Framework for being a Positive Outlier

I recently read Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Dr. Atul Gawande. It’s a great book – highly recommended.

In the book the author shares stories of incredible improvement in medicine–from the military, to cystic fibrosis treatment, to surgeons in rural India practicing with few resources.

He closes the book with a framework for being a positive outlier. How do we create dramatic improvement in a crowded field?

Dr. Gawande shares five recommendations:

  • 1. Ask a question. Take the time to open the door to relationships with the people you’re interacting with and serving in your day to day life. Don’t let it take away from your work. Know that not everyone will respond. But you might learn something from those that do, and it will make your your work feel more human and less a part of the normal grind.
  • 2. Don’t complain. I loved how he touched lightly on this recommendation. Everyone complains sometimes, and that’s okay. But if we shift our mind from our troubles to our interests, our lives improve. Here’s his words:

“Wherever doctors gather—in meeting rooms, in conference halls, in hospital cafeterias—the natural pull of conversational gravity is toward the litany of woes all around us. But resist it. It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down. You don’t have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you came across—even the weather if that’s all you’ve got. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

  • 3. Count Something. In a world of big data, experiments can seem out of reach or too complicated. But we can learn from whatever is going on around us by keeping a tally. Open a notebook or spreadsheet with 2 or 3 columns, keep it somewhere you will come back to, and start a running total.

“If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

  • 4. Write Something. The act of putting words on a page forces you to clarify your thoughts. And sharing your writing lets you join, and contribute to, a world beyond your immediate daily work.

You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest.

  • 5. Change. Dr. Gawande points out that people react to new ideas by becoming early adopters, late adopters, or by remaining skeptics and never adopting. Early adopters are more likely to be making positive changes in the world.

I particularly appreciated the advice to count and write. I’ve seen in my own life the power of counting or tracking something to help with change. And most of the people I’ve seen make large positive changes in their career did so by writing.

Simple, powerful recommendations.

Thanks for reading!

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