how to live


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

I saw these sentences written somewhere. I don’t live as though I might die tomorrow (trying and failing to be more spontaneous), but I learn and experience – in a solitary way – constantly. There is no time that I am not trying to inject some kind of information.

A recent acquaintance, despite a surface-level tenor and brevity, gave me pause for in-depth self-reflection. There have been some rough things in my life that I’ve attempted to bury. The acquaintance, by launching into rapid-fire, almost interrogation-style questioning, prompted a lot of buried feelings to bubble up.

He didn’t really seem to care about the answers to these questions (which also makes me realize once more the value of active listening, being heard, detail and memory – and how much I do not relate to people who don’t care about these things). But I understood suddenly that I have to start to confront and deal with more of these rough things.

I also came to understand more acutely than ever what a serious person I am. That is not to say I don’t have fun, laugh, joke or have a sense of humor. It’s just that I am not the kind of person who feels the need to disconnect from heavy subjects or depressing ideas or concepts to decompress. In fact I seek out the heavier things purposely and immerse myself in them. I do not want to be distracted or distant from the inevitable pain of life.

It takes all kinds, of course, but I am going to spend my spare time studying Hungarian, reading about business psychology, devouring books about algae (and never shutting up about them afterwards), doing demanding degree programs that have almost no professional application whatsoever, and watching thought-provoking and often sad films and series in a host of other languages. I mean, I once longed to see a film about nomadic people trying to get one of their camels to lactate and accept its baby. I whined about missing its theatrical run for months before finally getting to see it.

My tastes are difficult to share and, for many, insufferable. I know this is not going to be for everyone – people are, for the most part, never going to share my unusual interests. But maybe I am finally accepting on a more finite level that they don’t have to – and I don’t have to share theirs.


the soup and noodles of compassion


How important is compassion? Or empathy? Can you “compassion” your way through life? Can you just as readily “compassion yourself out of” experiences and connections? Every time I meet a new person, and they ask me what traits are important or attractive in others, or even what drives me, I can only reply, “Compassion”. I think they are expecting a more glib or easy answer, and “compassion” often confounds the listener. It is almost as though they don’t know what it is or how to talk about it. As time goes by, though, I can’t think of another answer. There are other things that are important to me – empathy, learning – but compassion surpasses them all. And to see the looks on people’s faces when I voice this, you’d think I was speaking an alien language.

Strange, then, to see a number of articles pop up in business press emphasizing the importance of compassion and empathy in leaders (and in innovation). All such articles mention the fact that compassion is sorely and quite visibly absent in most corporate leaders and missions (certainly in practice if not in theory). Perhaps I have been ahead of the curve, even if my commitment to compassion, in practice and daily life, still sees me on the outside looking in. After all, the presence of these traits is rare, and these articles I cite only point to the need for compassion at an executive level, not necessarily the need for compassion in every interaction we have, every action we take. I, for example, shift myself into a place inside to find the compassion each time I am tempted to unleash my inner annoyance, frustration, judgment, crankiness, tiredness, boredom. It’s not that those feelings do not exist. They just need to take a backseat, belt themselves in and let humility and thoughtfulness take the wheel.

The intersection of compassion and corporate life, though, is something else. Something interesting, actually. Lately (as in the last few years), I find myself answering questions in job interviews and professional situations in the exact same way I do when I meet people in other, more social situations.

“What do you think the most important attribute in your arsenal is?”


I know I am expected in these moments to talk about a skill or experience that makes me suited for whatever role I’m discussing. But I return to, and ramble about, compassion. This always seems somewhat out of place in the moment, but I continue to push it because it is needed. The fact that interviewers or colleagues give me blank, deer-in-the-headlights stares proves to me that 1. compassion needs to be pushed, and 2. (in interview situations) I don’t want to work in that place anyway.

This idea – letting compassion guide and inform your choices – can make life harder. It’s something of a luxury to be able to choose or not choose with this one principle in mind. I consider, for example, that an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, in which power can accumulate unchecked, leads to corruption at the top, and a culture in which ethics are not valued, and trust becomes non-existent. Responsibility has no meaning. While most of what I have read that ties into my thinking focuses on looking at leaders/CEOs who have been blinded by power and the burdens of bottom-line decision-making, I’d argue that deeply corrupt or flawed leadership has trickle-down effects, and thus poisons an entire organization and its culture. (Hence my not wanting to work in environments in which someone looks at me strangely or rolls out the slow, “Okaaaayyyyy…”-style response to my comment. If the HR department or the hiring manager or future colleagues or current colleagues cannot intuitively understand the link between compassion and the good of/functioning of the company and its culture, I don’t necessarily want to be there to fight against that.)


