I have a surgeon crush. His name is Atul Gawande and he’s pretty much the patron saint for high-achievers everywhere.

In addition to being a practicing general and endocrine surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School, he’s a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur (a.k.a. “Genius”) award, and author of three New York Times best-selling books, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Complications and The Checklist Manifesto.

Personal Best

And yet, in his latest article, Coaching A Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better (oh yeah, he writes for New Yorker magazine in his spare time), Gawande explains why he enlisted the help of a coach to improve his operating skills:

“For the past couple of [years], my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.”

After observing him in just one operation, his mentor-coach — a veteran surgeon — pointed out a myriad of improvements he could make: such as being careful, for example, not to raise his elbow above his shoulder, noticing when the operating light had drifted off target, and draping the patient more efficiently.

Simple points apparently, but addressing them could ward off complications in his hundreds of operations. And as Gawande notes,

“That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.”

Even the most talented, well-trained people, it would seem, cannot sustain their best performance on their own.

Which leads me to my point: it’s not that everyone NEEDS coaching. Certainly, people are doing okay without it. But as one of my clients said: “Does okay describe where you want to be for the rest of your life?”

If you’re striving to reach the top of your game, probably not.

What you get from coaching:

  1. Knowledge and expertise. This is often the primary reason people hire a coach. Working with someone who has specific expertise – whether through experience, study or both – saves you time: time you would otherwise have to invest in gaining that specific knowledge and experience on your own, not to mention making the mistakes associated with acquiring it. As Gawande pointed out, he learned more in 20 minutes than he had in the past five years.
  2. Insight and perspective. As I said in last week’s post: our brains are designed to defend against exposure and critique. No matter how rational and self-aware you think you are, a good coach will inevitably bring a fresh perspective and notice things you can’t. They’ll see through the ego and excuses, keep you on track and periodically give you a reality check. One of my clients was thoroughly frustrated that he wasn’t seeing the level of sales he thought he should — until I pointed out that he’d only been working at his business full-time for three months.
  3. Motivation and accountability. Woody Allen said: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Thanks to the structure inherent in coaching, you’re committed to showing up on a regular basis – which, in effect, immediately increases your chances for success. Knowing that someone besides you is investing time in your success creates a kind of emotional obligation – to strive and live up to their expectations. It’s human nature: When our efforts are being observed and, to some extent, evaluated, we’re simply more motivated to do our best.

Again, not everyone NEEDS coaching but everyone can benefit – and it’s hard to argue with increased speed, focus and motivation.

What do YOU think?  Have you ever hired a coach (in any field)?  What were your results? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Maria October 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Why do you think our brains are designed to defend against exposure and critique? How as a performing pianist have you handled that resistance, with confidence? Thank you for a response!!

    1. suyg October 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      Nice, Maria — you zoned right in on that!

      When we take in information through our senses, our brains filter it to only let in information that supports our existing beliefs about ourselves (our abilities, our situation, etc.). In effect, our brains don’t let in information that would prove them “wrong.” That’s why everyone literally sees the world in a different way. In order to change the information that is filtered through, we have to shift our beliefs.

      If you’re a musician, you probably know that what you hear when you’re performing is different than what others hear. Everything that it takes to play an instrument — the physical effort, the emotion, etc. — interferes with our accuracy of listening. What I thought was a booming fortissimo turns out to have been a tepid mezzoforte!

      Having heard this disparity when listening to recordings of myself, I have learned that my own filters are not accurate and to rely on the ears and opinions of others whom I trust and respect.

  2. Pamela Enders October 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I agree with Renita. (Terrific post by the way!) Plus, being able to anticipate and perceive “danger” serves a useful purpose. We are here because our foremothers knew enough to detect danger and either fled or fought. So our brains are designed to detect threats to our well-being. The problem is we learn to interpret situations as threatening that are not necessarily so. I suppose the possibility of humiliation can be pretty threatening however! Even so, one person’s humiliation is another person’s opportunity to learn and grow.

    For mental toughness training, I write about the 8 C’s of mental toughness and one of them is Championship Mindset which is the ability and willingness to seek and accept feedback/critiques as information and not as an assault. This ain’t easy but it can be learned.

    1. suyg October 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      Thanks for those insights, Pamela! (Foremothers, I like that. 😉

      The possibility of humiliation definitely triggers the fight-or-flight response, doesn’t it — I’ve certainly had times when I wanted to flee instead of going out on stage…!

  3. Pingback: Time to shift into high gear : Game Plan for Productivity + Peak Performance + Mental Toughness Under Pressure

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