The Greatness Secret

“Greatness is doable. Greatness is many, many individual feats, and each of them is doable.”

-Angela Duckworth, Grit

 

I have four kids and a full time job. My kids are in sports that require weekend travel. I am a practicing cardiac anesthesiologist in a busy academic medical center and I travel quite a bit for work. I give lectures and I hold positions in national organizations and committees. I also do research and publish as much as I can.

 

In my free time, I administer a large networking group for over 5,000 women physicians. My professional work leads me to get calls and emails from colleagues from different parts of the country asking me questions and professional advice. Other doctors approach me at meetings, in the Starbucks line or even at soccer games. Many of the questions have to do with cardiac anesthesiology, my research, or echocardiography. But the question I get the most, more than anything clinically related, is this one:

 

How do you do all that you do?

 

Women and men ask me all the time essentially the same question: how do you get it all done? To be honest, I never know how to answer this question. What I think they want me to say is that I have an army of minions stored in my basement who secretly care for my kids and write my papers. Or that somehow I have 30 hours in the day, due to a special time warp only I have the key to enter. Or that I have four husbands (Um…no thank you. I cannot imagine the work THAT would entail).

 

For years I have smiled and said awkwardly: “I don’t know.” Or “I have all the same struggles you do, just doing the best I can.” Because a) this is an awkward thing to try and respond to and b) I don’t want to say the more obvious truth, for fear of sounding arrogant or rude.

 

But the truth is this:

 

I make time for things. And I work incredibly hard.

 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have it all figured out. There are times when my kids eat cereal for dinner. There are times there are zero clean underwear. And while my job is to promote health to my patients, there are times I come home late from work and eat string cheese and Sun Chips because I am too tired to make something healthy. My youngest child nearly got sent home from kindergarten a month in, because guess which mother forgot to schedule him a kindergarten physical and boosters on his immunizations?

 

Oh the irony.

 

But the truth is, I am no more talented or smart than any other person I work with. I don’t have some special magical gift. And it certainly isn’t “easier” for me.

 

I’ve been reading a lot about success lately, and passion and perseverance. When I want to learn about something new, I throw myself into the literature. Lately I’ve been studying how we are so obsessed with talent. We push it, we praise it, and it is so easy for us to say “Wow! That person is a natural!” but the truth is, the most successful people, in sports, business or any arena, work harder than everyone else.

 

It is much easier for us to accept that someone is more talented, or has a special gift. It makes us deny the fact that perhaps they simply work harder.

 

I believe we are given talents and strengths unique to us. I believe more so that we are given a purpose and individual passion that drives our calling. But I also believe that unless you are willing to work harder than everyone else in that area, success won’t come to you, if that is what you are striving for. It’s just a fact.

 

Some of you are reading this and thinking, wow, she is arrogant! But the truth is, I don’t watch television. I have few hobbies. I don’t sleep a lot, and I don’t remember the last time I took a nap. Those are harsh truths, but this is how I am successful. I multitask. I work on the sidelines of soccer practice and in the bleachers at basketball. I work in airports and as I sit at dance practice. And this may sound controversial, but it is true: when my partners are not working, many times I am. I get up early on Saturday mornings and write. The majority of you probably would not want my schedule, and many of you would not measure it as successful. Which. Is. Fine! We should not be made to feel guilty for the choices we make, or the priorities we set. But we should also not feel guilty for working hard to achieve whatever it is we are striving for, whether it is a professional or a personal goal. It is not talent; it is work.

 

I don’t hide how I am able to get things done anymore. I stopped making excuses to avoid hurting others with the basic truth. I have physicians tell me all the time, “I could never do research, I am not a good writer.” Or “I could never give talks nationally, I am not a good speaker.” And I internally laugh. Research isn’t writing. Writing in research is crossing the finish line. Research is hard, tedious work, which may result in writing a manuscript. It is the same with getting involved nationally. What it takes to get there is years of work behind the scenes. This is equivalent to saying “I could never run a half marathon, because I can’t walk across finish lines, I’m not good at crossing finishing lines.” Running is the work of marathons, not the finish line! People choose the amount of effort they give. What they are really saying is “I could never do research, or lead nationally, because I don’t want to put in the effort.” I am always SO impressed with the people who honestly say just that! Effort is a choice.

 

I am not the hardest working person in my institution. There are others who work circles around me. I cannot imagine how hard the hospital CEO, the Dean, the Vice-Chancellors, and PhDs who lead labs are working.  I imagine the Chairs of departments are putting in hours beyond my comprehension, just as those who are balancing schedules and designing clinical work flow and restructuring curriculum. I don’t think of these leaders as being 10x smarter than I am (while that may also be the case), I think of them working 10x harder than I am. Period. It isn’t luck or talent or “being at the right place at the right time” that moved them to their position; it is their effort.

 

Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, talks about how talent is great, but it is effort that “counts twice.” You can have amazing talent, but if you don’t have effort, you won’t have skill. And if you have skill, you won’t have achievements if you don’t have effort. It is effort that takes talent and skills and turns them into success.

 

If you want to know the secret to success, it is not being better than everyone else, it is showing up more than everyone else. Only you know what defines YOUR success. It is not the same as mine; it is not the same as your best friend.

 

You choose your effort. There is no secret; it is pure choice.

 

Choose wisely.