Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope
How Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
Denise Pope is a senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education, and the co-founder of the non-profit organization Challenge Success. She’s the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students; and a co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids.
Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine, vice chair of the Department of Medicine, and Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor at Stanford University. His books of fiction and non-fiction include My Own Country, The Tennis Partner, and the novel Cutting for Stone. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2016.
Krista Tippett, host: I spend a good deal of time speaking on college campuses and hearing how new generations want to balance the question they’ve grown up hearing — “What do they want to do when they grow up?” — with the question of who and how they will be in the world. At Stanford University this year, I was part of a searching conversation about this. I found faculty as well as students eager to join me. How we educate for success is strangely at odds with what we’re learning on our scientific and medical frontiers about everything from the power of rest to the interactivity between our minds and bodies and emotions, to our need for others. From where I sit, our view of success is also at odds with what we know of wisdom — of social and moral capacities like friendship and courage, dignity and hospitality — that make for a deeply satisfying life.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Two beloved Stanford educators, Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope joined me for a conversational variation on the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor Lecture, with a live audience of students, faculty, and local community members.
Ms. Tippett: I am so happy to be joined by Denise Pope and Abraham Verghese. Denise is a senior lecturer in the graduate school of education here. She is a researcher steeped in the topic of success and its meaning in the lives of the young among us. You can summarize some of her perspective, I think, by noting the title of her project that emerged from her research, Challenge Success — and that “challenge” is a confrontational verb — and the title of her book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. She also helped start the Resilience Project here at Stanford.
Abraham Verghese is an esteemed professor of medicine and physician. He founded and directs the Presence project at Stanford. And he’s also, just in case you haven’t heard, a bestselling, globally renowned writer of fiction and nonfiction. Of course, there is his wonderful novel Cutting for Stone but also two beautiful autobiographical works, The Tennis Partner and My Own Country. And I would say that, among other things, these books touch deeply on the art and challenge of being alive and on the complexity and costs of success.
I want to just begin with you, Denise, asking about your earliest memory of what success looks like, perhaps who embodied that for you; and so, what that meant to you. And also, I’m curious about if, even then, what questions it raised in you. And by the way, where did you grow up?
Denise Pope: My grandparents were immigrants and came — my grandfather came to America from Poland and had nothing. He was, I think, nine when he moved here, and he, with his parents, my great-grandparents, made something of themselves. And I think what was always put through our heads, everyone in my family, is, success is coming with nothing and finding community and being the head of a family and using education — he actually went to college for a year or two before having to drop out. So, it was ingrained in me — that very early sense of success was tied up with education and being able to make it. But that’s because the opposite was poverty and not being educated. So that’s probably my first memory, is that my grandfather was definitely the patriarch of the family and a vision of success.
Ms. Tippett: Abraham, your parents were Indian, but you grew up, mostly, in Ethiopia. Is that right?
Abraham Verghese: That’s right; yes, my parents were school teachers in Ethiopia.
Ms. Tippett: What did success look like to you? How did you think about it when you were growing up?
Dr. Verghese: It was actually fairly straightforward, for me, because middle-class Indian parents, I always think, are very much like Jewish parents, in that you can be a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure. These are your options.
One more — you can be an engineer; doctor, lawyer, or engineer, or a failure. And my parents had come to Ethiopia, precisely because there were not opportunities for them after all the hardship of pursuing an education, and they made this grand voyage across to another continent; and so, they were driven by that measure of success for good reasons, I think. And I certainly took that to heart and became a physician, in part because of that and because I had no head for math; so, that meant engineering was out of the question, and also because I valued that sense of a calling, a profession.
Ms. Tippett: So I always worry about when any conversation veers into the “kids these days” mode. But that’s not what we’re doing here. We are talking about how this matter of success and what it means has shifted in our lifetimes. Those of us who’ve been around for a little while perceive that, and Denise, you have actually studied that. You have put research to that. You started to see, when you started to look at this, that there’s a lot of hyperactive attention to success in terms of academic achievement, study habits, classroom discipline, peer culture — dropout rates would be the opposite, and, as you said, just about no serious attention to classroom experiences and the character of their intellectual engagement.
