Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Being our best selves: hidden in full view

James Stoller
Peter Rea
Alan Kolp

Cleveland, Ohio, United States

Figure 1. Pillars and pediment

We live in a paradox framed by a tension between age-old wisdom about excellence and our current state. The paradox is this: our behaviors and our priorities are often at odds with age-old truths about how we can be our best selves. This paradox—that these truths are widely available to us and have been espoused by thinkers over millennia but are often overlooked—suggests that these truths are hidden in full view.

It is an axiom in science that the tests of truth are reproducibility and independent validation of results. Multiple studies with concordant results from different investigators are typically needed before practices or treatments are adopted in medicine. In the same vein, this time-honored wisdom has defined excellence over millennia and tells us that how well we adopt the classic virtues—trust, compassion, courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, and hope—will determine the external realities of how we behave, how we engage with other people, and how organizations perform. Consider some examples of these truths and their expositors over the millennia:

Plutarch, the Greek historian and writer, said in the first century CE that “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who died half a millennium before Plutarch was born, said, “The superior man is aware of righteousness, the inferior man is aware of advantage.” He also said, “There is nothing more visible than what is secret, and nothing more manifest than what is minute.” And Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who was a contemporary of Confucius (but presumably did not know him or his work), said, “Character is destiny.” Modern thinkers have recapitulated these same themes. The late Senator John McCain’s 2005 book about inspiring stories of exemplary humans bears the title of Heraclitus’ quote: Character is Destiny. And David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and writer, points out that “It is possible to achieve success but not significance.” Brooks is pointing out the disconnect between how we behave and that to which we aspire vs. what really matters. Remembering that reproducibility and independent validation are the anchors of truth in science, the fabric that runs through all these quotes over two and a half millennia of human history is a common truth—that only when we are good at who we are, can we really be good at what we do. And yet, to quote the great American philosopher Yogi Berra, “we keep making the wrong mistake.” That is, modern society pressures us to focus on achievement. Individuals focus on achievement, status, wealth—on extrinsic values. In the tight balancing that is needed, companies may unduly focus on profitability and strategy to the exclusion of authentic engagement of the workforce.

All this goes on until there is a crisis, a source of tension. As an example of the sense of immediacy that comes with crisis, among the many lessons of COVID-19 has been an urgent focus on what really matters. This has been one good outcome of a tragic global crisis. More than ever, there is an immediacy to think about the contributions we want to make and to say things to our loved ones that may have gone unsaid before, as this insidious virus sadly forces us to contemplate our demise. No doubt, its hundreds of thousands of victims to date would affirm this.

The opportunity here is to harness the possibilities that come with adversity—to convert the tension we feel into intention to be our best selves. In the same spirit that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” President Kennedy said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” Indeed, tension and intention both derive from the Latin intentio—a stretching out, straining, exertion. The root informs our concept of tensile strength, the ability of a material to resist breaking when exposed to tension.

Human tensile strength comes from character and crises create tension that invites us to examine our character and to be better. The COVID-19 pandemic has already elicited many examples—the ICU doctors and nurses in Cleveland who, having cared for patients in their own hospital, extended their exposure by volunteering to go to a New York City hotspot hospital to serve for another month there; the single mother of two nurse who came out of retirement to volunteer in New Jersey, and the list of stories goes on. Confronted with the adversity of a direct threat to their own well-being, these individuals and so many others in moments of human crisis—whether COVID-19, September 11, or World War II—are in moments of inflection. The tension of these many moments in history has consistently spawned intention based on a vision of people being their best selves—firefighters running into the falling World Trade towers, soldiers running to the fight, etc.

Given this silver lining of crisis, how can we become more intentional about how we act? The search for excellence is deeply embedded in people. Aristotle, the 4th century BCE Greek philosopher, said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.” The concept of deliberate practice is a natural corollary of this Aristotelian wisdom. Though framed by many, like Anders Ericsson in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise and Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, the concept is nicely captured in the quote from famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi—one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time—“Practice doesn’t make perfect—perfect practice makes perfect.” So what should we be practicing? We should be practicing virtue. The seven classical virtues—trust, compassion, courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, and hope—are the foundation of being good at who we are.

