Freedom From Blame
Zoe Ruhl is a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. Before that, she was a world class skier who won a World Cup race at the age of 16. During her undergraduate years she was to compete in the national competition, but to do so required her missing more school. She quit competitive skiing.
Her article in The New York Times on August 7 describes the pressure she was under throughout her young life and how she sometimes risked her physical and mental health to compete, even when she was not up to doing so. She writes that the decisions by Simone Biles to not compete in Tokyo to preserve her mental and physical health were courageous ones and ones she wished she had had the courage to make earlier than when she did in 2014.
I really get what Ms. Ruhl is saying and I have felt it myself although certainly not at the level of elite competitive sports, but at the level of elite competitive academics. Throughout my career in junior high school, high school, college, and medical school there was an almost primitive need to succeed because as Ms. Ruhl points out, that was who you were. She was Zoe the skier and in that she was special. I was Lenny the A student/gold star collector and in that I was special, to my parents and to their friends. And like Zoe I performed like a trained seal from National Honor Society to Phi Beta Kappa and a full scholarship at Duke Medical School. All of that was who I was.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about the life I chose and I chose it. No one made me be a doctor and certainly no one led me into academic medicine because they wanted a professor in the family. The point is not about what others made you do or to blame them or even yourself. It is the situation that the perceived desires of others, your parents, your family, your friends begin to define who you are by what you can do. What Simone Biles has done is basically say, “I will define who I am and what I do, not you.”
I, like Ms. Ruhl, thank Ms. Biles for granting all of us who have felt the pressure to perform at something, anything, from gymnastics to the piano, the right to be free from blame for not performing as a means of being considered special.
This is not to say that excellence is bad or that striving for a difficult goal is unworthy. It is just to say that such excellence and striving ought to be within the purview of the individual doing the striving. That means special care for the young who may not be able to make such judgments and special consideration for the adults who say “time out,” I need a break.
It is only of late that I have been able to gain perspective on my own relationship to this syndrome. I was too busy being busy before now. I think my blame started to fade when I was fired in 2007 and found my way to Washington, DC the next year. There I was on my own. There was no pressure to make any choices as no one was really counting on me to get any legislation through the Senate—that’s for sure. Even when I got back to MD Anderson in 2009, the pressure was off. I was no longer an executive. I was simply running out my time doing what I could to make MD Anderson better, but contributing very little because my contribution was not wanted and the goals of the institution were no longer ones I shared.
Skiing down mountains was a satisfying exercise for Zoe Ruhl, until it wasn’t. Collecting gold stars in academia was satisfying to me until it wasn’t. Now I am happy to play golf as well as I can and know nothing depends on how I play other than how I feel that day—about golf—not about me.
I wish Ms. Ruhl a splendid career in medicine. Once a year she should read her own op-ed and remember from whence she came. If she does that, and thanks to Simone Biles, she’ll be way ahead of me.