Ms. Pope: Yeah. I always start my talks out with “How do you define success?” And if I say it to students in a student assembly, without fail, usually, the top couple of answers are money, grades, test scores, where you go to college, something like that. And that’s been consistent, now, for 15 years.
And when I ask the same question to the parents — and usually, it is the parents of those kids, who are coming at the same school that night — it’s never that. Now, they could be lying; they don’t want to say “money,” when — but usually —
Ms. Tippett: “I want my kid to make a lot of money.” [laughs] Right.
Ms. Pope: No one’s going to stand up and say that out loud. But they say happiness, well-being, give back to society, love and be loved — really different from what we’re hearing from the kids.
Ms. Tippett: That’s interesting, isn’t it, because I would presume, and I think you would too, that they mean that. But what it points at, to me, is that we know how to teach these other things, and we invest in them — that, it’s what I perceive, that we have lost our sophistication about investing in those things, even if we believe them.
Ms. Pope: And I think it’s in the everyday little messages that schools send and that parents send. When you walk into schools, you see awards. One of the first things, when you walk into a school, is usually the trophy case. Sometimes you see pictures of kids with 4.0s on the wall. We publish honor students in the newspaper. The first thing a parent says when the kid walks in the door is, “How’d you do on the history test?” You’re sending those messages that external, extrinsic — grades, test scores — that’s what matters more. They’re posting their report cards on the fridge. They’re not posting their public service activities on the fridge. They’re not raving to grandma about that when they talk about SAT scores. So it’s happening — we’re sending the messages to these kids to produce that result.
Ms. Tippett: Abraham, I want to — something that you’ve written about and flows into the Presence project, this art of living that is presence, that you define as, I think you’ve said, the most important quality in being human.
You tell this story about — the idea of presence had its origins, for you, in a parking lot, here at Stanford, and you went into a museum. But you also, even in that moment, were grappling with the fact that — thinking actively about the fact that this is not related to work. And yet, you made this decision to give in to it. And it informed, I feel, your sense of success ever after.
Dr. Verghese: Sure; I mean, I think that’s — in medical school, you see the same qualities that Denise was speaking about, exaggerated, because it’s the really driven folks who go to premed and make it through and get to medical school and — there’s a moment, and typically, it’s after they finish their initial training, and they’re in practice for a couple of years, when they suddenly realize that there’s much more to this than just a body of knowledge and earning their money and paying off their student loans. They’re looking for meaning. And the meaning comes in those human interactions.
We picked that word, “presence,” because it was the one thing that doctors told us that they were most unhappy about: that they were not allowed to be present. The machine, the grind of medicine, was just forcing them to not have the human interactions as much as they wanted to; and, conversely, patients also talked about how the doctor was simply not present, or there was an intruder in the room. There was the computer. There was the third, uninvited guest who kept distracting the doctor’s attention. So I think it’s a very human quality; and trying to find ways to bring people who’ve been conditioned with these external validators of success, such as SAT scores and MCAT scores that allow them to — allow myself to go from the parking lot into an art gallery, it takes some deconditioning, if you will, for that to start happening. It’s not automatic.
Ms. Tippett: I want to talk about, also, a cost of this that — Abraham, you quote Mark Rothko in this beautiful essay you wrote about presence. I can’t remember if this is a quote or if you were paraphrasing, but that “art, including the art of living, is an adventure into the unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.” I think one of the most ironic costs of this manic drive to success that we’ve created is that there’s a fearfulness that comes with it, a fear of taking the wrong step, of asking the wrong question, of sounding stupid.
In The Resilience Project, when you are describing what resilience is — and I have to assume you spelled this out because the students you’re dealing with need this spelled out — “on a small scale, [resilience is about raising] your hand in class and risk ‘sounding stupid.’”
Ms. Pope: Because the person who is your sole judge is standing in front of you, and if you say something dumb, it could cost you your grade. It could cost you your letter of recommendation. And then, when you think about the ed school here at Stanford, the whole process of learning is asking questions and making mistakes and taking risks — that’s actually the process of learning, and then reflecting on those to learn the lesson.
Ms. Tippett: It’s also the process of growing up.
Ms. Pope: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: It’s also — failure, what goes wrong, what you get through that you didn’t know how you’d get through, this is the breeding ground of becoming wise and mature.
