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Toxic Success and the Mind of a Surgeon Paul Pearsall, PhD his role of invited lecturer to the 75th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Coast Surgical As- sociation in Maui, Hawaii, Dr Pearsall shared some of the results of his clinical study of highly successful persons and how their success and their pursuit of it often resulted in health and family problems. He highlighted 15 of his findings related directly to the phy- sicians and surgeons included in his sample and suggested that healthy success is related less to time management than attention management. He pointed out that hard work, time pressure, stress, and a demanding schedule had less of a toxic effect than a lack of mindful engagement with life and those with whom we share it, He concluded with 5 ancient Hawaiian principles of healthy success Hawaiian style, the concept of po‘okela, meaning achieving excellence through mindful awareness of shared values rather than individual objectives. We often get so caught up in the drama of our lives that we forget that we are the ones who ‘created the drama inthe frst place. Matt Flikstein THE QUESTION OF SUCCESS ‘Thegin my discussion of the toxicity ofsue- cess by asking you to ask yourself a ques- lion. It was the first question we asked of the subjects in our clinical interviews of highly successful people, and it provided us with insight into the effect of how they de- fined, purstied, and experienced success, Think of the person who knows you best. It may be your spouse, a sibling, a parent, acolleague, friend, or your child, but make sure the person you are think- ing of is someone who knows the real you better than any other person in your life. Think carefully before answering be- cause our research indicates that your an- swer isa key predictor of whether you are sullering [rom toxie success syndrome. Here's the question: “Would the person who knows you best say you are a true joy to live with every day?” Ifyou answered a sincere and honest yes" to my question, chances are yoursuc- From the Department of Nursing, University of Hawai at Manoa, Honoluly ‘Arch Surg. 2004;139:879-888 cess and how you are seeking tare healthy for you and your family. If you scoffed at the possibility that you are someone with ‘whom itisa treasure tolive, work, and love; could not think of someone who knows the real you: or your mind was too distracted with thoughts about being on time for your tee time for golingafter this moming’s meet ing to be bothered by such a question, you and those with whom you live may be vie- lms of toxie success. THREE MEN AND A TRUCK During the time Lwas reviewing and weit- ing my research protocol on successful people, I met 3 men, L was on my morn- Ing walk with my wife, and I noticed them hard at work, Itwas another sunny day in Hawai, where the air is usually fresh and invigorating, but today I could smell afoul ‘odor. It as coming from the work the men were doing, and my encounter with them provided a lesson about the difference be- tween toxic and healthy working and the relationship between healthy success and fur state of mind, {saw a large tanker truck with along black hose draining the septic tank infront fof a home, On the panel of the truck just beneath the professional lettering of the (©2004 American Medical Association, All rights reserved. Downloaded From: http:/archsurg.jamanetwork.com/pdfaccess.ashx?url=/data/journals/surg/9S8S/ on 04/18/2017 ‘company name was an amateur drawing of a smiling ‘worker holding a shovel full of waste. The slogan be- neath the cartoon character read, “Call us. Were will- ing to take your erap. walked over to the man at the rear of the truck. He was holding the lever that powered the pump and had «frown on his face. He seemed bored and eager tobe done ‘with his task. We began what we Hawaiians call “talk ing story.” taking plenty of ume to chat about nothing in particular and with no particular hurry to get toa point ‘even if there is one. This is a process that frustrates the toxically sttecessful, who often view time as money and dread what they consider to be wasting any of it by en- ‘gaging in activities such as chatting, strolling, meander~ ing, sauntering, oF just—as we put it here—hanging loose. Talking story as lam doing even in this lecture requires the kind of slow thinking that can be an antidote for toxic success. highly recommend you try it while you are vis- iting our islands, Certainly in work such as yours as surgeons, there isa place for what cognitive psychologists call “hot-and- 20° quick thinking, but research shows that some of our ‘most creative mental work and healthiest physical states are associated with “cool-and-slow” mindful reflection, Bristol University Prof Guy Claxton refers to these 2 states ‘of minds “hare brain” and “tortoise mind,” and my own, research indicates that its chronic hare-brained think- ing that is at the root of success that turns toxic. The man controlling the pumps motor seemed im- patient and even a litle angry at my distraction. He clearly had very litle attention to spare and seemed irritated with ime for trying to take any of it. "Howzit?" I said, which is island-style talk for “How are you, what are you doing, and would you like to talk awhile?” With a sigh of disgust and without looking at me, he curtly said, "See the name on the truck? That's me. Tim the owner of the company. If you need your tank pumped, reach in and take one of my business cards from the