“…the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It is not that every leader lacks empathy; in fact, their leadership role and its responsibilities take a toll on the ability to empathize. The decision-making at the scale and pace at which people in power must do so apparently rewires the brain, making the consequences of these decisions more remote and less human. This rewiring does not have to happen and can be reversed, and compassion is the key:

“While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, was recently profiled in a Wharton article that focused largely on Nadella’s view that avoiding hubris, valuing learning and embodying empathy lead to success and innovation. Apart from the obvious nods to leadership-style change, i.e. Microsoft’s attempt to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”, which is in itself a huge step toward understanding: you acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything but that you are always and voraciously willing to keep learning, Nadella credits empathy as a significant underpinning to real innovation:

“This is a quality one doesn’t typically see on a list of top CEO character traits. But in Nadella’s view, empathy is, among other things, a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

I can get behind this with relative enthusiasm (I only have so much of it), but I was curious in reading about Nadella’s perspective as to how and why people can only seem to come to a place where they are willing to introduce and admit empathy (and compassion) into all aspects of their lives only after they have experienced their own personal adversity? And even then, do you only empathize with those certain things you can relate to? Moz former CEO Rand Fishkin, who recently departed Moz, posted a farewell-to-Moz, hello-to-SparkToro (his new company) letter, in which he cites empathy as one of the most important/best skills he developed – yes, developed – because, he writes, it does not come naturally.

Can empathy only be felt when you have experienced similar things (while, as the HBR article posits, compassion is more about the intent to contribute to the well-being of others, regardless of your ability to relate to or feel the feelings of others)? Perhaps this depends on how you define and interpret “compassion”, which I think folds thoughtfulness, patience, empathy and this ineffable ‘intent’ into one big fluffy ball. I don’t know that I buy it, and in some way, find it disappointing, if true, that people are only capable of empathy by learning to be empathetic through their own experiences.

Still, any and all empathy, no matter how and when it arrives, is better than none.


Image (c) 2018 Naomi/Paddy Litvak

Impressing professors: Take your moment


When I was in college I made a lot of weird blunders, especially for being the academic nerd that I am. I was not judicious in the words I chose, occasionally speaking out when I should not have, while failing to speak out when I should have, not taking advantage of many opportunities to broaden my horizons, so to speak. I never really tried that hard. Something I have written about before. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter, but when it comes to learning, it does. To say I was “lazy” does not mean I did not learn or that I did nothing. It just means that I could have learned and done and achieved so much more, had I not been in such a hurry, had I not let myself be influenced by others, had I known myself better, had I applied the full measure of intellect and drive I had to something. But I didn’t.

Still I had my own moments, few and far between, when I would stand out. I never wanted to stand out, certainly not verbally or visually, where people might let their eyes rest on me for more than a moment or two. Professors noticed me more when it counted (in writing). But still, yes, there were those moments, when a question was posed, and it seemed mind-numbingly simple what we were being asked, and yet the classroom sat in dumb silence.

A professor in my master’s degree program posed the question: “What was the main priority of American foreign policy in post-war America?” No one. Silence. “Come on, people.” More silence.

I raised my hand, wondering whether it could be as simple as I was thinking, “Containing Communism?”

“YES!” The professor looked at me gratefully, and with a respect he’d never once afforded me before. In fact, I am entirely sure I had been both nameless and invisible to him up until that moment. He favored me in a new way thereafter. It was strange: my comparative youth and silence in that course (everyone else was wading into their 50s, and I was barely in my 20s) had made me both stand out and be invisible at the same time, and he, perhaps relating better to the majority of students, closer to his age than mine, never glanced my way once before I uttered this stunningly basic reply to a basic question. Suddenly I had a voice when all my duck-and-cover-generation classmates, who should have eagerly yelled out the answer to that question, being Boomers, so close to it and the “Communism containment” directive, sat, mute, probably expecting that the answer had been something deeper or more complex than that.

I learned then that it’s not the quantity of what you say – it’s the quality. And, perhaps most of all, the timing – taking your moment.

Photo (c) 2010 EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine used under Creative Commons license.

you never know


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.