Ms. Pope: Absolutely. What I always say to parents — if you think of little kids, learning how to walk, they fall down a lot. That is the process of learning how to walk. And you don’t go and move their little feet for them. And yet, when they get —
Ms. Tippett: You want to. [laughs]
Ms. Pope: You want to. But you say, “Oops-a-daisy, let’s get back up.” And as they get older, the parents are also very afraid. It’s very scary to let your kid make a mistake or fail or not turn in their homework or get a bad grade or make a social mistake or whatever. And I think — they talk about this thing, “the door.” We don’t want “the door” to close; we want to keep all doors open, as if what you do in eighth grade is going to affect you for the rest of your life. It’s not. But there’s this — every step of the way, this fear that you’re going to be closing doors. It’s very pervasive.
Ms. Tippett: And I think, also — and you were pointing at this — there’s a truth that we don’t name that we really need to start naming, which is, you take the right path, you still have a human life. There’s a story in your book about the kids you met. There was Roberto saying to you, “I just wish I could get a 4.0. I just want to feel the excitement of getting it. I want to feel it, a 4.0.” The thing is, he could get it, and that feeling will last for about ten minutes, and then he still has all the human condition he had before, and other things will go wrong. And we’re not being honest about that.
Ms. Pope: Parents want the recipe for getting their Roberto to be successful. And the problem is, there is not a recipe, which is really hard to hear as a parent. What’s even harder is, the things that you really care about, you can’t measure, and you won’t know. It’s longitudinal data. You’re not going to know how this all works out until it’s working itself out and they get older and all that. So it’s really hard on the parents.
Here’s just a little example to show this: You can now check your child’s grades at every moment, at every time of the day. Technology has allowed this to happen, and there are parents who literally say, “I can’t stop myself. I go on multiple times a day. I know it doesn’t even change that much.” And the kids go on, and everybody becomes more and more obsessed with check-check-check-check-checking. And the stuff that you really care about — are they kind people; are they healthy; do they love learning; has that spark hit them; do they ask great questions; do they know what it’s like to be a friend —
Ms. Tippett: But that’s not rewarded.
Ms. Pope: No. It’s not tested; it’s not graded.
Ms. Tippett: You talked about in tenth grade how you fell in love with Walt Whitman. I think that’s the first line of your book. And I kind of think, part of what you are feeling and in pain about is that enough people aren’t falling in love with Walt Whitman or whoever their Walt Whitman would be.
Ms. Pope: It’s so true. And learning for learning’s sake — forget it. If you teach an ungraded class, they don’t do the work. It’s just not set up — the system is not set up for falling in love with Walt Whitman.
[music: “Into the Light” by Marisa Anderson]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, rethinking “success.” I’m at Stanford University with researcher Denise Pope and physician and novelist Abraham Verghese.
Ms. Tippett: We’ve been diagnosing what’s wrong, which we’re really good at in journalism and the academy. So let’s talk a little bit about — I don’t even want to say “the positive side” of things. Even to recast it a little bit, I met somebody from Apple the other day, Joel Podolny, who’s head of the Apple University, which is an internal thing. But in the context of saying something else, he said, “Success is a terrible context for learning,” which I thought was just so brilliantly stated, and it’s a truth, and yet, that truth isn’t built into our places.
But I do feel like you both are working, in your spheres, on how to shift this, and that it’s not all rocket science. So what are we learning? What are you learning? And, I guess, what educators can do, what parents can do, and just what we can do for each other as fellow humans; how are you thinking about this?
Dr. Verghese: I think the easiest thing to recognize, very soon in your medical career, is that all the wonderful science, including the science being done here, doesn’t necessarily impact the great burden of disease in our country, which is usually chronic disease. It’s an aging population; it’s chronic disease. And for that, you really need a different kind of practice of medicine. My own belief is that you really need one human being who is trained to express care, along with the scientific knowledge and along with the medical care. Trying to teach that has been extraordinarily hard for a long time. But the interesting thing that’s happening right now is the recognition that the distinction between the touchy-feely and the sciences is completely vanishing.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really interesting.
