Friday, January 3, 2014

Finding Strength in Setbacks

by Jane Zhao

Two months ago, I read a great book, and I’ve been raving about it ever since to whoever will listen. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that stays true to form to Gladwell’s other works. In it, Gladwell challenges readers to look beyond conventional wisdom to reevaluate the way we look at setbacks.

The nonfiction book begins with a vignette from the biblical passage of David and Goliath. Historically, David has always been painted as the underdog and Goliath the giant. But based on what criterion? The fact that David is of significantly smaller stature? Pfft. According to Gladwell, David wasn’t such a weakling. In fact, he had numerous other qualities that made him just as formidable (if not more so) than Goliath.

Gladwell writes early on in the book:

“There is a set of advantages that have to do with material resources, and there is a set that have to do with the absence of material resources—and the reason underdogs win as often as they do is that the latter is sometimes every bit the equal of the former.

“For some reason, this is a very difficult lesson for us to learn. We have, I think, a very rigid and limited definition of what an advantage is. We think of things as helpful that actually aren’t and think of other things as unhelpful that in reality leave us stronger and wiser.”

As I read, I thought bemusedly how his words could be applied to setbacks faced by women in surgery. How often have I heard of the challenges faced by my predecessors described as blessings in disguise? Based on his writing, Gladwell probably wouldn't think of that analogy as far-fetched at all.

So I came up with some examples of surgeons whose pasts as underdogs and misfits shaped them into amazing role models.
  • In the 1970s, women were discriminated against from receiving credit in their own name at banks, and if these women were married, they were told to use their husband’s name on the checking account. Finally, in response to the refusal of service, a number of women banded together and formed the first ever women’s bank. Dr. Anita Figueredo was one of them. During the creation of the bank, these women received derision and dismissal from many of their peers. But after the bank’s successful launch, banks all around (even the ones that had previously refused them service) began to open up "women’s departments" and "women's divisions." Lessons learned: when these women didn’t feel welcome, they decided that instead of trying to fit in, they’d start from scratch elsewhere. As a result, they each became successful entrepreneurs with leverage of their own right in the banking community.
  • Dr. Frances Conley never really considered herself the victim of sexual harassment. Anytime an off-color joke was directed her way, she’d fire off a snappy retort, and that’d be the end of that. She built an incredibly successful career as a neurosurgeon at one of the most prominent academic institutions in the country. She kept her head down and didn't rock the boat. But then came an incident of misogyny that she simply couldn’t ignore, and she publicly resigned from her tenured position in protest. Her office and lab were ransacked; she was vilified by the media and many of her peers. Thanks to her efforts, numerous medical schools, universities, hospitals, and research labs created or updated their policies regarding sexual harassment. When she finally performed the unsavory deed of “rocking the boat” that she’d spent so long trying to avoid, she became recognized and respected as a leader brave enough to speak the unspeakable.
  • Dr. Linda Brodsky serendipitously discovered in 1997 during a residency program review that a recently hired male faculty member in her department with lesser qualifications, responsibilities, and seniority was being compensated by her university at twice her state salary. Upon further investigation, she discovered that this was not an isolated incident. After more than two years of trying to resolve her gender and pay concerns internally, she resorted to filing charges of discrimination by her two employers. As a consequence, she lost her job. She’s since spoken publicly about the innumerable times she became wracked with guilt over putting her family through the tortuous process. Often, she’d lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel and question whether she’d made the right choice by filing a lawsuit. After ten long years, the lawsuits were finally settled. Because of that grueling period in her life, she is significantly wiser about the laws regarding fair gender compensation, and she has become a fearless leader in the global community by advocating for others who are now in similar situations. 
  • And lastly, an orthopedic surgeon I know was teased and called “Token” by her co-residents all throughout residency because she was the token woman their program had taken in that year to meet its quota for diversity and inclusion. Being called by a nickname she hated irked her to no end, but that experience made her aware of just how damaging and alienating such taunts, however slight, can be over time. As a result, she is an infinitely more sensitive caretaker and teacher than she would have been otherwise.

The incidents suffered by these women were awful. They faced difficulties because they were different. The silver lining to all of this is that we wouldn’t know about any of these women and their heroic contributions to society if they hadn’t been pushed to the brink and been forced by their situations to find the inner courage to implement change when change was needed.

Globally, women and underrepresented minorities still have a ways to go before full equality is met. It’s a new year though, and with that as reason enough to celebrate, I’d like to raise a toast to the tremendous progress we’ve made as a society, all thanks to the efforts of underdogs and misfits who saw setbacks not as obstacles that blocked their paths but as walls to be climbed over.

Happy 2014.

Oh, and make sure to read David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a good book.

Do you have an experience where being an outsider made you a stronger individual? Share your story with us in the comments below.


Jane Zhao is a fourth year medical student at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. She completed her undergraduate studies in Medicine, Health, & Society at Vanderbilt University. She was the 2012 recipient of the Shohrae Hajibashi Memorial Leadership Award. Her interests include healthcare social media, quality improvement, and public health from a surgical perspective. She chairs the AWS blog subcommittee and can be followed on Twitter. She is in the process of interviewing for General Surgery residency for the 2014 Match.

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