For the person who lacks character, there is a different list of foundational core principles defining who they are—cowardly, fearful, etc. Humans are naturally relational and two of the virtues—trust and compassion—are fundamental to good relationships. Virtuous people develop their ability to trust and care for others in such a way that they become habits—perfectly practiced. Trust (or faith) is not merely belief. The late Harvard professor Peter Gomes noted, “When we realize that faith is not what we believe but what we do, then we have to take account of our actions.” He added, “Faith is the expression of a vision that we then act out.” Care and compassion are key ways in which trust is acted out.

Thinking developmentally, alongside trust and compassion are situated the next two virtues, courage and justice. Courage is the willingness to act based on character. Courage defines the responders in crisis. Courage puts one in tension with the risk inherent in a situation. Not all risks regard critical care. We learn from fifty-six-year-old hotel parking valet, Richard Rivera, about the daily risk of wasting life. He begins his day by looking into the mirror and asking, “What can I do better, how do we get better?” Talk about courage! Justice endeavors to make every situation better. Justice aims to treat people equally or, at least, fairly. This is what Confucius meant by aiming at righteousness rather than advantage.

Next, wisdom and temperance round out our foundational identity. Wisdom adds experience, understanding, and practical skill to the knowledge that people acquire along the way. Wisdom builds on the first four virtues and, as Australian psychiatrist Roger Walsh indicates, “naturally finds expression in service to others.” Temperance seeks moderation and balance in life and work. Temperance is sometimes confused with doing nothing. Rather, one can link it to courage and say, “Let’s roll.” That is what Todd Beamer exclaimed on United Flight 93 as he hung up the phone, joining some other passengers to wrestle with the hijackers in the cockpit over Pennsylvania in 2001. He had the self-control to avoid a bigger disaster in service to others—others he did not even know.

Finally, hope caps the virtue core. Hope is how one imagines and desires to shape the future—the unknown. Rebecca Solnit describes hope as a gamble. “It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety.” Life is not a casino, but it is how we daily bet our time. Make it worthy!

So, in the context that virtue means excellence, these seven time-honored virtues can, when intentionally practiced, make us better at who we are so that we can be better at what we do. The virtues have been time-honored over millennia and yet are hidden in full view today. The plea is that we find and practice them, certainly in times of crisis like now but also in upcoming tranquil post-COVID days.

JAMES K. STOLLER, MD, MS, is a pulmonary/critical care physician at the Cleveland Clinic. He holds the Jean Wall Bennett Professorship and the Samson Global Leadership Academy Endowed Chair at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and serves as the Chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Education Institute. Dr. Stoller holds a Masters degree in organizational development and serves as adjunct Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management of Case Western Reserve University.

PETER REA is Vice President of Integrity and Ethics at Parker Hannifin Corporation. He is a member of the Cleveland Clinic’s Samson Global Leadership Academy faculty and teaches courses in Strategy, Leading Change & Organizational Culture, and Professional Planning. He serves on the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s School Advisory Board. Previously, Peter was Business Dean and founding Burton D. Morgan Chair of Entrepreneurial Studies at Baldwin Wallace University. He was the founding Director of Baldwin-Wallace’s Center for Innovation & Growth.

ALAN KOLP holds an endowed Chair in Humanities at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, OH. He eagerly helps students live a life of meaning, as they pursue success in their lives. He focuses on spirituality, wellness, and service. He is involved in athletics at all levels, especially in leadership development, culture, and high performance. Teaming with Dr. James Stoller and Peter Rea, he extends this wisdom into the business and non-profit worlds. He is a proud grandfather working to make the world a better place for all those living the rest of this century and those in successive centuries.

Spring 2020



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