Dr. Verghese: Some wonderful work being done here at Stanford by Alia Crum and her group and many others across the world, are showing us that the placebo effect, for example, is much more complicated than we thought. When I give you a pain pill after your surgery, if it’s a placebo and if you get relief — and about 20 percent to 30 percent of people will — we can actually measure a neurobiological change in your brain, these endorphins being secreted. And then, if I go in with a morphine antagonist, the pain will come roaring back. So, we’re learning that placebo is not about conning people. It’s really about trying to trigger a certain kind of change. And we’re also learning how much we don’t know, how much we simply don’t understand in this black box.
Ms. Pope: There’s definitely a corollary in education around relationships, because we know that when you feel that there’s someone who has your back, when there’s an adult you can go to if you have a problem, if your teacher truly cares about you, knows your name, knows who you are, knows how you learn, kids are more engaged. They do better. And that’s where we say, it isn’t rocket science. We know how to get kids to learn. We know that if you feel safe, and you feel like you belong, and you’re excited and engaged, you’re more likely going to learn than if you’re not. And it’s just, the whole system is getting in the way of those relationships and that learning being able to happen. So we work very concretely with schools: Can you change your bell schedule so that not everyone’s running around eight times a day? Can you have a later start so that kids can get more sleep, because they need it? Can you build time in for teachers and students to work together and meet and talk and have advisory? We know how to do this; it’s just really hard to break what — everybody in their life has been through 14, 12, 16 years of school that all look the same, and we’re talking about something that’s pretty different and scary, particularly for those schools that have those high-achieving kids, because if it ain’t broke, and we’re saying, no, no, no, it’s broke …
… it’s broke — it looks different. You might be getting good grades and getting them into college …
Ms. Tippett: It sounds like we have to develop those metrics. In medicine, there is this new — and in psychology, there’s — it’s just crazy that we had to come to this but that we’re now developing measures, metrics, for what health looks like, rather than pathology. So it’s almost like we have to develop those metrics for emerging people in schools and elsewhere. What does health look like?
Dr. Verghese: I’d like to say that in medicine, the solutions to what ails us are pretty straightforward, and we all know what they are. Patients are very clear on what they want from us. We’re very clear on how we’d like to see it. But I think we’re recognizing that all of us have to leave our disciplines and be more engaged in societal change as a whole, because the problem isn’t residing in medicine; the problem — if we don’t get engaged beyond medicine, then we will suffer the consequences.
And certainly, in medicine, that’s true. I ask my medical students, I say, “Look around. Our biggest need in this country is care for the elderly. The biggest need is for chronic disease. Instead, you look around, you see freestanding, short-stay surgery centers, freestanding cardiology centers, freestanding cancer centers. Have you ever seen a freestanding geriatric center with a piano that plays in the lobby and valet parking?” That’s our need. And it’s all driven by reimbursement and how it’s set up, and we can’t reform medicine unless we’re willing to tackle those kinds of things.
To me, the most exciting thing in medicine is the phenomenon of my medical students getting their MDs and MBAs. I thought, well, what for? Why do you need an MBA? I thought maybe they want to go make a lot of money. Every one of them went into primary care. They are now in the Brigham system, a few of them. They did that because they want to change medicine. They want to reform this thing. And they know they need a knowledge of finance. One of them, I just learned, has dropped out because he’s running for office in Colorado. That is the kind of change, I think, our generation needs to encourage.
[music: “Studying a Pinecone” by Lullatone]
Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope. You can always listen again and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed, wherever you find your podcasts.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today at Stanford University, rethinking “success” as new generations of humans ask who and how they will be as fervently as what they will do. This conversation with education researcher Denise Pope and physician and author Abraham Verghese was part of 10 weeks I spent as a Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service. We spoke before an audience of students, faculty, and local community members.
Ms. Tippett: So let’s open this up.
Sam Feineh: Hi, everyone. My name is Sam Feineh. I’m a senior on campus in political science. Parents are also from Ethiopia, so I resonated with that — with what you said there. Right before I ask the questions, I just wanted to note, when I was asked to read the questions for tonight’s event, I was told by the Haas staff to represent all 7,000 undergrads.
So, I will try to do that, but please, bear with me as I go through that process.
Ms. Tippett: I’m actually going to overrule that. I’m just going to say, would you just represent yourself? [laughs]
Mr. Feineh: Sounds good. So just to start off the conversation, collecting all the thoughts that you had, the first question is: What’s a time when each of you has failed? You all went to the right schools and got the right jobs, after all — or, at least, one conception of it. So, I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are.
