Inspiration: Top 10 Ways to be the Best Person You Can Be

Shortly before leaving Monmouth Medical Center in June of 2013, Dr. Allan R. Tunkel, then Chief of Medicine, gave a talk to the medical honor society at Drexel University College of Medicine.  He delivered a riff on David Letterman’s Top 10 and spoke about the top ten ways to be a successful physician. When I had a chance to look at his speech, I was struck by the fact that it was not only a list of ways to be a great physician but a code of conduct for being a great human being. I found his talk so inspiring that with Allan’s permission, what follows, with some modifications, is my take on the “Top 10 Ways to be the Best Person You Can Be”. I hope that you will agree.

Number 10:  Relish opportunities – the great and the small. It’s always exciting to have opportunities to achieve something, to learn something, to excel. They are around us all the time. Some are really big chances that can afford us great acclaim or accomplishments. Sometimes they are small things that can brighten a day or even an hour. When I was running a group for women with metastatic breast cancer, people would ask me how I could do something “ so depressing.” And I would answer them by saying that I learned more from most of those women than I was able to give back to them. One of the things I learned came from a woman who was close to death. She spoke movingly about the importance of appreciating “the extraordinary ordinary”… a bird or squirrel in the yard, a kind but simple word.  I have never forgotten that and always try to take time out, even if for only a few seconds, to remind myself of her words.

Number 9:  Never forget that you are a role model. We are often role models in more ways than we realize…as men or women, as people in our profession, as parents, as volunteers. I came of age professionally in a corporate environment in which there were few women at my level. And sometimes I forgot that. Recently, I saw a woman who reminded me that she had heard me speak when I had just become a division manager at Bell Communications Research. She recalled that I stood tall  (which is a feat when you are only five feet, three inches!) and spoke from the heart. Her lasting impression was that I had said that as a woman, she could be whatever she wanted to be – career woman, mother or both. All I remembered was that I was nervous and that my voice shook.  So even when we are not aware of it, we make impressions on others.

Also, I try to remember that being a psychologist is an important responsibility. People entrust me with their secrets, their hopes, their woes, and their dreams. They count on me to help them. Sometimes I will share adverse situations that I have encountered and overcome, in the hope that, they too will see their way to doing the same.

Number 8. Recognize others. I worked for a man whom I would count as one of the best bosses ever.  Early in our relationship, Frank took me and another woman under his wing. He included us in every meeting, taught us tricks for public speaking, and was supportive whether things went right or wrong.  But what impressed me most was his ability to step out of the spotlight and let his subordinates shine. At one meeting, my colleague spoke up about an idea that she had worked on with him. When the other manager asked whose idea it was, she was struck dumb, and although he shared at least fifty percent of the credit, Frank stated that it had been her inspiration. When I asked him later why he had done that, he said simply that it was a chance for others to see her good work and that it would also encourage her to feel doubly invested in the project. He was right. She dug in with a vengeance and did better work than she had ever done before. His behavior also helped me to see that his success was largely dependent on the success of those who worked for him, and that their ascendance up the ladder was also a good reflection on him.

Number 7. Do make mistakes. When Dr. Tunkel gave his speech, he was talking to a group of young physicians who are fearful of making mistakes and are in a profession in which mistakes can be fatal.  But he went on to acknowledge that everyone would make mistakes. He asked that they learn to admit them when they happen, and that they be honest and accountable. That they learn to say “thank you” when someone points out a mistake to them. I would agree with him and add the following: look at your mistakes and figure out how you can learn from them. Analyze how they happened and see that knowledge as a gift toward future improvement. I tell children and teens in my practice that it is ok to make mistakes if we learn from them and don’t make the same mistake again. The same is true for us grown-ups. And we have the vantage point of maturity and life experience to help us figure out how the mistake happened and how we can grow from it.

Number 6. Play well with others. In all fields today, we have learned that it is important to be able to work as part of a team, and that the strength of a team of people can be greater than the individual capabilities. In medicine, nurses, respiratory therapists, case managers, social workers, nutritionists and others all play a role in helping a patient get well. In psychotherapy, doctors, teachers, spouses, friends, parents and other family often play a role in understanding and helping a patient. Although, as the therapist, I may be the face that the patient sees, the knowledge that others can impart to me, and the help that they can give the patients all mesh together to form a fabric of care. The goal is success in helping the patient and it doesn’t matter who helps the most.

Recent research in Emotional Intelligence reinforces these beliefs. Studies have found that empathy, good teamwork and communication are key ingredients in the emotional intelligence that can predict success in life.

Number 5. Speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. In psychotherapy, as in medicine, we often care for those who are less fortunate and who need our help.  Sometimes, even though we are overwhelmed with family and professional responsibilities, financial obligations, and other pressures, it is important that we not forget this responsibility. Some time ago I treated an elderly woman who would not allow me to treat her pro bono.  Although she had no car, took a bus to my office, and wore clothes that were immaculate but worn, her pride determined that she would pay me something toward my fee.

