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  • Writer's pictureEric Knabel

Thoughts From Six Feet Away: The Beauty of Simplicity

I’ve never considered myself a complicated person.

I grew up with limited means in a small town, and when I look at the opportunities available to my kids, I’m almost embarrassed by how few I had during my formative years. I simply lived my life according to principle (if you’ve spoken to me or read anything I’ve written, you know I lean HARD into this concept), and I was willing to embrace any opportunities that were thrown my way.

Quite often, we compare our own shortcomings with the strengths of others, and it’s easy to become intimidated. This person is more eloquent than me, and they use fancier words that I do, so they must be smarter than me. Over time, however, I’ve learned that there is beauty in simplicity. I used to be ashamed of my modest thought processes, but I’ve realized that it isn’t a curse – it’s a blessing. How quickly can we take something complicated and reduce it to its lowest common denominator? It may not sound sexy, but that is the beginning of genius.

I used to say that a genius is someone who can take something complex and make it sound simple. As the years have passed, I’ve added that an idiot is someone who takes something simple and makes it complicated (if you’re thinking of corporate America or the government when I say that you’re not alone). In medicine, we adhere strongly to the concept referred to as Occam’s Razor – when contemplating a problem, the simplest solution is often the correct one. Yes, you could be gaining weight from a thyroid condition, but it’s more likely that your terrible diet and sedentary lifestyle are to blame.

When you’re on the right path, I believe that there will be affirmation along the way, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places and often when you need them the most. I had become complacent in my approach to life when I discovered Sahil Bloom a few months ago. A Stanford graduate and former baseball player, he is now an investor, entrepreneur, and creator who has developed an enormous following on social media. And for this middle-aged family physician with the desire to be a writer, he is a daily dose of affirmation that I desperately need. The simplicity with which he spouts wisdom is inspiring, especially knowing how hard he must have worked to make it seem effortless. He has woken a long-dormant drive in me to achieve, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Give him a follow on Twitter (@SahilBloom) – you’ll be glad you did.

I’m also reminded of Ed Goljan, my pathology teacher from medical school. A hard and demanding instructor, he used to say, “I’m not here to teach you facts – I’m here to teach you concepts. If you know the concepts, then you can think your way out of any situation.” I owe my success as a physician to this statement, and it has extended to my life outside of medicine as well. If you find your life spiraling out of control, maybe it’s because it’s not simple enough. You’ve learned facts, but the concepts elude you. You need a strong foundation, no matter how great your processes are.

Here are some of the basics upon which I’ve built my life:

Take time every day to be alone with your thoughts

How often do we find ourselves giving our time and our energy to others, yet short-change ourselves at the end? Whether it’s through meditation or prayer, take time for reflection. Some find meditation intimidating – for those who do, I’d recommend a guided meditation app like Headspace. Just like a messy bedroom, your mind needs to be de-cluttered on occasion, if not daily.

Do something physical

Take time for physical activity every day. Even if it’s a walk down the street, do something to get the blood flowing. In addition to taking care of the body, it often clears the mind as well. I’ve solved so many problems this way, and it also gives me time to be alone with my thoughts (see above).

Try to genuinely see things from another’s point of view

If more people tried empathy as an exercise, it would change the world. You learn far more from the people with whom you disagree. Funny thing about listening to alternative viewpoints, it will either change your own thinking, or it will affirm your beliefs. So many folks are yelling at each other, but that persuades no one.

Be consistent with your attitude

My mom once told me that angels disguise themselves, to see how we would behave when no one else was watching. It may sound silly, but it was a powerful image that I carry to this day. (I’m not taking any chances). Stephen Covey talks about the concept of two circles, with one representing the public persona and the other representing the private persona. He states that the farther apart these two circles are, the more tension the individual experiences. Being the simple person I am, I want those two circles to intersect so closely that you don’t know there are two circles. The custodian that empties my trash is treated the same as the CEO of my organization. In my profession, being consistent with my attitude also means that no matter what’s going on in my life, or how I feel about that patient personally, they will get my best efforts to safeguard their health.