Dr. Verghese: I think that the real education of my life was all the failures. That is, really, what shaped me. So I began medical school in Ethiopia, actually, and a very nice school run by the British consul for East Africa. And then civil war broke out. So, suddenly, in the middle of my third year of medical school, I was adrift. And it was the worst thing that could’ve ever happened to me, I thought.
My parents had come here a little before that, reading the writing on the wall, and I joined them in New Jersey. And I could not get back into medical school, because I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. In most parts of the world, you go straight from high school to premed to medical school. And I began to work as an orderly. And I think it was the hardest part of my life. At the time, I thought this was really the pits. And I was working night shifts and sharing a car with my parents.
But I look back now, and if I have any sort of reputation in America, I think it’s come from the fact that I got to see what happens to the patient in the 23 hours and 57 minutes that the doctors are not in the room. I feel a great solidarity with my colleagues in nursing, nursing assistants. And I think that that “failure,” so to speak, turned out to be the biggest success. And I don’t want to go on, but I would say that almost everything I learned — and I hope undergraduates really listen to this; in fact, I know, Dr. Costanzo and others have a whole project around resilience and failures — that is really where your education comes. The rest of it is fluff.
Ms. Tippett: I’ll just say here that every time I get introduced like I did tonight, which was so gracious and beautiful, but it’s like, we live in this presentational culture. And every time, I cringe a little bit because I know the real story.
And it’s not that all of those credentials don’t matter, but the real story, it’s just full of more — most of the time, for many years, even the things that look like a success, eventually, often feel like failure so much of the time — or just very uncertain. And if I look at my résumé now, of my 20s, I walked into all of these adventures. And it looks so impressive, and I know that every single minute of every single day of all of those years, I was constantly second-guessing myself and wondering what I should be doing that would be better.
And I actually think this is one reason that friendship across generations is really important. I think it’s really a calling for this century because the wisdom of young adulthood, I think, is actually an urgency and an impatience and this longing and this aspiration to see the world whole and make it better. We want that. But there’s something so relaxing about living for a while and knowing in your body that life is long and knowing that there will be another side to whatever is happening. And so that’s really the experience you have of failure.
But I will say, the wisest people I’ve interviewed — and the most successful, I would say, in human terms — are not successful in spite of what’s gone wrong for them but because of how — not just how they have walked through that, but how they integrated it into their wholeness on the other side.
Mr. Feineh: Switching to the perspective of an employer or a mentor or a professor, what can each of those roles and people do to encourage alternate ways of thinking about success, more from the extrinsic to the intrinsic mode of viewing success?
Dr. Verghese: Well, maybe I’ll start and say that I actually think that my mentees are teaching me what success means because I think the millennials, they really have a much better sense of what’s important. And sometimes our generation complains about that, that this is just a job for them, not a calling. But, on the other hand, they are much more ready to put their family and their children first in a way that I regret that I didn’t do. And so I’ve learned from them to be flexible, to be much more concerned about their personal health than I think we were. So, I’m not sure that I impart as much to them as they impart to me.
But that said, I think a lot of — when I do impart things that are not strictly medical and career, it’s mostly about just relaxing and making sure that they’re enjoying the journey.
I have a very simple definition of success, which is, any day above ground is a good day …
… given the alternative, and I see plenty of that. So if you start with that premise, and it’s not hard to do in medicine, then literally every day is a good day. How can you not bring your best to it?
Mr. Feineh: And the last question I have here is from a young person who went to a competitive school in Palo Alto …
… and finds him or herself struggling to question what success looks like. “I feel like I have few role models. Even the three of you have successful careers that were explored in your introductions.” And this person is curious to hear your thoughts about career, mentorship-building, how to create some of these pipelines, and a final direct action to help students expand some of their opportunities.
Ms. Pope: We hear this question a lot from kids. There’s a couple of different answers. One is that people assume that there’s a straight and narrow path, that I knew when I was 18 that I was going to be sitting up here today. And I can tell you, absolutely not. I didn’t even think I should be up here with this guy, anyway, now. So I think that idea of a straight and narrow path is really outdated, and as a young person — so part of this is, your prefrontal cortex — getting into the medical side of things — is not fully developed. And the prefrontal cortex is what allows you to see and plan ahead. So, in your head you think you have to have it all figured out, and you think it’s very linear — get the grades, get into college, go to grad school, have a career, get to money. That has been said over and over and over to us.
