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Graduation, love and safety

This past weekend was a joy. So many happy students and families.

Smiles, nervous laughter, proud parents, a little relief.

It was graduation weekend.

It is a powerful thought that we are a snapshot in the blue and gold line of graduates that have come before and will come after. A snapshot in time.

I had the privilege of graduating from West Virginia University and of conferring degrees from it to others.

As part of my role at graduation, I was invited to give a short address. I gave them four challenges for their consideration.

In the way of leadership and innovation, I feel we are here to change things for the better. To focus on the purpose of what we do, instead of the business of what we do.

For example, I think the business of medicine is rescue from failure. The purpose of medicine is to prevent failure.

Vice President of Health Sciences, Clay Marsh, addresses an audience at graduation.
Vice President of Health Sciences, Clay Marsh, addresses an audience at graduation.

The business of education involves rankings, selectivity of the university, and metrics of our incoming students. The purpose of education is to inspire students to learn.

The business of research is NIH grants, papers, impact factors and rankings. The purpose of research is to solve vexing problems that improve lives.

The four challenges:

  1. Find your “why” or purpose. Simon Sinek showed in the TED talk, “The Golden Circle” that great individuals and companies understand a simple principle: start with their purpose first. NASA did this when they were the organization putting the first man on the moon. Once they accomplished this, they became the “O” ring place that ignored the concerns of their team engineers about the safety of the “O” ring gasket, which protected leakage of the solid-state fuel on the Challenger. Despite these concerns, the Challenger took off on a fateful morning in 1986 and 7 people, including the first civilian in space, teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Our purpose is to change the mindset, change the health and change the future of the world, starting in WV. Like Microsoft tells its workers, Change the World or Go Home.
  2. Dream big and reach far. In my opinion, we mistake real risk. While we believe the risk we need to modify is one of making a mistake, I think the much bigger risk to us is that of omission – that is not daring to be great. To be great, we must create a learning health system and follow our founding purpose with laser-like focus. It is interesting that there are very childhood prodigies that become adult prodigies. Why? I believe that it is because childhood prodigies learn they are better than others at what they do and become scared to expand their horizons. On the other hand, adult prodigies fail and fail, but during these failures, they learn. Malcolm Gladwell in the Outliers tells us that the secret to mastery is 10,000 hours of practice. That is a lot of failing and learning. In his famous video, the Crazy Ones, Steve Jobs ends by narrating, Because the ones crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.
  3. Remember Simple Gifts. Of note, the average lottery winner is less happy than the average person and the person surviving a life-threatening illness, is happier. Why? Because prosperity is in your mindset, your health, your independence, those you love, the purpose you carry, not the size of your bank account. As an ICU physician, I have been with people in the ICU that would give up all their money, fame, cars, houses for another walk outside, another meal with their family, or another day of fun with their grandchildren or children. These are simple, irreplaceable gifts that we often are consciously unaware. Most of us have our eyes open, but only see these gifts when they are gone. We are blessed in being grateful for these gifts before they are gone.
  4. Stay Healthy. This one took me awhile to understand. I now believe that health is where your biological age (your body’s real age) is less than your chronological age (your number of birthday age) and disease is where your biological age is greater than your chronological age. If this is true, then longevity studies tell us some very interesting information about health. While we should not smoke cigarettes or eat too much processed sugar (accelerates our biological age), the most powerful predictors of long and healthy lives are human behaviors.  The three key areas appear to be maintaining healthy and satisfying friendships and relationships with other who love you and give you meaning; keeping a founding purpose of your life (the Japanese call this “ikigai” or the reason for being); and maintaining a mindset of abundance, safety and gratitude, versus one of scarcity, fear and hopelessness. Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel prize for her discovery of telomeres, the caps on chromosomes that reflect the biological age of the DNA, and Elissa Epel, a behavioral psychologist, did a very important study. They compared two groups of moms – those with very ill children versus those with well children. Of course, they predicted moms with ill children would have more stress and would age faster than the moms with well children. What they found was as interesting as it is important. They found that if moms felt chronically stressed, irrespective of their children’s health, they aged faster than those that did not. Wow! It is not how much stress you are under, it is how you see it!

These challenges are not only for our graduates but for all of us, too. Gaining the right frame of mind can improve our lives. If you look at these four challenges in a different way, they are all about our health. Purpose, community, outlook, gratitude, faith and trust that are lives have direction, reason and meaning.

Google found the only thing separating their best teams from others was psychological safety. We need to be loved and feel safe to excel as people, as professionals and this is great culture. But only if we see it as so.

Graduating students
Graduating students lock arms to sing "Country Roads" at the end of their ceremony

I wish for you, our new graduates, that you will love your job, your family, your community, your life and that you feel as safe, loved and grateful as I do on this great weekend I was lucky enough to share with you.