Stopping Time: The Magical Power of Reflection
The loud sound of the alarm signals the beginning of another hectic day. Peering sleepily at the day’s crack-of-dawn news and emails on a smart phone, hopping on the elliptical in the basement, grabbing breakfast material that will be consumed in the vehicle while making a few calls, jumping on to a barrage of emails, negotiating new deadlines and meetings, being assaulted with the cacophony of alpha personalities each trying to prove that their point of view is the only right one — that is what I have called life for the past many years. Oh yes, not to forget trying to see a few patients each week as well.
A little while ago, I gave it all up — to take a pause, to reflect. Stepping off the “corporate treadmill” seems to have been one of the best decisions of my life. “Time flies” they say. It sure has for me. I plan to slow it down for a while, even try to stop it.
Within the first week of resigning my job as the chief physician executive for a large health care system, quiet reflection allowed five major sets of observations to surface:
One, that life is short and time does indeed fly. My son, who was in my arms seemingly just yesterday, is in medical school. Pictures from Date with Dad that I enjoyed with my daughter at school are already close to twenty years old. Looking at my own pictures, I realize that I have lost more than half my full head of hair and wrinkles have begun to punctuate my smooth light-brown facial skin. Most frightening is the realization that my mother who has lived with us for a while, is frail and in her mid-eighties and I may not have her company for more than a few years at best.
Two, we spend proportionately very little time in activities that are profoundly meaningful and fulfilling to us. In the context of the first observation that life is so short, this is particularly disturbing. Using my mother’s example above, I am beginning to realize that at 84 she is a goldmine of wisdom, wit, and humor and perhaps most importantly a rich source of customs, habits and traditions from our native India. This rich and unique cultural heritage is at risk of perishing when she is no longer with us. Although our family follows some of these customs, we have done little to learn more about them-why they are followed and what they signify.
Three, we hardly ever take the time to savor what is good in our lives. Wandering leisurely into the basement I stumbled into volumes and volumes of scrapbooks and photo albums that my wife has painstakingly assembled over the years. I also discovered three boxes of carefully stacked multimedia “memories” evolving through VHS tapes to super 8’s to mini DV tapes to DVDs. Like many others, the plan was to carefully digitize them one day and somehow find the time to enjoy them again; the plan never came to fruition beyond a few tapes. Our best times with each other and the family are captured in here. If the last twenty years hasn’t resulted in us re-living these moments, what are the odds of us enjoying them in the next twenty years, I ask myself?
Four, in the name of “networking” we spend too much time nurturing professional relationships that are superficial and non-enriching. It is vital in business to create and build professional relationships. However, as we indulge in this practice, we often get fooled into believing that such relationships are somehow three-dimensional and more meaningful than they actually are. In reality, most of them are just that — essentially an explicit or implicit understanding that “if you scratch my back, I will scratch yours” Really meaningful professional relationships are few, but worth identifying and nurturing. Like personal human relationships in general, they are lasting and provide a deeper purpose to work.
Finally, being so close to “the action” we tend to miss the “big picture”. Every single day I would go to work to actively engage in several projects as if each were a battle to be won. While such an approach is appropriate to get complex work divided into manageable chunks and be executed effectively, it also becomes remarkably mechanical with ups and downs similar to the highs and lows of addiction — adrenaline rushes during execution, surges of dopamine and serotonin when success happens and deep bouts of self doubt and lows resulting from failure.
Upon reflection, I realized I had almost completely forgotten that as a physician-leader I have been in a remarkably powerful position to positively influence the health of people. As a physician I can impact one human life at a time but as a leader in health care I can influence lives of large populations. When looking at my professional life through such a lens, suddenly the “daily grind” of project work begins to appear purposeful.
Taking a short break from work, a game “half time” of sorts, has allowed me to huddle with my family, close friends, and most importantly myself to come up with a course-corrected new “game plan” for the next phase of my life. Being the action-oriented executive that I am, I like to create “bite-size” action items that I plan to accomplish, in parallel to the list of reflections above. Here they are:
One, life is indeed short. I have been blessed with good health, good relationships and lots of professional accomplishments. For the next phase, I will not look for a higher C-suite title but rather seek out fulfilling and purposeful work that allows me to meaningfully contribute to my community. While I plan to work hard to accomplish this goal, I will specifically set aside time to indulge in the small things that truly matter. It may be a planned weekday afternoon for reflection. It may be to negotiate more time off with family in a strategic way.
Two, I will specifically identify people in my life who are profoundly meaningful to me and actively invest in my relationship with them. Over the last few weeks, my mother has risen to the highest priority. Not because my wife and kids are less important, but because I may have the least time with her. Equipped with my video camera and a modest lavaliere microphone, I have recorded session after session with her, intently listening to her recite Hindu shlokas (chants) She goes on to patiently explain what they mean or why we celebrate different Hindu festivals such as Diwali or Holi; I have asked her to speak in terms that the kids, born and raised in America, will be able to understand as they are already beginning to crave more of their own culture and heritage. She goes on to explain in detail how she prays for the welfare of her children and grandchildren every morning and also how she offers gratitude to many in her life now and many who are no more, including my father. Divinity fills the air as time completely stops for a while and tears well in my eyes.
Three, I will savor so much that is good in my life. The project to digitize memories has started with fervor. I am discovering hidden gems every few moments: our wedding video from 31 years ago, our son’s fifth birthday video when he gets mad as he is unable to break the piñata with his small hands, my daughter’s first clumsy and then increasingly artistic Indian classical dance performances and the list goes on. Each brings life into sharp focus. This is what truly matters.
Going forward, perhaps one Friday of every three or four, my wife and I will watch these videos together.
Four, I will identify and nurture professional relationships that matter with no expectation that such relationships will provide a “return on time investment”. As I walked out of my last high-strung executive position, I realized that the few people who truly mattered to me were those who cared little for my high executive position in the organization, but cared for me as a person. The two librarians who deeply cared for me and my family, my executive assistant of over ten years who recognized me for being a fiercely honest executive and a caring family man, my previous manager who I remembered crying together with when she lost her young nephew, and another professional colleague for whom I took a principled stand against heavy political odds. Hundreds of other people, who I had worked with or networked with, simply blurred into the background.
The next time around, I will spend more time cultivating relationships such as the ones above, recognizing that the best fruits come from ones from whom there is no expectation of direct material benefit. The rewards in human decency and kindness will make for a better workplace for me and will help me cope with the harshness and cutthroat madness that the corporate environment has sadly become.
Finally, I will make a commitment to remind myself daily the purpose of what I am doing. Much has been published recently about mindfulness and meditation. While I may or may not find time to dedicate to meditation, I will take a short few-second mental break every morning and before I go to bed to consciously remind myself of what I am doing professionally and why. I will constantly try to remind myself of how my actions impact a needy patient or their family or a large population of individuals.
I realize that most may not have the luxury of being able to take a mid-career break to reflect. However, in whatever way is appropriate and practical, it is critical to stop or slow time for a while — to pause and ponder, to reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it and what brings joy and purpose to our lives. This allows the blur that life often becomes to come into sharp focus. As soon as that happens the true beauty of life is so plainly visible. We owe ourselves this amazing spectacle.