And what we’re trying to say is, you have no idea where your life is going to lead, and so, you have to be open to the possibilities. Find lots of different mentors. Take lots of different classes and things that are exciting. Pursue things that bring you joy because you’re just never going to know. I was supposed to be a journalist, and it just didn’t happen, for a whole bunch of reasons, and I fell into education and loved it. And then I didn’t take a normal path for a professor. I’m looking at Deborah Stipek in the audience because she kept saying to me, “Come on, let’s do the normal path.” And I was like, “No, I want to do something a little different.” And it’s definitely paid off. But there’s no way I could’ve foreseen this.
Ms. Tippett: No. No.
Dr. Verghese: In my case, I got off the treadmill of medicine at some point because I was so moved by the HIV experience during that era when there were no treatments, and it was just a —
Ms. Tippett: You were in Tennessee, in a rural area.
Dr. Verghese: I was in Tennessee in a small town. And I really thought that if I didn’t do something, I would die. I would just die from the stress of it. I wanted to do HIV care the rest of my life, and I still am, and many people have fallen off the way. But I knew I would have to take a break, and I decided to go to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and cashed in my retirement and my 401(k) and all that stuff. And it was considered academic suicide, professional suicide, but I felt that I had to do it.
And then I was finishing there and ready to take an academic job, and I had some really good opportunities to stay at the University of Iowa, a great school, or University of North Carolina was wanting to hire me, and I suddenly realized, I would never write in those places because I would be so busy trying to crank out NIH grants and all that. And so, I went to Texas Tech El Paso. I could literally throw a stone out of my window and hit someone in Juárez, Mexico. And yet, it was the most beautiful place to practice, because in that county hospital we saw everything in young people, untreated; it felt very meaningful, but my evenings were mine to write and to develop my voice, and my weekends were mine. And I eventually got hired to Stanford in a roundabout way, largely because of that. And had I come to Stanford in the first place, just about now I would be losing my tenure and heading to El Paso, Texas, probably.
So I tell students that life is ironic. It’s never going to be the path that you planned, and if you’re not open to what your heart’s telling you, within reason, then you’re probably not going to be as happy.
Ms. Pope: And I just want to add, because there is research to back this up, that we actually spent a year, at Challenge Success, looking at college outcomes and asking, does it matter where you go to college? We looked at it in terms of finances; we looked at it in terms of job satisfaction; we looked at it in terms of well being. And all the research points to, for the most part, it really doesn’t matter. If you are a person who comes from a very poor background, a person of color, it may matter more in terms of finances than for others, but for the vast majority, whether you go to community college or you go to Stanford, in terms of job satisfaction in the future, in terms of wellbeing, and in terms of, really, finances, it’s not the name. So, that should bring you —
Ms. Tippett: What is it that makes a difference, then, if it’s not …?
Ms. Pope: It’s actually the level of engagement you bring to college. And it would be the same in the workplace and the same in the hospital.
Ms. Tippett: And I think, when you say engagement, you’re not just talking about whether you get really good grades.
Ms. Pope: No, it’s the opposite. Some of your most engaged people get the worst grades because they’re out there going deep into what they want to do, and they’re not following the rules, and the teacher doesn’t know what to do with that. No.
It’s engagement, where you are excited and passionate about what you’re doing, you’re involved in your community — it turns out that’s very important; it could be the bowling league or a church community or whatever, but you feel a part of that place — you have mentors; and you find ways to apply what you learn. So, internships or deep research — it’s actually, to give a shameless plug for the Haas Center, what the Haas Center does [laughs] for kids here at Stanford.
Ms. Tippett: I want to say that something that came up in some of the conversations I’ve had at the Haas Center in the last couple of weeks is the problematic way we work with the success story, which is often about somebody who comes from a really unlikely background — really, the way the narrative goes, an inferior place — that’s assumed, a place without opportunity, who had nothing going for them, and then, the success in achieving, all the ways we define success. And also, it’s often about leaving that place they came from. And we do have to learn how to see and honor all the forms of successful life which are not measured in a job title.
