When I was almost eleven years old my parents took me to Canada for the first time. I had never left New York City before and I was enthralled. I especially loved the antique shops and thrift stores, an interest I shared with my mother and we spent many hours in other people’s barns looking at old things, some broken, many dirty but all interesting. Once, as my parents were making the purchase of an exquisite old vase, I noticed a little box marked FREE next to the cash register. It was filled with odd bits and pieces: buttons, a part of a pin, a ring without a stone, colored beads. In among them I found two links from an old bracelet. My father had laughed when I showed him my treasure. “It’s broken,” he had said. “What do you need them for?” I had felt stupid. I had thought they were beautiful. I shook my head and kept them anyway. My mother had just smiled. “Some day you may discover what they’re for. In the meantime they will be a nice keepsake of our trip,” she told me. I put the links in my pocket. When I got home I put them in a drawer in my dresser to keep them safe.

The links were in my bureau drawer for the next 15 years. As I was sorting my belongings and preparing to go to California to begin further medical training, I found them again but now I saw their true value. I glued earring backs to them. Fifty years later, people still stop me in the supermarket to ask me where I bought them. They are exquisite and completely one of a kind.

Things are often not what they seem. Labeling things “broken” or “useless” can keep us from seeing their true value.

In medical training there is a right way to do things and a wrong way, a right way to question people, a right way to give bad news and even a right way to dress. Medical students are always striving to get things right. But medicine, like life, is an art form. Perhaps in the end, the only right way is your own way, a one-of-a-kind way that no one but you could possibly pull off. First year medical students are some of the most compassionate people in this world. At many medical schools, these students are given a mnemonic for compassionate behavior, so they can remember the 8 right steps to express compassion in just the right way. Recently a student told me that she and her classmates had been told to say “I am sorry for your troubles” to every one of their patients. “Of course I am,” she said. “That is why I came to medical school. But the more I say this to every patient the less I actually feel it.”

Perhaps the future depends not on doing things the right way but on bringing your own unique perspective to your work and making your profession a greater thing than it was before you came.

Unfortunately this is not yet a principle of medical training. In the first session of The Healer’s Art, our national course for first year medical students, we ask the students to draw a picture of a valued part of themselves they leave at home when they come to school – a part that is not welcomed in their medical training. Half way through these drawings we ask them to stop and answer a question. “If your drawing was a symbol of a human quality or capacity, what would the name of this quality or capacity be?” Then we ask them to write this word on their drawing and complete it. The Healer’s Art is taught in 90 medical schools. In a recent research project we collected these words from the students at 20 randomly selected schools across the country. In response to the question, the word most commonly chosen by students was CREATIVITY.

Creativity requires courage. It requires seeing and doing things your own way. It often involves seeing what has not been seen before and doing something new.

Perhaps we need to stop teaching young people the right way and the wrong way to do things and instill in them the courage to find and express their own way. Perhaps none of us are broken and all of us need to stop trying to be someone else…to get it “right”…and simply discover our own way of doing things, our own place in the scheme of things, our own mission and live by it. This would mean abandoning the endless search for approval, which is after all only another form of judgment and trusting in our personal vision and unique gifts. No two people are ever a doctor in the same way…or a patient either.

Creativity converts competence into excellence. It requires seeing the things that no one else has seen and making them real. Otherwise we simply repeat the past over and over again until we get it perfect. Creativity may be as simple as finding something that no one values in the FREE box when you are eleven years old and keeping it until you discover its true nature and purpose. Sometimes we find such gifts in ourselves, free things we did not earn but were born with and use them to build a better health care system and a better world.

Earrings made from throw-away links

Here is a picture of my earrings