Photo (c) 2006 Amanda Graham used under Creative Commons license.

the narrow path


Philippe Jaccottet
Plus je vieillis et plus je croîs en ignorance,
plus j’ai vécu, moins je possède et moins je règne.
Tout ce que j’ai, c’est un espace tour à tour
enneigé ou brillant, mais jamais habité.
Où est le donateur, le guide, le gardien ?
Je me tiens dans ma chambre et d’abord je me tais
(le silence entre en serviteur mettre un peu d’ordre),
et j’attends qu’un à un les mensonges s’écartent :
que reste-t-il ? que reste-t-il à ce mourant
qui l’empêche si bien de mourir ?
Quelle force
le fait encor parler entre ses quatre murs ?
Pourrais-je le savoir, moi l’ignare et l’inquiet ?
Mais je l’entends vraiment qui parle, et sa parole
pénètre avec le jour, encore que bien vague :
«Comme le feu, l’amour n’établit sa clarté
que sur la faute et la beauté des bois en cendres… »

Oh, I love this reading…

The more I read, the more ignorant I am. That is, the more aware of my ignorance I become. This awareness, which I have always had but gave little thought to, becomes daunting but challenging as I learn more each and every day. But it also makes me angrier about uninformed, willfully/proudly ignorant people who have strong opinions that they insist are valid or equal to facts, even though their opinions have no basis in fact at all. Like a merit badge, they loudly state these “alternative facts”.

I can only keep gorging my mind from the broadest of intellectual and multidisciplinary buffets, but what good will that do if so much of the rest of the world rests comfortably in, at best, mediocrity, blindness and anti-intellectualism? Probably none – not if, for example, climate deniers rule the day. But hell, maybe we won’t reach that point of destruction if the world continues on its current destructive trajectory (politically). Maybe we can all be wiped out much sooner. Or just be subjected to dubious leadership from people who are, as Mr Firewall put it, “a roll of tinfoil away from making a helmet”.

I am desperately and actively trying to seek new learning, new paths, new sources, new fields, new conversations, new debates, new perspectives, new disciplines, new ways to develop the mind and expand my thinking. I don’t mind being contradicted – or presented with other ideas – if they can be backed up with something.

I know and see how creativity dies, and in my case, how everything I do and write comes out completely flat when life’s path and focus narrows too much. I would like to believe, and have managed to bamboozle myself for some time, that I haven’t fallen into this trap. But I have. I might do spontaneous, random stuff with a fair amount of frequency, and stuff my brain with information and stimuli, but am I ever really stepping out of my comfort zone?

I was recently confronted by this reality – more than usual – not because anyone accused me of anything to the contrary, but because someone, in casually telling me bits about himself, unveiled glimpses of a selfless and grueling – but rewarding – set of quests and travails that make up the topography of his life. And as I marveled, unresponsive and awed, I eventually thought, ‘Wow. I’m a complete fucking wuss and only become more of one every day.’

To deal with the times: Don’t go numb


“How inured to that do I want to get?”
“Just enough.” (from this week’s episode of Madam Secretary)

The problem we face, beyond the immediate stripping of democratic tradition and human rights, and all the diversionary fires set to distract us, is our own boredom, our own fatigue, our own journey toward being inured to what is happening: “It isn’t so bad.”

Almost everyone knows that the intensity of any feeling cannot be sustained: anger, passion, love. Perhaps especially the attention span. We have neither the attention span for sustained fighting, even if we have our own lifelong cause, nor the attention span to maintain laser-like focus on one thing while all the distractions explode all around us. And that’s what is counted on – at least with the way things are going in the politics and government section of society. Isn’t that kind of everything, though? Society and our place in it? We know what happens if we bury our heads in the sand: nothing good.

Where is the line between burying our heads/distracting ourselves/avoiding reality and allowing ourselves some diversion to regain our strength and focus, to learn and prepare for everything the world is throwing at us? Something that keeps us from burning out?

I had a conversation the other day that made me think of the concept of ‘burning out’. It was about learning languages, actually, and how I took on languages as though it were a PAC-MAN game. Keep gorging. Gobble gobble gobble. Naturally I burned out on the whole idea of being a student.

J: When I was 22, I wanted to play frisbee and kiss girls.
Me: I loved learning languages much more when I was young. Now I would prefer kissing girls and running through the forest.
J: Well – a true Renaissance woman would be able to do all of those things. Concomitantly.
Me: I burned myself out on studiousness.

