word of English but singing American songs as though they had grown up in New Jersey."

I was reminded of this story recently while attending a U2 concert. To me, the lead singer, Bono, sings pretty much without a discernible accent, but when he speaks to the audience between songs he sounds like the quintessential boy from the streets of Dublin. A couple weeks after the concert, I did an experiment with someone who has had a lot of musical training, but whose taste runs to classical and jazz (but not rock).

"I'll give you $20 if you can tell me what country this singer is from," I said.

"America?" was the guess.

Behaviors and mannerisms

My thought is that really talented musicians are so adaptable that they can learn new manners of speech to entertain their audiences better. Similarly, successful businesspeople learn what it takes to be successful in whatever situation they find themselves. Physicians also do the same, as they adopt certain mannerisms and speech patterns to meet their patients' expectations.

Sir William Osler, MD, a famous American physician, wrote a book called Aequanimitas. In it, he argued that physicians should cultivate a persona of cool detachment from patients and calmly accept what comes, so that the difficulties and sufferings of patients do not cause emotional reactions and cloud the physician's scientific judgment.1

Some have criticized Dr. Osler and this approach as reducing physician's empathy for patients. Right or wrong, it suggests that good physicians can serve their patients best by adopting behaviors that might be different from their normal attributes in the rest of their lives.

The bottom-line impression I have is that success in many fields involves being good at pretending to be someone or something you are not.

"Is he very famous?" asked my friend, who was not familiar with Bono and U2.

"Yes," I responded, "but the warm-up band for the concert, The Black Eyed Peas, was better."

"I know them," she said. "They have Fergie. They don't sound like they're from Ireland either."

Reference

1. Bryan CS. "Aequanimitas" Redux: William Osler on detached concern versus humanistic empathy. Perspect Biol Med. 2006;49:384–392. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/perspectives_in_biology_and_medicine/v049/49.3bryan.html/

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, 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: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu