Columbia Chief Surgeon Craig Smith ’70: “I could not see to see”

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2020 — the perfect vision class! 2000 got the millennium, 2017 had their prime, but vision… there’s a game-changer, and have we ever needed it more? In the past few months it’s been hard for all of us to see from a crouch, through both hands, but it’s time to stand up straight. You are graduating in the midst of the largest international crisis in generations. Many people are suffering vicariously for you. Mine was the solipsism class (1970), and of vicarious suffering there was none. We spurned “sell-outs” like conventional employment, demonized our humblest soldiers and labeled stupid anyone who disagreed with us. Within several years the economy withered, inflation exceeded 10 percent and gas lines stretched around the block. Nice work, boomers. The class of 2020’s calamity is no one’s fault. Blame impersonal, malevolent little bits of nucleic acid. Nonetheless, you’ve arrived at your commencement. You will be commencing new endeavors, and it’s traditional to offer some practical advice. Eph2Eph, 1970 to 2020.

First, hidden in every daunting change is a soft underbelly. Exploit it. Face-to-face meetings will bleed back to a new equilibrium, but Zoom and its ilk are here to stay, ushering in a new metric: percent occupancy of the bright-bordered rectangle. Always use gallery view to keep an eye on the other players. Study the speaker for early hints of panic or incoherence, signaling that the bright border is about to go into play. Make confident, assertive movements with your upper body in the direction of the camera. That will unsettle some of your competitors and throw off their timing. Draw confidence from the amateurs winking off their mute symbols prematurely, a tell from those who hope to be in the face-off. Anticipate the speaker’s dying ellipsis… and pounce! Unmute with a confident mouse-stroke just before you speak. Practice these maneuvers on Photo Booth to a point of telegenic self-assurance.

To be fair, video meetings have had a remarkable positive impact on attendance and punctuality. Do not be that person who waited until 07:03 to open his email and “can’t make the link work,” then dials in to share his dilemma with everyone else. Very few legitimate excuses for absence or lateness remain. Keep in mind the trade-offs of video inactivation. How you eat your blueberry muffin may be best left to the imagination, but remember that the name you’ve chosen for yourself enlarges and snaps to the center of your black rectangle. That leaves your colleagues pondering your choice, while wondering if you’re cleaning your fish tank.

Second, prepare to deal with mentors. What is a mentor? A mentor is you, with more wins and losses. You can choose one, but you’ll likely be assigned one or more. If they don’t seem to know what to do with you, be patient. They may be terrified of you. Use that! They are always well-meaning, occasionally transformative, and are currently sacramental, but life is not all Luke-and-Yoda. There is no substitute for personal responsibility. Seize it, savor it, demonstrate it to others. A mentor might guide you through a minefield, but if you step on one, it’s still your leg.  

“May you live in interesting times” is usually meant ironically, consistent with its putative origin as a Chinese curse. Irony drops back and punts if you enjoy blaming China for the coronavirus, which seems pointless to me. Ironic or not, you are graduating into uniquely interesting times.  You can’t change that. Please try to be part of the process that leads the world out of this mess. There is no playbook or algorithm, but you can help develop those. These are times in which leaders are made and broken. Be made, and step over the fallen. How do you learn to lead? Practice by putting yourself out for someone else, in some small way, when you have something at risk and nothing directly to gain except unfairness made fair, lies exposed by truth, or pain made bearable. Then work your way up through humility, empathy, communication and resolve. Don’t worry about your vision. “Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” said Mark Twain. Then tell the class of 2070 how you did it.

Craig R. Smith ’70 is Chairman of the Department of Surgery, and the Valentine Mott Professor of Surgery, Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University. You can read his COVID-19 updates here.