2012 White Coat Ceremony Remarks by Robert I. Grossman, MD, Dean and CEO

8/17/12

Good afternoon, everyone. 

I’m delighted to see you all again and hope you’ve had a great first week!

You’re embarking on an amazing—and incredibly important—journey that will broaden your horizons…deepen your thinking…and add vast amounts to your storehouse of knowledge. 

But of course, it won’t always be easy. If you’re anything like me when I was in medical school, the next four years will bring bursts of elation…but also moments of discouragement…and the occasional passage where you feel completely overwhelmed.  

Obviously, a lot will depend on how you face the times when you’re not “on top of the world.” 

So I wanted to offer you some thoughts about a mindset that I think is often underrated and widely misunderstood.  
Optimism. 

One view that’s been around for a long time is that maintaining a positive outlook is a naïve form of wishful thinking–a refusal to face the facts. Or to paraphrase Rogers and Hammerstein, “cockeyed optimism.”  

Maybe you remember the satirical little book, Candide, published by the French philosopher Voltaire in the middle of the 18th century. The hero was a clueless young guy who found himself thrown into one disaster after another—war, shipwreck, earthquake, you name it.  His quote-unquote “mentor,” Pangloss, had an explanation for everything: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 

As I hope you’ve already guessed, that’s not the kind of optimism I’m talking about!

The kind I am talking about involves—not rose-colored glasses—but determination… courage…and action.

We have a powerful example in Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River a few years back.  He’s said in interviews that—even though it was a crisis he’d never trained for specifically, because (astoundingly enough) flight simulators don’t let you practice emergency landings on water—he just knew he could bring the plane down safely;

“I guess you’re an optimist,” one interviewer remarked when he said that. To which Sullenberger replied: “a realistic optimist.”  

I find that comment extremely revealing.

Somewhere along the way, many people seem to have concluded that you can’t be an optimist and a realist at the same time.   But what that comes down to is… equating realism with resignation.  Maybe 99 percent of the time, “Be realistic!” is code for… “Don’t even bother,”… the assumption being that whatever the problem is, it’s too big…too complex…or too entrenched to be fixable.

I define optimism as the conviction that you can do what you set out to do. That presupposes a positive outlook and a clear-eyed assessment of the situation at hand. It’s not a question of being an optimist or a realist, in other words. To be effective, you haveto be both.

If you’re piloting a plane with 155 people aboard and it suddenly starts falling out of the sky, for sure you have to recognize that you’re in a pretty dangerous situation. That’s the realism part. The optimism part comes in the determination to avert disaster.

People who make lasting contributions to the world around them all seem to share the same attributes: the engagement to recognize when something important needs doing…the unswerving faith that it can be done…and the willingness to actually try to do it.

They also tend to exhibit three other traits that augur well for success in medicine and life.

  • The first is resilience. Being an optimist definitely does not give you a pass on the rough spots. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I consider myself an optimist…but believe me, I’ve had many setbacks along the way.  I have always tried, though, to remain focused on achievable goals, and I’ve developed the firm conviction that overcoming failure is what paves the road to durable and meaningful success. 
  • The second is being able to look at a challenge—even one that at first may seem insurmountable—and see it as an opportunity.   That is typically far easier said than done, but it’s also the source of many of the most significant breakthroughs in history. Keep listening to that positive voice inside you. 
  • Finally, optimists never stop learning. And I think that’s because it isn’t enough to want to accomplish something. You have to be equipped to do it. I firmly believe that the more you really know, the more you realize just how much more is out there. View your career as a journey, not a destination. 

To me, the four years ahead of you are above all about developing those three strengths: resilience…the ability to spot opportunity, even under bleak circumstances…and intellectual curiosity.

Oh, and one more thing–be humble. We all have a lot to learn!

I wish you great success in your studies at our School. And I ESPECIALLY wish you the determination and perseverance to become everything you’re capable of being.

Thank you very much.