dashboard. No thanks, work, ‘Again without looking at me, he began a diatribe it seemed he must have given many times before. said, “But this must be very hard ‘when youre the guy who pays the bills sts more than hard wore its. hell of way to make a living, butt pts food on thetable Fon cal for emergencies 247, Pm esponsble for tverything. The whole job is always in my hands No matter fw many jobs do that go righ, one wong move and its disaster. Everybody neds what Ido, but nobody realy wants tne todo it They complain about the cost and think make Stay more ancy than td, Jist my insurance lone cots me 1 Dig ehulof every exat Una ond goes up every you have to work most othe year just to pay my premiuins: No- boy neds or wants me wes their ie sin mess and them they want me ight then and there. have to deal with al kinds ‘fstopd regulations and waste my ie iling out tos of ws Ice paperwork required bythe government that doesnt know so Pabont what do, and He stopped talking suddenly, swore, threw the wrench he had in his hand to the ground, and slammed a gauge ‘with bis fist. “I can't waste time talking story now.” he (aepnnytep) SRCHSURGNOL TH, AUC Toe (©2004 American Med said as he looked at his watch and went back to aggres- sively pushing and pulling various levers. As I stand be- fore all of you surgeons today, it seems on reflection that his job description may not have been totally different from your own. Another worker was standing on top of the truck's cabin and shouting the boss's orders to 4 man holding. the hose in the front yard. “You want to know what my job is?” he said loudly. "I pump crap.” he said. “I's as simple as that, Its the most rotten job in the world and Til bet a guy like you would never think of doing it The negative energy of the 2 men atthe truck, what Hawaiians call mana, was palpable, so I walked over to another worker struggling to control the heavy pulsal- ing hose. The noxious smell was strong, but he was whis- ting happily. When he saw me approach, he looked up and said, “Aloha kakahiaka! (Good morning.) Aren't you going to ask me what my job is? Im an environmental protectionist. Someone has to take care ofthe aina (earth) and get rid of the erap people create.” He laughed heart- ly as he began to retract the hose [rom the tank, How do you like the slogan I painted on Dave's truck over ther, He hates it but he's too cheap to have it taken off, Dave's busy carning a living, Fred sees himself as a crap pumper, but Tm a hands-on ecologist. They have bad mana because they think oftheir work ina bad way. I'you want to love your work and enjoy life, its a matter of your point of view. ARE YOU MINDFUL OR MINDLESS? Much ofthe focus of research on stress and work has been on things ike time management, various stress manage- ‘ment techniques, trying (“live in balance,” somehow “cutting back,” oF “putting in quality time,” and how to avoid being a “type A" personality. My own research in- dicates that these approaches seldom work for long and that it isthe nature of our consciousness that has the most significant influence on whether our work and view of success causes our families and us to flourish or lan- guish and what that suecess ultimately does to our health and well-being. When it comes to the effect of our work onour life, key factor seems to be whether we are mind- less or mindful in our approach to our daily life. In other words, its less what we do than how we think about what we are doing and why and for whom we do i. Psychologists define mindfulness as flexible, slow. nonjudgmental, reflective thinking that is open to nov- elty.* Its full mental engagement and the exact oppo- site of what Buddhists call a "monkey mind” that auto- ‘matically reacts without thought. Itis tortoiselike thinking. that is sensitive to context and perspective and situated im the present. ‘When we are mindless, we tend to perceive with- out consciousness. In other words, we are thinking on automatic pilot. Psychologist William James described ‘an example of someone who goes upstairs to change for a party and suddenly realizes he is in his pajamas and cleaning his teeth. You may have poured hot water into the sugar jar, used pepper instead of salt, or it your fire- place logs with today’s newspaper. There is a story of a vicar who dreamt that he was delivering @ sermon and woke up to discover that he was. Association, All rights reserved. Downloaded From: http:/archsurg.jamanetwork.com/pdfaccess.ashx?url=/data/journals/surg/9S8S/ on 04/18/2017 Thinking mindlessly is like the computer that fies an airplane on autopilot, The plane's autopilot monitors the aircraft's mechanical system and automatically causes ito adapt to changes without the knowledge of the pi- lot. This is fine for ordinary lying conditions, but I think all of us want to believe that the pilot of our plane is fully ‘conscious and mentally awake and alert and has not tuamed the entire light over to the autopilot is even possible to do surgery mindlessly. You may have done a procedure so many times and know itso well that youare likea person driving a car who suddenly re- alizes that he or she has been driving for 20 mimutes with- ‘out really knowing it. We need our autopilot mindless thinking. Without it we become forever trapped in an analysis paralysis, But we also need our higher conscious- ness in the form of fully mindful engagement with the world. Toxically successful people are often mindlessly moving through their life and are not fully aware that they arealive until