Monday, September 22, 2014

Let there be light.

And then a mighty roar
Will start the sky to cryin'
But not even light'ning
Will be frightening my lion

And with no fear inside
No need to run
No need to hide
You're standing strong and tall
You're the bravest of them all

If on courage you must call
Then just keep on tryin'
And tryin', and tryin'
You're a lion
In your own way, be a lion. . .

Come on. . . be a lion.

~ from The Wiz

My colleague reached out to me and said, "I am putting someone on your team. This person has great potential. Great, great, great potential."

Rut roh.

"But?" I said.

"But," my colleague repeated with a gentle chuckle.

"I'm ready for it. Hit me."

"Well. It's not so much of a bombshell to drop on you. I mean, not really. I think. . .I guess . . .I don't know. This person has just been. . .I think. . .misunderstood, maybe? I don't know. I think, yeah. I think that's it."

"Misunderstood like how?"  I wanted to know.

"Some not so great evaluations. Non-stellar. But it's totally in them to do well. Which is kind of frustrating, you know?"

"Okay. So what is it then?"

"It's hard to say."

"Is this person lazy?"

"Lazy? Absolutely the opposite of lazy. Definitely not that."

"Okay. What about. . . entitled or unprofessional?"

"Super earnest. And neither of those things."

"Not a nice person?"

"Super, duper, duper nice."

I squinted. "Well, I don't get it then. The person is smart, non-lazy, hard-working and a nice person but has mediocre evaluations? What's the disconnect?"

"This is what I'm hoping you can help with. But I just think. . .I don't know. . . that's it's just a matter of being misunderstood, that's all."

And so. I thought on what my colleague said for a few minutes and then spoke back. "If you have faith in this person, then I am very excited to work with them. And I assure you that if this person is competent, hardworking, kind and eager to do well, then they will. In fact, they will do more than well. This person will do great. Let's just claim it." And since both of us have worked at or around Grady for some time, we both knew what "claiming it" meant.

And my colleague just looked at me and smiled from ear to ear and I did the same. Because we both knew that together we were claiming a victory in advance and that meant that it was going to be good.


A few weeks later, I joined the team and met this person. One of the first things I did was tell this person, along with the other junior learners on the team, what (in my opinion) were the features of an exceptional intern or medical student. I was very detailed and said, "I don't want it to be a mystery." And this person carefully took notes and, I could tell, began taking that advice to heart immediately. 


I observed carefully for a couple of days and could tell right away that everything my colleague told me was true. Super earnest. Super kind. Super eager. And mostly just super enthusiastic about taking excellent care of our patients.


I watched for those 48 hours and can't say I unlocked every mystery, but I did make a few observations. The biggest one was simple: This person was just a little bit. . . well. . .  socially awkward. A little nervous sometimes, too. Just enough to make well-intentioned things veer a little too far off to the left. The kind of turns that garner snickers under breath and jokes that you aren't in on. Which just makes awkwardness more awkward and nervousness more nervous. So that was mostly it. Nothing else I observed at all was noteworthy or even remotely bad in any way.


I sat down with this person and chatted with them. I decided to be honest. And yes, it felt super weird to tell a person that they're "a bit awkward" and that we'd need to find some ways to work around that. Or better yet with it. But this person was super open and appreciative of my candor. Together we strategized ways to tackle what had become a bit of an interpersonal speed breaker.

Here was one of our conversations:

"If I trip and fall in front of everyone, it's not as much fun to make fun of me if I laugh first. Kind of like when my husband and kids catch me dancing like Beyonce in the bathroom mirror."

"Wow. Beyonce? How ridiculous is it, Dr. M?" this person asked.

"Oh man. Super ridiculous. And ultra-awkward. But I know it already and I don't really care. And after a while, it's no fun to make fun of me."


"You know what else? I counter a lot of my awkward things by working hard at the high stakes things, you know? Like hugging my kids and reading them books, and making my husband a hot turkey sandwich on the stove instead of a cold one from the fridge."

"Wait. Huh?"

"I guess I'm saying that when you nail the basics--like really nail them--people won't make as big a deal about the bumpy parts."

We both sat in silence and this person let that resonate. I could tell that it was, too. But what would that mean professionally? What would "nailing the basics" even look like? We explored that together. We did.

So the two of us decided that, in medicine, that meant things like advocating for patients and presenting them on rounds to other providers in clear, concise and fluid language. It meant having a management plan that was evidence-based and that you could defend without batting a lash. That would require preparation, yes, and some practice, too. It would mean getting every detail of the history and physical down pat. And knowing as much as you can about the medical problems affecting your patients. We agreed that if these things were spotless, the other little quirks would suddenly become more endearing than, well, awkward.