Ms. Pope: It’s really important. I hear this from — I work with a lot of students who are trying to figure out when to have kids and if you leave the workplace to have kids and — “Then I’m ‘just’ a mom.” And this idea that you’re “just” a mom — first of all, it’s the hardest job you will ever do; it’s way harder than any other job I’ve ever had, is being a mom. I love it, but it’s really hard.
And that idea of, I think …
Ms. Tippett: And it is literally lifegiving.
Ms. Pope: It is literally lifegiving. And, I think, adding a thinking, feeling, empathetic, morally driven person to this world is probably the most important thing you can do. Or helping others, if you — I’m not saying everyone has to be a parent, but helping others to live in the way that people should live. And that has nothing to do with what you do for a living.
[music: “Intermodal Blues” by Michael Rossetto]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with Stanford researcher Denise Pope and physician and author Abraham Verghese.
Ms. Tippett: So what I feel this is circling around to is actually the notion of vocation. It’s our calling as human beings, not just our calling to a profession. And in fact, I think, the reality of life is that you have many vocations in the course of a life. And even if you have the job you want, there are times when your parenting or your relationship or your caregiving for a parent is a much more important part of your vocation than the job you’re doing.
And also this idea that to work in order to put food on your table and feed your family is meaningful work. I feel like if we develop a more expansive sense of vocation that is in sync with what we’re learning and actually what we desire, that vocation, it will be something multifaceted. It will be the work we do, which at times may define us and, at times, may not; it will be the people we love; it will be the people we serve; it will be our community. I feel like even that could be a mental shift, like taking in placebo as actually a superpower, rather than a trick.
Dr. Verghese: Well, I love the idea of a calling. Obviously, I think that that was how I felt about medicine; it was truly a calling. I couldn’t imagine something more romantic than that. And sometimes I feel that there’s too many mercenary decisions made to go into medicine, not necessarily because of a calling. But that’s rare. Most people do feel a calling. But I must say, I think the millennials are much more willing to truly follow their calling.
I have a son who’s a musician in Santa Fe. He’s 32 years old. What he really is, is a barista.
Ms. Tippett: I have one of those too.
Dr. Verghese: But he’s a musician, and his music’s good. But I fear for him. I had all the traditional worries about him. And I had the conversation with him, and he just stopped me in my tracks by something he said. He said, “Dad, I just want to make enough” — because I would say, “How are you going to hit the big time, and…” He says, “Dad, I’m not necessarily looking for that. I just want to make enough money in doing this thing I love to do.” I mean, what more could I say about that? So I said, “Go for it. I hope you can cover your car insurance, but otherwise it’s…”
And I think that the world needs more of that, perhaps.
Ms. Pope: And we hear kids who say, “I don’t have a passion. I’m eight years old; what’s my passion? I’m 12 years old…”
And “I gotta write it on my college application, what my passion is.” And you just say to them, “It will come.” And it comes from being open and curious and taking risks and meeting others.
Ms. Tippett: Stepping into uncomfortable places where you may fail.
Ms. Pope: Right, but I don’t want people to get hung up on this thing called a “calling” and that you need it when you’re eight, because you run the risk — whatever you then say is “it,” everybody wants “it.” It will come. It will come.
Ms. Tippett: So if I ask each of you, not “What do you do,” but what is — how do you understand your vocation, or your vocations, at this moment in time, how would you start to answer that question?
Ms. Pope: This has always been with me — actually, from my grandfather’s story — which is, I’m Jewish, and there’s a notion called tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” And the rule is that you don’t have to fix it, and you don’t have to do it alone, but you gotta try. And that’s how I’ve seen every part of my life, is doing something to try and make the world a better place. And this was the thing that happened to catch me, and I fell into it when I wrote the book. I didn’t know the book was going to start me down this path to have this nonprofit and do all this stuff. But it is fulfilling to help people and feel like I’m part of repairing the world.
Dr. Verghese: I’m always having to pinch myself that I’m really at Stanford; I’m actually sitting here, talking with you, and people wanting to listen to us — to me, anyway. I know they want to listen to you. I’ve gotten so many emails about …
And I also feel like, as a writer, I have the great luxury of having the most beautiful day job in the world. And so, no matter what happens to me, I love seeing patients; it’s truly a calling, and I can do that anywhere in the world, and it doesn’t really matter how much I get paid, as long as I can feed myself and my children, who are now fine. So, in that sense, I think my son was right: finding this thing that will both be something you love and that will pay your bills, that is really the calling.
