From Chapter 6, “Imperturbability- Staying Calm” in Ingredients of Outliers
In this age of technology and instant everything, which arrived with visions and promises of greater efficiency and effectiveness, we were assured that by now we’d be enjoying lives of greater leisure and pleasure than ever before. Instead, stress levels are sky- high as we collectively bemoan the gloom and doom that awaits our children and grandchildren. Do you know anyone who hasn’t stated, “Oh, my Gosh, I am so stressed!”? It seems as though Uncle Sam, the once tall and proud symbol of our nation, has been replaced by Chicken Little, of “The Sky Is Falling” fame.
In that 19th century fable, you may recall the main character is bopped on the head by a falling acorn. Immediately concluding that the entire sky is falling, he rallies his animal friends and they dash off to alert the king of the impending doom. In the end, their fate varies, for better or worse, depending on which of the many versions you read.
I believe there are better lessons we can learn from the past than the imminent collapse of the sky. I have two stories to tell you, both of which involve men born back in Chicken Little’s day, but of flesh and blood, not fantasy or fable.
One, who would become a world-renowned physician, was born in Canada in 1849. The other, born in 1865 to an English couple living in India, became famous as a Nobel Prize-winning short- story writer and poet.
In 1872, William Osler received his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal. After postgraduate studies abroad, he returned to Canada in 1874 and joined the McGill faculty. In 1884, he left to become professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Known for his innovative approach to treating patients, his reputation grew rapidly and, in 1888, he was recruited to become physician-in-chief of the soon to be opened Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and as professor of medicine of its planned school of medicine. To this day, Osler is recognized as one of the fathers of modern medicine.
As he prepared to leave the University of Pennsylvania for his new assignment, Osler gave a farewell address to his medical students. Titled, “Aequanimitas,” it has become famous for its enduring wisdom and practicality. The Latin word, defined by Osler as imperturbability, is emblazoned on the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine shield and every incoming intern is given a copy of Osler’s message. While addressed specifically to those in medicine, the following excerpts illustrate its application in virtually every field of endeavor.
In the first place, in the physician or surgeon no quality takes rank with imperturbability, and I propose for a few minutes to direct your attention to this essential bodily virtue. Perhaps I may be able to give those of you, if it has not developed during the critical scenes of the past month, a hint or two of its importance, possibly a suggestion for its attainment. Imperturbability means coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril, immobility, impassiveness…
Replace the words “physician or surgeon” with “entrepreneur, small-business owner, attorney, pilot, athlete, entertainer, homemaker, manager, human,” or whatever title best describes you and I can say with confidence that, based on my own experience, the message is as pertinent today as it was 120-plus years ago.
During the years I’ve spent in hospital emergency departments and in managing urgent care centers, I’ve witnessed the occasional provider, and more than a few operators, become unhinged during real or imagined crises. Nothing does more to raise the anxiety of patients or employees than to see the person upon whose expertise they’re relying on, “lose it.”
Despite its clear necessity, I’m uncertain if calmness under pressure comes from genes or training. Osler had this to say:
As imperturbability is largely a bodily endowment, I regret to say that there are those amongst you, who, owing to congenital defects, may never be able to acquire it. Education, however, will do much; and, with practice and experience, the majority of you may expect to attain to a fair measure. The first essential is to have your nerves well in hand.
How then does one become the face of serenity during the storm? Clearly, training and experience count for much; I can remember my hand trembling the first time I sutured a patient or delivered a baby. I like to think that, after the first few seconds, I regained my steadiness and that the patient’s laceration eventually healed and the child was born without shaken baby syndrome.
Congenital defects aside, Doctor Osler also recognized the possibility of disappointment and failure:
It is sad to think that, for some of you, there is in store disappointment, perhaps failure. You cannot hope, of course, to escape from the cares and anxieties incident to professional life. Stand up bravely, even against the worst. Remember, too, that sometimes “from our desolation only does the better life begin.” Even with disaster ahead and ruin imminent, it is better to face them with a smile and with the head erect than to crouch at their approach. It has been said that, “in patience ye, shall win your souls,” and what is this patience but an equanimity which enables you to rise superior to the trials of life.
For anyone who has started a venture that ultimately failed, as I have, or for those who’ve struggled but have eventually succeeded, take some comfort in that ultimately you’re better for the effort— success or failure.