Yeah. So here's the other main thing that happened during our time together: I looked at that person like they were a superstar. Like they could and would do great work and like they were number one in their class of learners. I treated them "like a winner and not a chicken dinner" as the kids around the way used to say in my neighborhood. And let me just tell you something--it made a HUGE difference.


At the end of our time together, it was easy to write that evaluation. No, not just "good." No, not just "ai-ight." Excellent. Stellar, even. Exceptional in every way.


And so today I guess I am just reflecting on all of that. I thought about this colleague of mine who saw the diamond gleaming in this learner and who thought enough to fight to help this person to have an optimal learning environment. I wondered what could or would have happened had this colleague poisoned me with the opposite of what I was told? That this person was a "problem child" and that's it? What if this colleague didn't feed forward some hopeful charge like the one I received? How would I have dealt with this person? Would they done as well?

My guess is no.

Here is the other thing I'm thinking about:

It is in our power be a mirror to those around us. It is. We can, through our reflection of what we see in them, feed them this idea of who they are--good, bad, or indifferent. Our listening ears can say, "Your voice is worth hearing," and "Your ideas are worth sharing." Which is huge when you are doing this kind of work. Huge, man.

Toni Morrison asked it so beautifully:

"Does your face light up when they enter the room?"

She was speaking of how a parent sees their children. But her message was really about humankind and validation. How profound is it that not only children--but adults, too--can rise up mightily just by having someone simply look at them with dancing eyes and belief? Wow.

I've had those words on a post it note in my heart for some time. I usually reserve that mantra for my children and husband but this time I remembered that good word from Ms. Toni Morrison when I started with that team. I decided that I would see if that might help things with this situation, too. I made it a point to let my face light up around not only this learner but all of them. And the thing is, I can say that I've done this before, but mostly not intentionally.  But what I recognized that month that even though my face lights up. . .  it has different wattage for different learners.


I don't want to be too hard on myself. I mean, that's just normal, I guess, to be more drawn towards some than others. But in this work and even with our children, is that really okay? I mean, is it? I'm not so sure. With that in mind, I intentionally fought to turn up the brightness with all of them. I did.

And you know what? It made a difference. Damn, it did.

At the end of that time together, I received a note that included these words:

I will always be grateful for what you have taught me, and how much effort you put in to get to know me. I knew there were aspects about my personality that others might have not understood, but you explained them in a way that I can use it as a strength and not feel judged or embarrassed.

And that? That broke me all the way down and made me cry the ugly cry. It made me want to go harder, be more intentional, listen more carefully and just . . .I don't know. . .try, man. Just try. Our patients got better care because of it. I became a better teacher and attending physician that month. And best of all someone felt understood and empowered.


I wonder about the ones that have gotten away, you know? The ones who got my dim wattage or even some barely there candlelight flickers . . .or worse. . . just darkness. Nothing at all. A face filled with criticism, annoyance, and disapproval. We know what that looks like when it happens to children. But what about the people we work with and interact with every day? What about the bus driver or the lady who helps at after school care or the security dude that stands next to the ATM at your bank? Could your face lighting up make them better? I mean, could it?

Lofty, I know.

Here is my charge--to me and to anyone who is regularly coming in contact with people who want to rise to their full potential. . . .make sure you answer is "yes." Yes when you ask yourself, "Does my face light up when I see you?" And if you can't make it a yes, at least start exploring why you can't. Because giving up on humankind is also giving up on yourself. At least that's what I think.

Oh, and I wish I could talk some more about how that same light needs to be reserved for yourself when you look at your OWN self in the mirror. I mean, I wish I had time to talk to y'all about all that but see, this has already gotten long and that's just whole different blog post of its own, isn't it? Hmmm. On second thought, it really is.


So as for faces lighting up? No. It's isn't always easy to do. Sometimes we just don't feel like it, man. But if we try hard even on those days? The pay off is just so huge, man. So, so huge.

Now. Let me just say this:

This learner wasn't one of the lazy or not-so-earnest ones. And fortunately, those kind are rare for the most part. That means there are probably far more "exceptionals" hidden inside of the "so so" and "very good" ones than we realize. The challenge is just helping to bring them out. And I think it starts with our faces lighting up. I really do.

Oh, and the one other thing I've learned? Once the exceptional is out, there's no turning back. This I know for sure.


Happy Monday. And let there be light, man.


Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . .although I shouldn't listen to it because it makes me cry.


  1. This is such a profoundly important idea. You are a born teacher and a good soul. You're telling the whole truth right here. I am glad there is you.

