Sharpening the saw



Recently, I wrote that springtime is an excellent time to spruce up your office, to check your equipment for malfunctions, to resharpen your curettes and scissors, and to back up your computer files and upgrade software. More important than any of that, though, is reevaluating your most important asset: yourself.

I write this reminder every couple of years because it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture among the pressures of our daily routines. Sooner or later, no matter how dedicated we are, the grind gets to all of us, leading to fatigue, irritability, and a progressive decline in motivation. And we are too busy to sit down and think about what we might do to break that vicious cycle. This is detrimental to our own well-being, as well as that of our patients.

There are many ways to maintain your intellectual and emotional health, but here’s how I do it: I take individual days off (average of 1 a month) to catch up on journals or taking a CME course; or to try something new – something I’ve been thinking about doing “someday, when there is time” – such as a piano or sailing lesson; or a long weekend away with my wife. And I take no less than 4 weeks vacation per year.

I know how some of you feel about “wasting” a workday. Vacations are even worse, because patients might go elsewhere while we’re gone, and every day the office is idle we “lose money.”

That whole paradigm is wrong. Stop thinking day to day; think year to year instead. You bring in a given amount of revenue per year – more on some days, less on other days, none on weekends and vacation days; it all averages out in the end.

Besides, this is much more important than money. This is breaking the routine, clearing the cobwebs, living your life. Trust me – your practice will still be there when you return.

Last month, my wife and I hiked up a mountain in the Himalayas to the fabled Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. As I huffed and puffed up the trail, I didn’t have the time – or the slightest inclination – to worry about the office. When the trek was over, I returned ready to take on the world, and my practice, anew.

And I jotted down some great ideas – practical, medical, and literary. Original thoughts are hard to come by during the daily grind, but they often appear, unannounced, in a new and refreshing environment.

Creative people have long recognized the value of “sharpening the saw.” A classic example is the oft-told story of Swiss physicist K. Alex Müller and German physicist J. Georg Bednorz. In 1986, they reached a major impasse in their superconductivity research; it appeared 2 decades of work might be for naught. The harder they pressed, the more elusive the answer became. So Müller decided to take some time off, put aside his troubles, and research a subject that had always interested him: ceramics.

Nothing could have been further from his research field, of course, since ceramics are among the poorest conductors known. Yet, as he relaxed, it occurred to Müller that a unique property of ceramics might apply to their project. Back in the lab, the team created a ceramic compound that became the first successful “high-temperature” superconductor.

The rest, as they say, is history; Müller and Bednorz won a Nobel Prize and triggered an explosion of research leading to breakthroughs in computing, electricity transmission, magnetically levitated trains, and many other applications that are still being realized.

Sharpening your saw may not change the world, but it will change you; any nudge out of your comfort zone will give you fresh ideas and help you look at the same old problems in completely new ways.

And to those who still can’t bear the thought of taking time off, remember Eastern’s First Law: Your last words will NOT be, “I wish I had spent more time in the office!”

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News.

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