Do the right thing always

This can be another great challenge because let’s face it, sometimes the easy thing is more appealing than the right thing. But it’s important to do what’s right over what’s easy. As I often say to others, the high road never has potholes. There is no comeback to the statement, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Be True to Your Word

During a very short (and inglorious) period of my life when I was involved in multilevel marketing, I learned that the statement “I’ll try to <x>” was just a fancy way of saying no. When I give you my word, I’ll follow through. Period. It causes me physical discomfort to go back on a promise made. If you want me to trust you, don’t make me doubt your sincerity.

Be mindful of how your actions/decisions affect others

So many times, we operate out of our own motivations, not thinking of the impact it will have on other people. If other people have to suffer for you to be happy or comfortable, it’s an abomination. Our pursuit of happiness should elevate others, not knock them down. I’m not suggesting everyone have a servant’s heart, but they shouldn’t have a taskmaster’s heart, either.

Show gratitude

Take time every day to count your blessings. We may experience setbacks in our lives, but there is always something to be thankful for. Maybe it’s our health, or the fact that we don’t have to struggle to afford the necessities in life. We’re upset because this friend has a nicer house or a bigger bank account. It’s okay to strive for more, but it’s important to be thankful for what you do possess. It’s often a bigger list than we realize.

Don’t be afraid to fail/take chances

A friend of mine used to say, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb – that’s where the fruit is.” In life, I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded, but I pride myself on never making the same mistake twice. And maybe I fail while daring to do great things, but it beats the alternative. I remember doing a 100-mile bike ride at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a few years back. I was so proud of my accomplishment that I got a photo at the finish line. I showed it to a friend whose first response to me was, “I don’t see anyone else on the track – did you come in last?” I looked him in the eye and responded, “Nope, I beat you.” When you try to make your mark in life, you will attract erasers.

Always be ready when opportunity strikes

I didn’t get into medical school right away. When I finally got accepted to a school in Oklahoma, 600 miles from where I was living, I was broke. I could’ve used my lack of money as an excuse, but that was my dream. I maxed all my credit cards and emptied my bank account. We were running so tight on money that I asked the guy that drove my moving truck not to run the air conditioner, so I’d have enough gas money to get us there. I tell my kids to be patient and wait for doors to open for you, and when they do, RUN through them, because they may never open again.

Doing your best versus doing whatever it takes

I hear so many people say, “I’ll do my best.” That stopped cutting the mustard for me a long time ago. What if your best isn’t good enough? Maybe reaching a goal requires you to be more than you are today. Are you committed to being better? Then you’re going to have to dig deep. Do whatever it takes – it doesn’t limit you like your perception of what “your best” is.

Be open with your communication

So many people hide their true desires from others, and it can lead to resentment, which will ultimately damage those relationships. If you want something, ask for it! If you don’t like how someone is treating you, tell them. And when it comes to human relations, there are phrases that have power. The first of which is, “I appreciate you,” but perhaps the most important is, “How can I help?”

Admit when you’re wrong

This can be the hardest pill to swallow, for all of us. But there is power in admitting you’re wrong. And for the record, saying, “I’m sorry you were offended by what I said” is NOT an apology. It still implies that the other person was the problem. We have a way of making non-apologies all the time, and we wonder why the other person doesn’t forgive us. Also, just because we’re apologizing or admitting we’re wrong, doesn’t mean that we will get the absolution we feel we deserve. You’re admitting you’re wrong or sorry so that YOU can move on; if they choose to remain in the conflict, that is their circus, and those are their monkeys.

Commit to evolve

I once had a high school classmate say to me, “You’ve accomplished more than nearly all of us – why are you still trying to achieve things?” I will NEVER be satisfied with where I am. I want to learn and experience new things. The worst thing someone can say to me is, “I’m never gonna change.” About thirteen years ago, I decided I was going to write my “bucket list.” ‘Why wait until I was dying?’ was my reasoning. I recently renovated the office in my home and came across my bucket list from 2009. I was proud to say that most of the items still rang true for me, but there are things that I’ve outgrown. Evolving means setting new goals, slaying new dragons. I look forward to changing my list again in about ten years.

This was a bit longer than usual, but how can you be brief when you’re summing up your philosophy on life? I hope that you have found value in my thoughts. I’m so grateful for all of you! As always, be excellent to each other, and…

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