Contributed by Alfred Wong, Class of 2016
Action 2: Find and keep many mentors in your life
“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, that is everyone you meet has something to teach you, if you take the trouble to find it.”- Sir Robert Frost
I came to be where I am largely due to the guidance and efforts of many great mentors. A mentor is not merely a teacher: mentors go beyond to provide perspective, council; they care about where you are in achieving your goals. Medicine is inherently a profession where one works with people in the service of people. In my experience, books and theory can only teach you so much about working with others and indeed how the world works outside the classroom. Yes the classroom has a lot to offer and I will never trivialize that; however, a great deal of my most rewarding learning took place outside and from unexpected people. It was an emeritus professor Jim Erskine, at my business program who imparted the wisdom that,
“’Your degree represents a significant achievement, be proud of it”, however, “your degree does not give you a monopoly on intelligence.”
This statement was his charge for us as we graduatednot to let arrogance limit us from all we could learn from others.The senior coordinator and later colleague at the Anne Johnston Health Station told me I stood out because I was the first university graduate that did not demand a role that fit my education: I had agreed to participate on the weekly seniors walk that so many others turned down; moreover I was constantly seeking to learn from her and she offered me many new perspectives. To be successful it takes more than intelligence, it takes confidence with humility and a broad perspective.
Perspective is valuable. Peter Drucker, the most influential writer and consultant in modern management wrote that success in our globalized knowledge based world demands that:
“The educated person will have to be able to understand the world’s cultures, religions, and traditions and not limit himself or herself only to knowledge of Western civilization. In an age of rapid change and turning points such as the one in which we are now living, the educated person will have to be trained in perception fully as much as in analysis." [i]
Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware!
Perception is the ability to see complex relationships between events and people. The causal factors of some of the most grave challenges in our world: hunger, wealth disparity, self-governance remain like in genetics, “polymorphic”…multifaceted. In work and in life most successes are really made up of many things done well. Sometimes we forget this because the allure of the silver bullet answer is so prestigious, elegant, and finite;indeed there is an ever-growing market selling quick and easy answers.
Cultivating multiple perspectives enables one to consider a decision from multiple angles, establish context to make decisions and adapt quickly to new information. For example, modern medicine’sgreatest triumphs often resulted, by design, theft, or accident, on fluid adoption of diverse ideas and perspectives.One example is the discovery of Insulin in 1921 by Macleod, Banting, Best, Collip,[ii] another is the revelation of the molecular structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson, Crick, Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin. Mentors at key moments were responsible for asking questions and opening vital avenues of thought and exploration for these Nobel laureates. Mentorship in the knowledge economy is essential because few successes are due to a single effort alone and mentors remain important to provide perspective and context. Clinical mentors are a focal point of the current physiology of medical education for all leading medical systems worldwide by the elements of the clinical clerkship and post-graduate hospital residencies where practicing physician mentor young physicians, ever since first instituted in 1893 by the pioneering work at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. [iii]
Mentors are great because they do have your best interests at heart and are a trusted source of honest critical feedback; feedback that is so necessary for anyone interested in learning from mistakes. Mentors in my life include a junior volunteer under my supervision, a professor of management information systems, a construction director on a crude oil refinery, my classmate later friend from first year undergrad, members of a current affairs group most of whom were 65+, engaged, sharp and still learning. And despite the differences between my mentors they are all the same in that they have a great discipline and passion for what they are doing. This passion is highly infectious and far from being limiting, they inspired me to work harder, smarter too. You can bet a major criteria in deciding where to do my medical education, was the opportunity to be mentored by great doctors. I was born and raised in Canada all my life, and had not been to Singapore. Though I could have spared the expense and the eighteen-hour flight; however it was more important for me to go meet who would be my physician mentors at Duke-NUS; because it’s easy to build a nice building, it’s much harder to fill that building with the people with a vision, who beyond being experts can guide the next generation.
How does one go about finding great mentors and even harder how does one go about keeping them? Consider this:
“The best people can be difficult. They are single-minded. They have tunnel vision. That’s what makes them good. They are reluctant to compromise. They can intimidating, especially to the young, but if you approach them with an attitude that you want to do something well, they will respond positively.” - Paul Arden, Executive Creative Director Saatchi & Saatchi 1977-1993
Be frank about what you want and also what you can offer to that other person, it could be trade knowledge, taking a real interest in the work is always a positive. Even if it’s just telling them that you were able to put into practice some advice they gave you and express simple gratitude; in my own experience most mentors find immense satisfaction in knowing that they were able to help. You always have something to offer. The reality is that not everyone will want to talk to you; do not despair! There are many who will.
You will get out of your relationships as much as you invest into them and they will grow as you cultivate them over time. Great mentors do not necessarily provide you all the answers, they guide you to them and most of all they inspire. And inspiration is a powerful thing, you can’t see it; but when it’s there, any shadows of fear become overcome by that stronger feeling that you make the impossible possible. It’s like being shone on by a bright star.
[i] Drucker, Peter F.Management Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
[ii] Bliss, Michael,Banting: A Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.
[iii] Bliss, Michael.William Osler: A Life in Medicine.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Dr. Brian Goldman’s fantastic radio show on the practice of medicine: White Coat Black Art available is available online at CBC Radio
TED x Toronto Talk: Redefining the Practice of Medicine