Kai Ryssdal: This has happened to you, right? That you feel like maybe you’ve gotten stuck. Hit a professional plateau? Happens to everybody at some point, probably.
But what if you had a coach — somebody to keep an eye on you, make suggestions for improving your game?
Surgeon and New Yorker magazine staff writer Atul Gawande got stuck, sought out some answers and wrote about it in the magazine. We reached him at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Good to have you with us.
Atul Gawande: Great to be here.
Ryssdal: So listen, tell me about your tennis game.
Gawande: My tennis game, well you know, I’m middle-aged now. So it’s gone to the pits. But a tennis coach, some kid out of college, added 10 miles an hour to my serve in about 10 minutes. And I was serving harder than I’d ever served as a teenager. And then I got thinking, when I saw that Rafael Nadal had a coach, why do top athletes have coaches, but in surgery, I wouldn’t imagine paying someone or even having someone come into my operating room, watch me operate and try to tell me what I’m doing.
Ryssdal: That’s a great question. Do you suppose it’s like a subjective thing? I mean, you eventually — not to bury the lede — but you eventually went out and got a former teacher of yours, and you said, ‘Listen, come into the operating room with me and have a look.’ How did you get there?
Gawande: The tipping point for me was when I talked to people who are really at the top of what they do, who hadn’t had coaches, they had found people who were kind of like coaches. If you’re a violinist, for example, you go to Julliard. You graduate, you go get your 10,000 hours of practice on your own, and you rise to be the cream of the crop, become Isak Perlman. I called Isak Perlman, he actually returned my phone call, which is an amazing thing. And I said, ‘So why do singers and athletes have coaches, but violinists don’t?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. But it’s a mistake.’ And in his entire career, he had a coach: his wife. She had spent her career in the audience watching him as his outside ears, critiquing, suggesting ways that he could improve and tweak. And going from very, very good at what he did to probably the best of his generation.
Ryssdal: You’ve done those operations 1,000 times right? So you don’t really think about them anymore. What more can a coach give you in that environment?
Gawande: Getting better at what we do is about taking areas of your unconscious and competence and making it more conscious to yourself. But I think what they do is that they are able to break down performances, whether it’s a sport or anything else, into its component parts. This came out in then school world, so when I watch the teacher coaches at work, they would sit with the teachers afterwards and say, ‘OK, there’s a bunch of things we’ve got to work on: there’s how to you manage your time, there’s how you planned that class. We can’t work it all at once so let’s break it down into the components and let’s work at these one at a time.’ That ability to see the details that create success is what they do.
Ryssdal: This 8th grade teacher, I think it was, math teacher out in Albemarle County who is so receptive to having the coach there and, more importantly, letting you watch it and write about it — how did it work out for her?
Gawande: So you know, this was someone who was 10 years into her career and as she put it, she had hit the wall. She was exhausted. She’d run out of new things to try. But she also was very good at what she did. So having someone come in made her stop feeling burned out. Probably the most valuable thing was not only did this coach help her get a little bit better at how she taught her 8th grade math students, but it also made her like that job again and not quit and go on to something else.
Ryssdal: That was surgeon Atul Gawande. To read more about what happened when he got his own coach, check out his article in the New Yorker this week.