Since my 40s I have sporadically thought deeply about what I have learned and, more importantly, how I learned. I don't mean just physical, technical, or professional learning; I mean learning about life with all of its ambiguities, contradictions, and challenges.
In my late 50s I began to realize that I learned much more from my failures than from successes. I learned more from being jarred by the potholes and slowed by the obstacles in life than by speeding along on a smooth highway.
Over 30 years ago, I took a job that turned out to be a failure and voluntarily resigned after less than a year. This occurred during the time that my wife had become seriously ill; I thought she might die. The stress was enormous, but I landed on my feet and got a better job and my wife gradually recovered.
At first, I was very angry and felt sorry for myself. I was absorbed in trying to understand who was responsible for the failure—the institutional culture, its leaders, or me? It took many months to escape from that introspection, but I gradually shifted my emotional energy to the new job.
After a few years, I began to realize that the experience had taught me a great deal about important issues in life and in my profession, such as institutional culture, leadership, jobs, and facing adversity. This eventually led decades later to my writing “Understanding Academic Medical Centers: Simone's Maxims,” which was published as an editorial in Clinical Cancer Research in 1999. That article sparked my interest in writing essays, which led to my accepting an offer 10 years ago to write this column for Oncology Times. And that work subsequently led to incorporating some of those columns in two published books.
I could list a whole series of lessons I learned by facing adversity, but you can get a sample in my book, “Simone's Maxims,” and there is a better source addressing this topic: Dr. Michael Link sent me a recent relevant column by Jane Brody, the veteran New York Times health writer, who writes about the practical issues we all face in a style accessible to the general public. In this particular column, “Life's Hard Lessons” (9/8/13), she also discusses some personal hardships from which she learned valuable lessons.
For her column she interviewed Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and best-selling author, who had recently published The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life's Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections. The book is essentially an autobiographical account of adversities in his life and the lives of his patients that taught him important lessons. Each chapter is a relatively short story that ends with an aphorism or maxim that condenses the wisdom learned.
For example, he talks about being forced out after 20 years at the National Institute of Mental Health by new leadership. He takes it in stride: “This kind of thing happens to many people in all fields. Sometimes you need to accept that it is time to move on—and to do so.” He made a new career in private practice doing independent clinical research, and as an author of science-based nonfiction with an entertaining style. Dr. Rosenthal and I, as you can see, have a lot in common.
In the interview he advised that people who have lost their jobs “accept the situation and view it as a part of a national trend, not a reflection of one's personal worth,” noting that he believes it is possible to dig deep inside oneself and find other things of value and interest to cultivate and work at. He discourages comparing oneself to the more fortunate as a bad idea that could lead to depression.
What I found most interesting was his compelling statement about his departure from the institute: “Look within to gauge your worth rather than depending on institutions or the opinions of others, for institutions rise and fall and fashions come and go, but a good sense of your own value will see you through life's ups and downs.”
This hit home because several of my own published maxims address the same issue.
And finally, Dr. Rosenthal wrote, “Mistakes are our best teachers, so don't waste them. Acknowledge them, learn from them, and become more competent because of them.”
In a sense, Dr. Rosenthal's advice revolves around our choice of becoming either “world weary” or “worldly wise.”
In the first instance, one can wallow in depression or despair and become cynical about life and institutional cultures. One can defend oneself with the conviction that I did nothing wrong and I was treated unfairly. But Dr. Rosenthal, I believe, would say, “That may be true, but it is beside the point. Spending all of one's energy digging deep into that rut gets you nowhere. You must recognize your values and move on.”
But, as Jane Brody says, the book could be described in a single well-known sentence: “When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.” After his disappointing dismissal, he made a new career that has been exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling.
My own case was the same; my career, I believe, has been far more interesting, productive, and rewarding than it would have been had I stayed at the institution I left. And I believe that acquiring worldly wisdom has been the pearl of great price, an unexpected and irreplaceable benefit of facing adversity and moving on.