Getting Better at Work (A Review of Atul Gawande’s Book “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance”)

When I’m not at work, I read a lot of stuff directly related to my work. This includes lots of books on instructional design, training, and information design. And it includes books on safety, engineering, and regulations.

Sometimes, though, I like to kick back and read something different. I even retreat into the pure escapism of a novel sometime. No, I haven’t read 50 Shades of Gray (although I did see a copy in the back seat of a car owned by someone on our sales team!). But ignoring the occasional novel, even if a book I’m reading isn’t directly related to my work, it’s often indirectly related. And that’s the case with a book I just finished: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande.

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Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. In short, he’s a bright and impressive guy. In his book, he evaluates some of his own experiences to see how doctors and other medical professionals can get better at what they do. Although the examples are specific to the medical field, the lessons can be applied to any career, or to other parts of your life.

Gawande’s book presents a series of stories ordered into three groups. Each grouping reflects what Gawande believes to be a core requirement for success in medicine or any field. The three core requirements are:

  • Diligence, which he defines as “the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles”
  • Doing right, which he believes is the never-ending struggle to address human failures and shortcomings
  • Ingenuity, which he defines as “thinking anew”

You can easily see how these three requirements easily translate to any type of work. If you’re into continuous improvement or lean, this is probably right up your alley, for example.

If you want a thought-provoking read that may well give you some tools to improve your own workplace, it’s worth checking this book out. You’ll get some interesting perspective into the world of medicine, for sure. But in addition, you’ll get to spend time with an honest, self-critical, and insightful mind. Plus, Gawande’s a wonderful writer (a reviewer included in the blurbs on the first pages, himself a famous writer, says that “If I practiced medicine one-tenth as well as Gawande writes, I would seriously consider opening a little medical practice on the side”).

While you’re at it, you may also like another book by Gawande–The Checklist Manifesto. We reviewed that book too, and in a little more detail, because the checklist idea is so useful in the workplace.


Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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