I had, back then, and even throughout my 20s, believed that I would always be a student. (Yes, we are always students throughout our lives – learning never ends unless we are willfully ignorant and closed off. Here I refer to living as a formal student, enrolled in a study program.) It became so much a part of who I was that it stopped having much meaning. And this, too, is a symptom of the aforementioned malaise/”issue fatigue”: even when you are not only passionate about a cause, but your life or livelihood depends on it (healthcare activists, equality/civil rights activists, etc.), you still get so beaten up and worn down that the fight, too, can start to feel meaningless.

Once I was burned out on applying myself to studies, I focused on other things and purposely tried to numb myself with overdoses of work and TV. I stopped reading because I wanted to sidestep meaning and feeling. Incidentally, a lot of formal education feels like it is designed to sidestep meaning, feeling and independent thought, which is why we also need committed education activists who prioritize the fostering of creative and independent thinking. (“Poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.”)

This numbness is the most dangerous thing. We must in these times find the path that lets us balance the pain and frustration against the will to fight and hope for something better (that we may never see).

…As a side note, at least not every interaction with television is empty; in a recent episode of Call the Midwife, we experienced real beauty with a taste of Federico Garcia Lorca.

And in Madam Secretary, a most apt Kierkegaard quote:
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

It’s True
-Federico Garcia Lorca
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!
For love of you, the air, it hurts,
and my heart,
and my hat, they hurt me.
Who would buy it from me,
this ribbon I am holding,
and this sadness of cotton,
white, for making handkerchiefs with?
Ay, the pain it costs me
to love you as I love you!

Es verdad
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!
Por tu amor me duele el aire,
el corazón
y el sombrero.
¿Quien me compraria a mi,
este cintillo que tengo
y esta tristeza de hilo
blanco, para hacer panuelos?
¡Ay que trabajo me cuesta
quererte como te quiero!

Photo (c) 2013 Justin Elliott

Keep learning


As SD the Firewall always says, “Every day’s a school day.”

I love that life hands you a whole lot of weird and random stuff to learn from and how it all interconnects in strange ways and leads to the strangest conversations. And the act – and art – of listening, conversing and being open to everything is free. And anything else is a form of arrogance. And comes at a high cost.

Sometimes what you learn is not that useful, such as learning about the existence of some weird 1980s British TV show called Auf Wiedersehen, Pet or a British cartoon called Roobarb (about a dog called Roobarb and a cat named Custard), which made me think of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls of my youth (there was a monkey called Rhubarb and a cat named Custard among those characters). Reading about Congo recently, I obviously learned about the history of Congo but it led me in a lot of different directions, from reading about the Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, who re-invented pneumatic rubber tires in 1888-89 (which led to a rubber boom and a certain kind of enslavement for Congolese citizens, despite there being no formal slavery at that time) to powerful Congolese uranium to Hutu/Tutsi conflict. In a completely different direction, I’ve learned a lot about William Blake the last two days. Then moved right along where I learned a lot about famous shy people and forms of shyness and its roots (read Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness yesterday).

At the same time, I also shared a lot of information about the Slavs (i.e. informing the aforementioned SD that the term “Slavs” refers to all Slavic people, not just former Yugoslavs).


Something else to learn – especially for people who are particularly arrogant – is that there is always something to learn and advice to take. I have met a couple of highly productive but extremely idiosyncratic writers. They invite you to read their writing, professionally or casually, but then cannot deal with the response or hack the editing or proofreading that inevitably follows. One writer was irrationally angry that my mother corrected his spelling – he tried to write ‘brassiere’ but had written ‘brazier’ (haha). Then another writer whose book had some riveting passages and fascinating ideas clearly must not have submitted his book for any editing or advice or even a cursory pass through spellcheck (a couple of references to “Saskwatch” rather than “Sasquatch”. And it was not about some provincial Saskatchewan amateur police force called Sask Watch) before publication.

Yes, every writer needs an editor. Period. Taking sage and experienced advice is a learning experience. Period.

What are we here for other than to learn?

Teach Yourself Revolution: Good Intentions


A lot of us sign up for online courses – online education is becoming more and more dynamic and accepted. People do it for enrichment, self-betterment, refreshing skills, dipping our toe into something totally new, for diversionary purposes, for actual university-level degrees. I have signed up so many times for these MOOCs (massive open online courses) and never really participated in a single one until now.

Not surprised, then, when I visited my current course’s webpage to read: “If you have got this far and completed the first test, you are amongst the 45 percent left who started the course.” Three weeks in (one-third of the length of the class), fewer than half are still in the course. According to UK Times Higher Ed online (2013), only about seven percent (!) of MOOC students complete the courses they start. Remarkable.

