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Failure is an option

Posted Jun 16 2014 1:29pm

My mom was a terrible cook. There’s just no way around it. When she passed away last December my brother and sister and I found a whole binder of recipes that she had copied from magazines or written down. We had a good-natured laugh trying to remember which she had “tried” on us. But we couldn’t remember any good meals from the list because she had a habit of experimenting and ad-libbing the recipe.

Adding this. Substituting that.

Somehow, neither her science degree nor her medical degree were enough to convince her that such things changed the chemistry of the meal (and certainly the outcome).

Luckily, she was an outstanding physician.

More than once we joked, asking ourselves rhetorically if she had the same approach with her patients. Part of me recoils at that idea. Part of me is inspired. She was innovating. Last week at Premier’s 2014 Breakthroughs Conference listening to the keynote speakers, the member presentations and seeing amazing products from our suppliers, I decided that she probably did try a lot of things with her patients like she did as a cook. It’s in the very nature of the business of caring: to innovate, to adapt, to learn and, yes, to fail.

Failure isn’t a final state in innovation or a judgment as we sometimes treat it. Articles and books about business startups say “don’t be afraid to fail – just fail fast and move on.”

When I thought about starting a healthcare company, one angel investor told us that we’d have a hard time getting money because we hadn’t tried and failed yet. We had no track record of overcoming failure, regardless of how smart our idea was.

Dr. John Kao and Dr. Nicholas Christakis gave us real data about people working together to innovate that framed the week in an incredible way. We came to San Antonio this week to learn more about innovation . We didn’t leave with any magic ingredients or secret answers to transforming healthcare. We left with a head full of new ideas and are facing hard work to make use of them.

The thing I take home is new commitment to just keep trying. You can call it focus. You can call it passion for your job. You can call it having a mission. You can call it inspiration. I think of it as a courageous act of love.

My mom never gave up on a patient. No matter how deeply scarred and emotionally troubled her patients were, she was a psychiatrist who would do what it took. She practiced in an age when there weren’t enough drugs to provide many answers. And she only saw drugs as one tool. So she ad-libbed, made it up, collaborated, shared, experimented and failed again and again until she didn’t.

That dedication to her patients was the same dedication and courageous act of love that she poured into bad meal after bad meal. The taste was not her gift to us. It was the effort to make things better. When she passed, a former patient of hers wrote to us to say how she had befriended him and changed his life through his treatment. And there were actually many such communications. Boxes and boxes of awards she collected over a career weren’t as meaningful.

So go fail. Make a bad meal. Order a pizza so the kids don’t starve and try it again the next night. Breakthroughs and that recipe binder have taught me this week that the magic ingredient in the business of caring is the courageous act of love of trying until you make difference.

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