“Being” an adjective

Last year one of my favorite women surgeons and I were having a conversation about where she is in her career, the role of mentors in professional development, and the idea of transitioning at some point in one’s academic career from being a Doer to being a Helper.  The eloquent way she stated this was simply, “I am trying to be more of an adjective and less of a verb.”

It’s a concept that has stuck with me and that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about since she said that.  She is completely right that for those who are successful in academic medicine that your early career, and even the early part of mid-career, are predicated on doing things.  The system tells us that we should be participating on committees- not just showing up, but actually contributing to the work.  We should be reading and researching, publishing in the highest impact places we can manage, and getting extramural funding.  We’re teaching, and we want to be good at it.  And, of course, we’re doing our primary jobs by taking care of people (and in the care of academic surgeons, further developing our technical skills) and constantly learning and growing as we do that.  The first three years out of residency or fellowship are just plain hard.  The expectations are for lots and lots of doing.  As faculty in your first 10 or so years out of training, you’re a verb.  If you’re not a verb, you’re probably not meeting the expectations of the academic environment.

So, what does it mean when you get to switch to being an adjective, and when does that happen?  Do you wake up on some Tuesday morning and decide, “Today’s the day!  I’m an adjective now!”?  Or is it more of a process, that you recognize a few areas in which you can pull back on doing and can start using your knowledge and experiences towards helping?

I don’t know that as academic surgeons that we can ever fully move away from being a verb; it’s who we are, and if we’re not being a verb, we’re probably not learning and growing.  In my mind, the verb part of the process is always there.  But her point about being more of an adjective?  That makes sense, and sometimes there are areas in which we can still be a verb but can be an adjective for someone else.  My senior partner when I came out of Fellowship was the perfect example of this- he was still doing at full speed.  But he also was also always able to help me as a new burn surgeon trying to blaze a trail in academic surgery.  He asked me thoughtful questions, he coached me when I need guidance, and I always, ALWAYS felt supported.  In other words, he balanced the tension of being a verb and being an adjective beautifully.  Now that he’s retired, I still get to use his as an adjective from time to time, and it’s always helpful when I do.

I started my faculty job here at Utah just over 10 years ago and if one thing has become clear to me in the last year or so, it’s that it is time for me to be conscious of starting to make that same transition.  I’m still very much a verb in many parts of my professional life, and I am still happy to be one.  I’m also looking forward to figuring out how to be the best adjective that I can be.

Mid-Career: Stagnation, Generation, or a new path forward?

It’s been almost 6 months since I headed to Austin for the 2013 AAMC Mid-Career Women Faculty Professional Development Seminar.  Parts of the three days were tremendously helpful to me- in particular, sessions on interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, and the importance of sponsorship (as opposed to mentorship) for career progression.  The networking was tremendous, both in terms of some relationships it built with other women surgeons at a similar career stage and a few new folks I met who aren’t surgeons but who are inspirational. Some parts weren’t terribly helpful to me at all; I’ve long been aware that my temperament is one that is driven by creativity and possibility and thrives on relationships- no surprise to anyone who knows me or works with me.  And yes, I understand the ramifications for that in group settings since I become absolutely non-functional when thrown into a dysfunctional group.

The six-month mark seems a good time point to take inventory and consider what my best take-home messages were from the meeting.  Fortunately, I was easily able to find my concept map that I drew on the last day:

Mid-WIMS Concept Map

What does this photo tell me without me having to go back and read pages and pages of notes?  I definitely left Austin better prepared to lead than when I got there.  Why?

  • The seminar was an opportunity for me to refine skills that are crucial to being a good leader.
  • I gathered some new ideas from the seminar (all of which I need to try, though I did write something that approximates a PAR/ CAR statement recently).
  • Participation helped me to clarify my vision of what I am doing and where I would like to head professionally.

The greatest reminder was that I haven’t explicitly tried any of the new ideas that I left with, all of which have some merit for career development and organizational growth.  While it will require some thought, applying a mission/ value grid- or the related idea of a mission- core competence (MCC) decision matrix– to some of my administrative activities may help me to be more strategic in how I am running my portion of our department’s education enterprise.  I can and should write a PAR statement for each dimension of the work that I do- clinical, education, research, and administrative.  The hidden benefit of generating PAR statements is that they allow us to look at obstacles that have been overcome and skills/ traits employed in so doing; looking at those skills and traits will allow me to insure that I’m really using my “best” skills in the roles I’m playing.  Finally, I know I could use a personal consulting team on a few career progression issues, and perhaps it’s time to formally convene one for some wisdom (and for me to listen to the feedback they provide, which can be the hard part).

Hopefully in six more months I can come back to my concept map to let you all know that I did try out these new ideas- and to recount their successful implementation.