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

Getting Better at Work Image

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, learning and development, and performance improvement. And it includes books on safety and safety management. And on manufacturing, maintenance, and reliability.

Sometimes, though, I like to kick back and read something different. I even retreat into the pure escapism of a novel sometime (most recent novel, as of October 31, 2018: The Song of Achilles). 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.

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, and one worth paying attention to.

In his book Better, Gawande 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, they are lessons we can all apply to our careers, or to other parts of our lives.

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 a lifelong learner who has learned to learn, this probably rings true to you.

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, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, 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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