Published 9/1/2016
Jeffrey M. Smith, MD

The Need for Surgeons to Have Flexibility

As surgeons, we know the importance of precision. We are exact. We are meticulous. And we are this way because a misstep could cause serious, irreversible injury.

But that obsessive compulsiveness does not need to permeate every aspect of our world. By learning to master mental and emotional flexibility, we can receive more happiness and joy from our normally rigid practices and lives.

The palm tree and the surgeon
I live in San Diego, the host city for the upcoming AAOS Annual Meeting in 2017. Here, the streets are littered with palm trees—a universal beacon of ocean-side tranquility. Most of the time, these trees stand firm and tall, unwilling to bend to light breezes coming in off the Pacific.

However, when a storm hits, the palm tree ceases being rigid—it flexes in strong winds to avoid being uprooted or splintered. After the storm, the palm stands tall again.

As surgeons, we are rooted in rigid principles that enable us to stand tall in the operating room. But like the palm tree, we must learn to practice flexibility when the situation calls for it to avoid becoming uprooted or damaged.

Although we thrive in the routine and the regimented, life is neither, and when something challenges our routine, it's easy for us to become angry or frustrated.

That's what makes flexibility so important.

Flexibility is the mechanism that enables us to weather storms of the unexpected, in the workplace or elsewhere. Flexibility lets us bend with the wind like a palm tree, instead of standing rigidly and dangerously in opposition to it.

To become more comfortable with mental and emotional flexibility, the following strategies may be helpful:

  • Stray from daily routines on downtime. If a daily trip to Starbucks on the way to the hospital is de rigueur, try stopping at a different java house. Always go to the gym after work? Skip the treadmill and see a movie. Had the same workout routine for years? Change it up. Start intentionally injecting variety into life and see how good it feels to stray from the norm.
  • Practice an open mind. Start being more aware of thoughts and feelings. Avoid a rigid, one-sided thought process.
  • Embrace the random. When something unexpected emerges during the day, don't stew over it. Embrace it as a unique opportunity.
  • Incorporate movement and exercise. Feeling stressed or worn out? Get out of the office and go for a brief walk. Doing so will help cultivate clearer, more positive thought patterns.

As surgeons, we need to learn to embrace and practice flexibility. That way, we can bend rather than break beneath the pressure that is a surgeon's life.

Stay well!

Jeffrey M. Smith, MD, is an orthopaedic traumatologist in San Diego.

Reprinted with permission from AUANews, volume 21, issue 10, 2016; © American Urological Association 2016.