We never really know what knowledge is going to come in handy. I might never need to know that molluscs have teeth, or what kind of teeth they have, but knowing doesn’t hurt anything. But, other than the joy of knowing for the sake of knowing, can it actually help?
Well, one never knows. I think it might have been in Imre Kertész‘s Fatelessness, or possibly in Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s Between the World and Me, or maybe even neither (although each contains some aspect of this theme): you go through life and start to realize, possibly even lament, all those things you could have learned but didn’t because you didn’t see their applicability or value.
In my last job I had to learn a great deal about laparoscopic surgery and specific lap procedures. Being the “all-in” type (as well as the one responsible for drumming up themes, ideas and topics – as well as often ghost-writing the posts – for a blog that internal folks rarely understood the purpose of) I dove into research and studies about laparoscopy and its uses, technologies and tools … and blah blah blah. Sure, this made it easier for me to do my job, much easier to talk to the former clinicians within the company who were responsible for marketing lap-specific products and also to talk to clinicians externally (to whom we were selling). But beyond that, I saw no real scope for applying this knowledge elsewhere. Did that stop me from going wild like a pig at the research trough? No.
And wouldn’t you know that after I spent significant time and effort inhaling laparoscopy, a friend would require a hysterectomy and had been told by surgeons in her country that, because she had never had a child, she would have to have the full open surgery? I’m no surgeon; heck, I am not even a healthcare professional. But I was reasonably sure, given the evidence and research I had just spent months combing through, that it was absolutely possible for her to have a laparoscopic hysterectomy. I gathered the evidence I could find, sent it her way and told her to push back and ask more questions.
This is perhaps the other important note: We don’t know, we are not experts, so we fear pushing back. We tend to trust the specialists in whom we place our care and well-being, and we doubt that their advice is given because they are trying to fool us… but there are other institutional matters a healthcare professional weighs in diagnosing and offering treatment. In this case, the friend’s surgeon perhaps did not have the most up-to-date information or was not capable of performing the laparoscopic procedure himself. Or, as is often the case, the healthcare system and its practitioners will try to push the cheaper option, even if it is riskier and involves longer healing times. We are often at our most vulnerable and afraid in these situations, so less likely than ever to push back: who are we, untrained mortals, to push back against the education, expertise and experience of these medical professionals? But who else is going to advocate on our behalf?
Still, I am happy to say that she did push back, armed with a bit of evidence. (Ironically, one of the world’s leading experts on laparoscopic hysterectomy procedures comes from her tiny country but practices in the US….) And she was referred to a surgeon with the appropriate expertise and had the procedure laparoscopically, with a much shorter recovery and healing time.
And here I go back to the point: I never imagined that the knowledge I gained in my last job, which was so far outside the boundaries of anything I imagined doing in my career, would have a real-life pay off. And yet, that knowledge I gained might well have been the most important thing I ever learned in a workplace in terms of how great a difference it made in someone else’s life and well-being.