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How You Go About Things

“In commencement addresses people admonish us: take risks. Be willing to fail… We do want people to take risks, to strive for difficult goals even when the possibility of failure looms. Progress cannot happen otherwise. But how they do it is what seems to matter.”

These are the words of Atul Gawande in an address to the graduates of Williams College in 2012. He’s a surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. He went on to tell graduates that it took him awhile to find his way after college. He tried philosophy, music, and public service by working on health care legislation without success before landing on the path that was right for him, medicine.

He decided to go into surgery. Gawande shares that he had become enthralled by surgeons. He marveled at their competence, thinking it was their physical skill that brought success — their hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. But what he learned surprised him. Those were not the things that made a surgeon great. He discovered that the best surgeons had the ability to handle complexity and uncertainty. He says, “They had developed judgement, mastery of teamwork, and willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences of their choices.” Gawande notes, “I realized, surgery turns out to be no different than a life in teaching, public service, business, or almost anything you may decide to pursue.“

As he continued to grow as a surgeon he realized something else. When a patient dies in surgery after something goes wrong it is called a “failure to rescue”. He says that the best hospitals were not those that did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks because the key is not preventing things from going wrong but being able to respond when things are not working. Gawande says, “More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more…They were able to prevent failures from becoming a catastrophe.”

So in the end, it’s not about us but what we can offer others and the way we go about doing it. Gawande reminds us that those who were most successful were humble leaders who readily admitted when things went wrong. They addressed complications and sought the help of others while striving for the best possible outcome.

Gawande tells us, “You will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterwards that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it - Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? — because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks, it’s about mastery of rescue.”

Some of us are longing to be rescued. Some of us are trying to help someone in need. We all face challenges, uncertainty, and failure. Problems will come. We will not do everything right. We may fail miserably but how we go about things matters.

There is one who wants to be with us. He is sometimes called the Great Physician or the Good Shepherd. When we’re lost, he’ll find us. When we’re tired, he’ll carry us. When we are alone we can call out to him. When we are anxious, he can be a source of strength and peace. He is our rescuer, our God.


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