I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it. It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon. I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.
Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers. This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book! But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development. It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.
Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of books. I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below. Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world. The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie. These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation. It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.
Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area. The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others. In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book. However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing. They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived. In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.
A Thousand Naked Strangers – Kevin Hazzard
Doctored – Sandeep Juhar
I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had – Tony Danza
Total Recall – Arnold Schwarzenegger
*Note – I include this mostly because of his telling of his time as a body-builder and actor.
A Life in Parts – Bryan Cranston
The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin
Shoe Dog – Phil Knight
Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull
The Checklist Manifesto – Atul Gawande
Better – Atul Gawande
Complications – Atul Gawande