She was bright, insightful, lonely and sad. One child had died, the other was far away. As I continued to treat her, I realized that she was not getting the medical care that she needed because she had no insurance and her pride, once again, prevented her from asking for charity. I was able to ask friends in the medical profession to help her and she allowed them to do so if she was allowed to pay a small portion of the fee. In this way, she got to keep her pride intact. And I got to ask for favors from friends, not for myself, but for someone in need. There are many ways that we can speak for others: by working pro bono, by asking favors for others, by fighting for causes we believe in, by donating our time and effort, by bucking a system we feel is unfair.  Just don’t forget that it is important to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Number 4. Remain humble. Many years ago, I knew a man who worked in a very successful private business owned by two individuals. One of the owners had taken his vast financial success and used it to acquire houses, boats, wives and many material possessions. The other owner still lived in his original home, with his first and only wife, and spent a lot of his hard earned fortune donating to charity, not just with money but with his own time. He truly paid it forward. When I first met these men, I did not know who was who. But within minutes it was easy to figure it out.  The man whose main talent was in acquiring material things spoke about “I”, “I” and “I”.  The owner who spoke for those less fortunate was full of tales of the growth and success of charities and individuals yet never talked about what he himself had done.

While we can enjoy and revel in our successes, we will get more satisfaction from the success of others and do not need to blow our own horn. It is also humbling to remember our failures and use them to learn life lessons as well as to temper our egos.

Number 3. Be understanding of others. Many people who are successful have high expectations of themselves and also of others. As a result, they often have little patience for the failures and foibles of others. However, we all make mistakes, have a bad day and sometimes screw up. This happens in the workplace, in our families and in the world at large. It is important to remember this and turn our empathy meter up, so that we can imagine walking in the other person’s shoes and understand how he feels.

Many years ago a patient became angry during therapy and stormed out of my office. I had tried to calm her to no avail. However, several months later she called for an appointment and asked to come back. I reminded myself that the way a patient acts in therapy is often a microcosm of how she acts in the real world and understood that she would not apologize, but needed me to understand her behavior. When she returned to therapy I came to find out that the rest of her world was not so accommodating. She made great strides in personal growth that allowed her to stop storming out of the lives of others.

Number 2. Make tough decisions. Tough decisions can involve dealing with a patient, a colleague, or a family member. It can mean cutting off a relative who always asks for money. Or forcing a child to face the consequences of a foolish action. Many years ago, when I worked in industry, a member of my team was not performing and was riding on the coattails of others. His lax behavior caused problems and increased the workload for others, yet my peers were reluctant to support my firing him.

I had tons of documentation and the employee was on probation, but he had been with the company for many years and I was 25 years younger than he as well as a new supervisor and female to boot! I made a deal with another supervisor. We would transfer the man to someone else’s team and if he performed well for six months, he would be taken off probation. Within two weeks of the transfer, the other supervisor was at my door, begging me to take the man back. I felt vindicated but also sad. I did not want the man to fail.  But I also could not keep him on my team and force others to carry him. I told him he was being let go and faced his unjustified anger. Over time, however, after the firing, the rest of the team revealed how angry they had been and how grateful they were that I made the tough decision.

Number 1. Expect the unexpected. What is the saying?  God laughs while man plans. It is wise to have plans for your future, but it is also important to realize that things do not always go as planned and we often need a Plan B. Often these bumps in the road are a chance to reinvent ourselves and move into something that interests us more. I began my career in psychology expecting to do research and focused my master’s degree classes in experimental psychology. But I ran out of money to continue into doctoral training and ended up working in industry for a while.

By the time I had the money to return to psychology, I realized that while I sat in meetings listening to my tech colleagues talk about bits and bytes, I was busy noticing the dynamics in the room, the relationships between people, and trying to figure out what made them tick. When I returned to training, I moved into working with people and doing psychotherapy. I don’t consider those years in industry a waste. I learned a great deal and met terrific people. That time gave me an understanding of the stresses and politics of corporate life.

Spencer Johnson’s book Who Moved My Cheese, which Dr. Tunkel recommended in his talk, is a parable about how to deal with change. In the book four characters live in a “maze” and look for “cheese” to nourish them and make them happy.  It is a book about embracing change so that you can feel less stressed and enjoy life more. I read it recently and realized that had I had it when I made my own life changes, things might have been easier. But I struggled with the changes, got through them, and learned from each experience, even if the learning was accompanied by some emotional turmoil.

I am sure there are other lessons that can guide us in life. Maybe a Top 20 or Top 30? Many thanks to Dr. Tunkel for allowing me to use his talk as a model. If even one of these rules inspires you to think about what guides you in life, or inspires you to make a positive change, please contact me on LinkedIn or Facebook and let me know.

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