  2. I have learned that the best doctors, lawyers, store clerks, real estate agents, etc., etc. are those who have a teacher's heart. You truly have a teacher's heart. You are truly a teacher. Thank you for this wonderful post. LN

  3. Well, I'm going to carry this with me for a long time. Forever, for the rest of my life, I hope.

    I had this "spiritual" epiphany recently, not an intellectual experience but something numinous and yet gut-level, that sparks off of what you write here about seeing people and lighting up, making that your goal, how huge that is for everyone. What I understood suddenly was that everyone- every one(!) is deserving of my love, my whole heart. Without exception. And I don't have to keep separating people into those who are worthy of my love, those who aren't, and those who I just don't care about. I can simply love everyone who shows up. Right then, right where they are and just how they are.

    Any failure to do that comes from my side, not from theirs.

    Of course, it doesn't mean that I hug them and kiss them and invite them home, try to marry them or raise their babies. But it does mean what you talked about- making sure I see the beauty that really is in them, and letting go of all the rest of the crap that gets in the way of that.

    Anyway, I loved this post and I'm so proud of you for your approach and I'm going to try to live up to your example.

    Thank you!



    1. Hey Scott. I'm super honored that you left this kind comment. I've read your blog many times and am so glad you stopped by to share your sentiments. I want to live by your example, too. Thank YOU.


  4. Dear Kimberly,

    My friend Calvin Chou sent this to me as a "must read". I am inspired by your compassion and wisdom. We just published a book on remediating medical trainees.. and your story sums up all the key elements. Thanks for sharing it. AK

    1. Wow Adina! Thank Calvin Chou for me for this kind comment. I will Google your book! Best, KM

  5. My comment was lost. Boo.
    Grady Doc, you are awesome. I've read this several times in the last 2 days and shared it with those who needed to see it. Your kindness, patience and grace are just something...thank you

  6. From the deck of the Poop: As I read this post I thought to myself; you are a natural teacher and this really comes natural to you. You shared it beautifully, but this really comes natural for teachers at heart.
    During my 30+ years in the Aerospace industry a couple of things happened to me that I will always remember. Many, many people came to my office just to talk to me. They may have had a problem of some sort, or wanted to ask my advice on something, or just to have me listen, which I often did, without comment. The visitors were from all walks; young engineers, assembler from the assembly line, technicians from the unit test area, you name it. One day my secretary commented, "you know you missed your calling, you should have been a preacher or a counselor or something like that". I came to my office one day and she had a sign made up with the word Padre on it and it was mounted on the wall above my name. Now I was at the time, Director and General Manager of the F-15 Radar program, but the people felt comfortable and welcome in my office. Then one day, out of the blue, this guy stopped me and said to me "you know I watch you walk around here with this sort smile on your face all the time, you must not know what the hell is going on!". I had known him for years and he was saying it in jest but he always had somewhat of a scowl on his face. I smiled and replied "George if knowing what the hell is going on will make me look like you, then I don't want to know what's going on". We both laughed and went on our merry way. Latter on I looked in the mirror at my face and realized that I had sort of natural smiling face. I then realized that my "smiling face" made people comfortable around me and lest afraid to approach me. This made my job much more pleasurable. The nickname Padre stuck and spread and other managers would send different people, young and old, to talk to me. It wasn't uncommon for some person to call and say "Leon or Bob or some boss had suggested that they come over and talk to me". I would usually ask "about what?" They would respond, "he didn't say, he just thought is was a good idea".
    As I reflected on my experiences I thought "Dr. K.D. is a child after my own heart" Smile

  7. Earlier this year I was promoted to be manager over former teammates.  I've been a supervisor and manager before when I was younger.  But after a leadership hiatus I wondered how I would do.  Leading a team is challenging.  So many personalities.  Different skills.  Different levels of engagement.  Truly observing and listening has proven to be invaluable tools I have in developing them as a team and as individuals.  Giving them attention.  And walking in with a positive attitude every day is crucial.  They take cues from me on what kind of day they will have based on the kind of day I am having.  And I have realized my hiatus has made me a better person and a better leader.  I can teach them.  Because I can be taught.  I continue to be taught.  Every day.  And if I stay engaged and positive its easier for them to do that as well.  And every day I reflect on how I could've done or said things better.  The more I do the more they do.  Our team has garnered a plethora of kudos and compliments.  I am proud of them.  They are proud of their accomplishments.  That makes them work even harder.  And in this I realize... the best teacher is a better learner. And the more you can learn the more you can teach.  Your stories inspire me to keep striving to keep getting better and better.  I search out your writings to allow you to teach me so I can teach others.  Thank you. -- JMM in Arizona


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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