Ms. Tippett: Or, as he’s doing it, you find the thing you love, and you find the thing that pays your bills, and … Abraham, there’s a poem by e. e. cummings that you quoted. Do you know what I’m talking about? The heart poem?
Dr. Verghese: “I carry your heart.” I do, indeed.
Ms. Tippett: I wondered, would you talk about why you care about this so much? I feel like it is related to what we’ve been talking about, even the way we always use the language of heart as a metaphor for all this other stuff that isn’t measurable — in our bodies we’ve known, and now, actually, science is showing us this interactivity. I don’t know. Do you think this fits what we’ve been talking about?
Dr. Verghese: I think it does. I’ve always loved that poem. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s “i carry your heart” —
Ms. Tippett: I have it. I was going to ask you to read it. Would you talk about what you love about it?
Dr. Verghese: I can’t recite it, if that’s what you were gonna say.
Ms. Tippett: Can you?
Dr. Verghese: I can read it.
Ms. Tippett: You can recite it, too.
Dr. Verghese: I don’t want to stumble, reciting it.
Ms. Tippett: I printed it out for you.
Dr. Verghese: “i carry your heart with me(i carry it in / my heart)”
Can you read it?
Ms. Pope: You’re going to make me cry.
“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in / my heart)i am never without it(anywhere / i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done / by only me is your doing,my darling) / i fear / no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want / no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true) / and it’s you are / whatever a moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you // here is the deepest secret nobody knows / (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud / and the sky of / the sky of a tree called life;which grows / higher than soul can hope or mind can hide) / and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart / i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)”
Dr. Verghese: Lovely; lovely. I’ve always loved this poem, and I was asked to address, by my boss here at Stanford, who’s a cardiologist — couldn’t say no — to speak at this big congress of cardiology in San Diego Convention Hall. Ten thousand cardiologists floating around, and I was going to give the opening keynote. I didn’t have slides; I didn’t have molecules; I didn’t have catheters. And I decided that I was going to make this my theme because they were going to spend five days talking about the heart and not necessarily acknowledging this metaphorical heart. And I think there was pin-drop silence because everybody was waiting to see how quickly I was going to bomb with this particular theme. [laughs]
But I think it struck a chord. It struck a chord. The person who comes to see you, as William Carlos Williams said so many years ago, they are not a liver or a heart or a kidney. They are one guy or gal with a unique problem. And his wonderful quote was that the physician on the frontline must fall back on his or her own sense of self. That is your instrument. Your instrument is not the EKG or the stethoscope; it’s your sense of self, combined with all the scientific knowledge and the human understanding that you bring.
And I just love that poem, and my boss — I don’t think he’ll mind my telling this, because I published this — he has twin daughters, and they have both tattooed the words “i carry your heart” over their sixth rib on either side so that — it doesn’t matter that it’s the sixth rib, but it is the sixth rib.
And I was very touched by that. So they’re separated now; they live in different cities, but “i carry your heart.”
Ms. Tippett: Someplace, you were talking about — let me find this in my notes — you were talking about presence — thinking about presence. And you said, “Disease is easier to recognize than the individual with the disease,” which is related to what you just said. And it feels to me like that can be carried over to all of our encounters with each other in all of our spaces, especially in a moment like this, and I think that’s very fitting for being convened here by the Haas Center for Public Service. So what we’ve circled around to here is our presence to ourselves and how inextricable that is — to be meaningful, to be absolutely connected to our presence to others. And that will change us, and that will shape the path.
So, thank you all for coming. Thank you so much, the two of you, for your wisdom. Have a good evening.
[music: “Moon on the land” by Dirty Three]
Ms. Tippett: Abraham Verghese is a professor of medicine, vice chair of the department of medicine, and Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provostial Professor at Stanford University. His books include My Own Country, The Tennis Partner, and the novel Cutting for Stone. He received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2016.
Denise Pope is a senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the non-profit organization, Challenge Success. She’s the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students.
Special thanks this week to Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service, where I was the 2019 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor. A grateful shout-out especially to Joann Wong, Vanessa Ochavillo, and Tom Schnaubelt.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.
Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
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