Then again, it is not surprising – there is nothing holding you accountable. The learning with MOOCs, if you learn or engage at all, is passive at best.

While not nearly as passive (collaboration/group work and interaction is required), I have nearly completed an MA degree completely online but have not finished the last little bit – but I found that even with the level of self-discipline I have (I work mostly at home), finding the time and discipline to keep up on readings and lectures was really tough. If school/studying is not the priority or does not have some immediacy in my daily life (that is, the Coursera class I am taking now is quite relevant to my daily work while my MA had very little to do with my life or career), I am not going to be nearly as motivated to make it a priority.

But every time I sign up, I have high hopes and, even more, the best of intentions.

PhD in dilettantism: Everything is an ecosystem


If I could get a PhD in being a dilettante (a nice way for saying that I can’t focus and want to know and learn a lot about everything without really becoming an expert), I’d sign up now.

Today I dabbled and dealt in so many different disciplines, tackled so many things in so many languages, worked on hands-on fix-it things but also read poetry, marketing theory papers and some clinical research (in healthcare), that it could never be said that I do the same thing all the time. What I do with my time would probably bore the majority of people, but that’s what makes the world tick. Some of us want to drive trucks; some of us know how to mix drinks; some of us want to drill teeth (hopefully as dentists); some of us want to write about destination weddings in Italy while baking coconut macaroon tarts and filling them with dark chocolate ganache (recipe and pictures to come). I also saw a record number of cats prowling around the immediate vicinity, answered a lot of overdue email and told someone what a “croque monsieur” is (even if I have never made nor eaten one myself).

I write all of this, though, as a preface to a debate I often have running in my head about the value of focus versus multidisciplinary meanderings. I conclude that there should be no “versus” in that statement because it is not really something about which one can make a value judgment – both ways of doing things have their own value. They accomplish different ends.

What prompted this was the recent death of activist Billy Frank Jr. One of the articles I read after his passing pointed out that Frank’s life work, dealing almost exclusively with fishing rights, restoring salmon habitat and the ecosystem was sometimes criticized by Native American groups that felt Frank should use his voice and platform to fight for or pursue broader Native American issues in his agitation and political work. Frank was direct as always: he worked with what he knew. He wanted lawmakers, when they saw him coming, to know exactly what he wanted from them and would talk about.

“I know there are other problems, but the one I know about is the salmon, and when these politicians see me coming I want them to know that’s what I am here to talk about.”

While this singular focus served Frank, does a singular focus on an important issue sometimes prevent us from seeing a bigger picture or looking outside a given discipline to find a solution to a big problem? This might not have crossed my mind except that around the same time Frank died, and I had salmon populations and the whole “ecosystem” idea on my mind, I had seen a program (multiple times), Lifelines, on Al Jazeera English about how an overabundance of a parasite in Senegal led to epidemic levels of schistosomiasis. The disease is one of the world’s neglected tropical diseases (have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t) and can have very severe consequences.

In the story presented on Al Jazeera, the freshwater snail that carries this parasite basically overpopulated the river once the river had been dammed. The population using the river water would then become infected. Even though the infection is treatable, reinfection occurs when the person uses infected water, of course, making it a neverending cycle unless something could be done about the overpopulation of snails.

Doctors and specialists working in Senegal on this public health issue decided to look outside their own sphere of expertise. They knew, according to the documentary, that damming was responsible for the outbreak but were not sure how or why.

“…until a development specialist linked the explosion of schistosomiasis to the extinction of river prawns in the river system caused by the dam.

River prawns prey on the snails that carry the schistosomiasis parasite. Without prawns, the snail population increased, and so did the risk of schisto infection for everyone who entered the river”

It took some different thinking to look outside, for example, the immediate problem of a dammed river or outside the medical problems at hand to see the entire ecosystem and discover what had changed (the prawn population) that could have caused this. In this case, a focus on one thing (suddenly 90% of the population was infected with schisto) led to expanding the focus to consider different disciplines that could explain the problem and come up with a solution (repopulating with prawns).

One could argue, of course, that all of this makes sense because regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist, so much of what gets done is well-integrated with everything else. It’s an interdisciplinary world, and much like the natural ecosystem, the manmade ecosystem relies on this interdependence and the different types of skills and expertise its parts and people have. (More reason to cheer for my unorthodox but totally interdisciplinary higher education at The Evergreen State College, eh?)