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Read to lead

Balance in Practice

John Stanley, MD

This month's author writes about how his love of reading and discussing books enlivened his career in medicine.

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As physicians, we always seem to have a pile of reading to do. Keeping up with the latest developments in the specialty can often feel like a full-time job in itself. Yet when I’m just about to turn in for the evening, the reading that I’m trying to finish before turning off the light isn’t about dermatology, or medicine at all. After a busy day in my academic practice, my favorite means to unwind is to dive in to a good book.

I picked up the habit from my grandfather, who always read at a tremendous rate. He used to tell me “no matter what you’re doing at work, no matter how busy you are, it’s important to make the time to keep reading.” He said that it was important for keeping perspective, and decades removed from that advice, I still believe him. So no matter what my day is like, before I go to bed, I read at least a few pages of something that’s completely unrelated to dermatology. It gives me perspective on life, which is crucial for a physician.

Perspective and balance

We have grand rounds once a week at Penn. When I used to run rounds, back when I was chairman of the department, I used to begin by talking about a book I was reading and offering what I thought were the takeaways. It was always a work from my eclectic reading list that featured a topic outside of dermatology. It helped us to loosen up before rounds and think about related ideas in a completely different fashion.

I like to talk about books in groupings if I think they relate to each other thematically. For instance, a few years ago I had to travel to Singapore to give some lectures. So I gave an informal talk on books about love and doctors to the medical students. It led to an enjoyable discussion of concepts of love and duty in different cultures (see sidebar). I try to draw wisdom or lessons from these books, and where I can, share them with my colleagues. [pagebreak]

It used to be that physicians were part of the intellectual centers of their communities. Today, it can seem more like a trade than an intellectual pursuit sometimes with all the rules and responsibilities we have to manage all day. You have to know what you’re doing on a technical level, and that’s an absolutely vital part of becoming better dermatologists. But when I’m able to take the lessons of disparate fields and authors and apply them to my practice, or have a dialogue with a colleague, I feel as though I’m re-connecting with our roots as doctors.

Page to practice

I can’t spend 100 percent of my time on my professional life — I already spend a great deal of time on it. Yet I can’t help but feel that reading has also enhanced my professional interactions. It makes me a better physician by helping me understand people and situations that are completely different from what I’ve experienced. It reinforces that people have different points of view and motivations.

In some cases, my reading has allowed me to make a better connection with a patient. I read a lot of history about World War II. I have some elderly patients, and when I have time, I do like to talk with them about their lives. I had one patient who had mentioned that he’d served under General Patton during the war, and I asked if he’d been in the Battle of the Bulge. He just looked at me, pleased and surprised that I knew something about what he’d done for the country and how difficult it was. It created an instant rapport with that patient. It doesn’t happen with every patient, because I can’t read up on every subject, but it’s very special when something like that happens. [pagebreak]

Recommended reading

The books that stick with me most are those that offer a window into a new perspective or unique idea. Here are some of the books that have stuck with me long after I’d finished reading.

Lyndon Johnson (Volumes I-IV) — Robert Caro

Steve Jobs — Walter Isaacson

Van Gogh: The Life — Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

I love to read biographies. There’s almost always an important lesson to be learned, no matter the subject. The Johnson biographies are a fascinating portrait of a man who was deeply flawed, but also an undisputable leader and central figure to American history.

The Jobs biography, while a fascinating read, also helped me think differently about leadership. In reading, it struck me that Steve Jobs was not at all the kind of person many of us would usually think of as a leader. Yet he was able to accomplish incredible things. Leadership often takes different forms than we would expect.

The Van Gogh biography was fascinating, especially from my point of view as a physician. He clearly had a mental illness — likely bipolar disorder — and had a very complex, very fraught relationship with his mother and brother. He was never really understood in his time, especially by his family. Even after he’d become renowned as a painter, his mother still professed to find his art terrible. The look at how the illness and his relationships influenced the course of his life is fascinating for a physician.

Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Waiting — Ha Jin

These books both explore the topic of doctors and love, but do so in completely different ways, demonstrating for me the different ways that cultures relate to love.

1Q84 — Haruki Murakami

Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart

A Game of Thrones — George R.R. Martin

While these books offer more surreal and fantastic elements, they also offer unique insight into our world. Murakami’s book manages to present a story about how lives can be slightly divorced from reality through what is at times a love story, a thriller, and a science fiction novel. Shteyngart’s book builds off our filters to reality, offering a glimpse of humanity that’s cripplingly dependent upon technology for interpersonal communication. The Game of Thrones series, despite the setting, isn’t terribly different from today’s world. Power and ruthlessness often prevail, and we all have our own stories to tell.

 

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