Bigger isn’t always better

From Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business by Paul Jarvis:

I like reading things that are not about medicine and seeing what lessons cross domains and apply. The premise of Jarvis’ book is that growth for growth’s sake is a terrible business model for many businesses and especially the many people that run them. It’s okay to be big, but any decision to grow the enterprise should be an active choice considering all factors and not just the default MO taken from the recent start-up culture of silicon valley.

My wife left her employed university position last year to start a solo private practice, and it’s been wonderful. It’s not hard to see how there are so many downsides to being part of large company or expanding your own business too much. On the former, no control. On the latter, so much time managing the machine that it’s easy to completely lose track of why you started the practice and what you liked about it.

But here are four passages that also resonated with me as a physician and educator:

Miles Kington, a British journalist, reportedly said that “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” We should never assume that having an abundance of knowledge is the same as having an abundance of wisdom.

This is the problem with equating performance on a knowledge assessment like a high-stakes multiple-choice examination with real-life competence. Knowledge is important, but it doesn’t mean you can perform in your field.

More isn’t better—better is better. There are advantages to putting in the time and effort to master a skill, but there’s also a great need for balance.

“More isn’t better” is a real truism for so many things in our world. We should question whenever something or someone simply wants more of us: more hours, more years of training, more free labor, more notches on the CV belt. It’s not necessarily that the “more” is inherently bad–it almost never is–but that doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, coined the term “power paradox” to describe what happens when we gain power through leadership: we subsequently lose some of the capabilities we needed to gain it in the first place—such as empathy, self-awareness, transparency, and gratitude.

The power paradox explains much of the bullying we see within strict hierarchies: how excrement rolls downhill from the top of a poorly-run organization all the way to the youngest least experienced students who are just doing their impressionable best to insulate themselves from the worst of indoctrination as they grow.

[Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You] believes that we need to be craftspeople, focused on getting better and better at how we use our skills, in order to be valuable to our company and its customers. The craftsperson mind-set keeps you focused on what you can offer the world; the passion mind-set focuses instead on what the world can offer you.

There are some people who in life (or medical school), are confident they know exactly what they want. They are passionate about dermatology and orthopedic surgery. That’s great.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the rest of the world, those who simply don’t know or seem to be missing that “passion.” I agree with Newport that passion is something you can grow through competence and the craftsmen mentality. There are no perfect jobs or fields. There are good and bad aspects to everything, and suggesting otherwise drives so much anxiety in the specialty and residency-selection process.

Success has more to do with you, your goals, and your perspective than it does with exactly what box you place yourself in.


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