something or someone goes terribly wrong and they have to go off autopilot The philosopher Gottfried Leibr “Ate ‘ery moment there isin us an infinity of pereeptions, un- accompanied by awareness or reflection; that is, of al- {erations in the soul itself, of which we are unaware.” It is this s the kind of almost cataleptic consciousness that ‘characterizes the toxically successful. Healthy success is being able to know when we are living only on mental autopilot and, by doing so, missing out on what make lives worth living The toxically sucessful tend to be hare-brained fast. thinkers who have become rigid in their views. They are cynical, quickly evaluative, and often oblivious to con- text, perspective, possibilities, and creative ways of con- struing out situation. They are skilled at doing very com- plex routines while being mentally elsewhere, When one ff the surgeons we interviewed defended his mindless ‘way of relating with his wife by saying that he Felt that he had “many important things on his mind and the ‘weight of his practice all on his shoulders,” she re- sponded, “I'm glad something is on your shoulders, be ‘cause when it comes to thinking about me, it doesn't seem to be me, Mindfulness requires an act of wil. It fs intention- ally tying to learn to notice the existence of things and people that we have not seemed to fully notice before. Instead of stress management, it is becoming fully con- scious of why we are stressed in the first place. Instead of trying not to be type A, it is ying to become more fully cognizant of why and how we put ourselves in situ- lions in which we pressure and push ourselves to the point of distraction. ARE YOU CERTAIN YOURE RIGHT? Mindless thinking is misoneistic, meaning being intoler- ant and even afraid of new ideas related to important is- ‘sues in life. Mindless people have constantly distracted, brains and chronically busy bodies, so ideas like those 1 ‘am sharing with you can be quickly dismissed or not even, fully registered in the consciousness ofthe toxically sue- cessful, They tend to feel certain they are right and in thelr working, they usually are. Unfortunately, they are un- (aepnnytep) SRCHSUORGNOL TH, AUC Toe (©2004 American Med aware that there are many kinds of intelligence and that wise people have many of them that they mindfully match to each situation in their life. Some of the surgeons we interviewed seemed to think no differently in the oper- ating room than they did at home, One kind of intel gence may work well for good cutting but another may be needed for demonstrative eating. The toxically successful tend to overevaluate their intelligence and consider how they think and see the world as the obviously right way. They are unwilling to take the time to consider thinking in new ways and are so used toautopilot consciousness thal—unless they are shocked to awareness by a life crisis—they keep on thinking in the same ways. Mindle referred as thinkers are what physician Larry Dossey "ght men,” who view themselves as lone! brilliant holdouts against a world populated by dopes, dummies, and slow thinkers. He was using a male ref- erence for this way of thinking as it was first presented by science fiction writer A. E. Van Vogt and later popu- larized by British writer Colin Wilson, but women think this way too.’ However, my own research indicates that {is in fact a way of thinking that tends to be much more characteristic of men, My informal survey of the gender of those who attend alternative or complementary medi- cine seminars where different ways of thinking about health and healing are presented indicates that female nurses far outnumber male surgeons, Ifyou will look around this lecture hall, you might notice that some ofthe right men you know are not here. Ichas been my experience that those who might most benefit by being challenged by what I have to say are e- ther too busy to come to this talk, prejudge the topic as “soft” and not worthy of their already overwhelmed at- tention, oF have their minds made up and do not want them bothered by “weird” ideas. The problem is, these toxically successful people are often carriers, meaning that they stress and strain others with how they think and act, but their mental autopilot causes them to be oblivious to how aggravating they can be. ‘No matter what new research th encounter, right ‘men or women constantly extend the goal posts for their criteria or reexamining their way of thinking. The ex- ample of the 3 men and the truck illustrates the impor- tance of how we come to view what we do for a living and why and how it influences our general mood. The data are clear that how we think effects our health and immune status, so hope you will realize that you do not have to havea hole in your head to have an open mind. ARE WE SQUANDERING OUR GREATEST GIFT? Where and how we focus our attention is arguably our greatest human gift, and the results of my research on highly successful people as identified by their peers, sta- tus, income, and self-reports suggest that itis the con- tent of our consciousness, not the hurriedly scribbled ob- ligations on our calendar, that is an important measure cof whether we experience healthy of toxic success, Itis| not just your surgical schedule but what is on you mind asa surgeon that determines whether whatever success you experience and how you pursue it becomes toxic Association, All rights reserved. Downloaded From: http:/archsurg.jamanetwork.com/pdfaccess.ashx?url=/data/journals/surg/9S8S/ on 04/18/2017