1 Life-Changing Lesson from a Hand Surgeon

Why “We” is Always Better than “Me”

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As a hand surgeon, you gain insight into people’s lives. The hand is a window, a portal if you will, into what someone does and how they live.

No one knows this better than Dr. Eric George, a renowned physician who believes this part of our anatomy doesn’t misconstrue or obscure. He believes it guides you to see past subjective details to the concrete qualities that uniquely define each of us. You learn, for instance, that the construction worker who injured his hand loves to paint. It provides fertile ground for conversation, for uncovering more of his story. You peel back his layers, only to find that his art acts as an analgesic and comes from a tough upbringing. You also learn that he hasn’t shared this part of his life with anyone outside family. His best friends only slightly know his hobby and not its origin — the narrative that defines him.

The hand also tells other stories. The professional writer with rheumatoid arthritis who lives under constant fear, facing the prospect of her biggest loss outside the death of her mother. The accountant who is oddly addicted to exercise, which fills a certain void in his life. Or the rig worker who never drinks except for the night of his accident, which brings him to the clinic.

In the most important ways, who we are is what we do. And from George’s perspective, there is no greater evidence of what we do than what our hands say about us. Despite what life chooses for us — e.g., who we call our parents, what genetic defects we’re born with — much of our journey falls within our decision path. We are confronted with different avenues that lead to unique destinations.

Twenty-six years in hand surgery has earned George a doctorate in understanding the human spirit. The West Virginia native and New Orleans resident has learned about grief and regret, as he has about relief and resilience. He has come to know the depths and reaches of humanity — the dramatic lows and great highs patients experience as they grapple with the fragile state called “life.”

“Twenty-six years in hand surgery has earned George a doctorate in understanding the human spirit.”

George’s profession has naturally taught him to think outside himself — it forces all practitioners to turn their attention outward and invest energy into the people they treat. Yet he may have taken empathy to a new level; he shares their pain, joy, anger, and fear. He helps them see that life goes on, but only after first understanding their journey and the unique world they call their own. Part of this practice comes from who he is, part of it from the path he chose many years ago. His profession, combined with his innate qualities, has taught George to approach life with a mindset of “We” rather than “Me.” Rather than “How do I stand to benefit?” he thinks, “How can I help this person?”

For George, the hand not only teaches, it provides a gateway to a better life. He knows that by helping people, he is also helping himself by gaining the satisfaction of caring for others. And he’s come to understand the benefits of fully embracing this way of living — which transcends all aspects of health, happiness, and wellness. This mindset has enabled him to accomplish feats unusual for those in his profession. Growing up from modest means, George is entirely self-made. He helped himself through college and medical school, and excelled in several prestigious residencies and fellowships. He became not only one of New Orleans most successful and renowned hand surgeons, but one of its most accomplished entrepreneurs and investors. He acquired a surgical hospital and an ambulatory clinic, becoming the CEO of each while still managing to practice medicine full-time. He also founded and owns the investment company, ERG Enterprises, which he grew from nothing to a value north of $1 billion; meanwhile, eclipsing a net worth of $500 million. He credits his success to a lifelong commitment of service — of learning about and helping others.

“For George, the hand not only teaches, it provides a gateway to a better life.”

“I’ve built relationships and discovered incredible opportunities,” George says. “The people I help in turn help me, whether by teaching me something I don’t know or introducing me to an opportunity I haven’t considered. It’s always been mutually beneficial that way.”

Now, more so than ever, George is advocating for others to follow his same philosophy. This year saw the release of his first book, We: Ditch the Me Mindset and Change the World, which tells of his unique approach to life and business, an approach steeped in human connection and service to others.

George signing a copy of his book at an event held in his honor in New Orleans.

“With every neuron in my body, I believe our world would become a better place if more of us thought this way,” he says. “It doesn’t take medicine or hand surgery for people to engage in this way of thinking. Sure, hand surgery taught me to see the value in it, but it’s not a necessary part of the equation.”

George points to examples ancillary or unrelated to medicine. Take one story of a janitor he helped after a series of late-night encounters at his clinic.

“We talked every night. It was after a week or two that he told me he wanted a better life for his family, his kids especially,” says George.

Unfortunately, the janitor had struggled to break out of his current line of work. His experience and education held him back.

“I said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’”

The next day, George thought about it, asked around, and soon approached the man during another after-hours encounter.

“I told him, ‘How about you start a business washing cars? I know a dozen physicians that would pay to have their car washed every week, especially if they didn’t have to deal with it. I know there are staff, patients, and visitors who would probably do the same,’” says George.

The janitor took his advice. George provided him the capital to get started, offered the advice of a seasoned entrepreneur, and within a few months the business flourished. The new owner hired more employees and expanded the business by offering shuttle services for Medicaid patients, driving them to and from their appointments. The new service came at the recommendation of George, who knew the government would pay for it.

George in the lobby of his ambulatory clinic, The Hand Center of Louisiana.

“By helping him, the little that I did, he in turn helped many. He created several good-paying jobs that didn’t exist before. He also started providing a service people found valuable and needed,” says George. “You’d be surprised at the value you can create just by helping people. All it takes is an open mind and an open ear. You find opportunities to benefit everyone, and they exist all around us.”

The story of the janitor serves as one instance in many where George has benefited a group or community of people through the power of “We.” Yet perhaps his greatest influence comes not from the daily occurrences of support, encouragement, or guidance he gives during face-to-face interactions. Perhaps his greatest contribution comes from the work of his investment company, ERG Enterprises.

“Medicine is fungible,” says George. “I can only see and treat one patient at a time. What excites me about ERG is that the business is scalable. The value that we create just by adding another team member to our business has the potential to impact tens or hundreds of thousands that call New Orleans or many other places home.”

“Our business has the potential to impact tens or hundreds of thousands that call New Orleans or many other places home.”

While ERG focuses many of its activities in New Orleans, the company maintains a global presence. It continues to make investments that align with its founder’s strongest principles. ERG regularly backs entrepreneurs who are solving some of today’s most impactful and important problems. A quick sampling of its portfolio reveals its investment philosophy. ERG supports an education technology company helping school districts modernize and improve student learning. It also funds a medical device maker committed to eradicating disease, enhancing immunizations, and eliminating infections. Other examples exist, equally important and equally diverse. Upon reviewing ERG’s activity, one also sees a pattern of heavy real estate and hospitality investment in New Orleans.

“Since after Hurricane Katrina, we’ve been focused on helping our city recover. The storm took so much away from our community. It’s been almost 15 years, and there’s still so much to be done.”

As early as 2009, George and his firm have invested in the acquisition and restoration of properties throughout the city, all representing iconic and historic structures that suffered varying degrees of damage from the hurricane. These monuments bring great historical and sentimental value to New Orleans, which for George, makes preservation more important. These investments reinforce the three “Ps” of his investment philosophy — profit, people, and planet.

“Of course, everything we invest in needs to make financial sense, otherwise we’d go out of business,” says George. “So, profit is a consideration. But we also want to create value for our people and our planet. Those are the qualities that we look for.”

By restoring existing architecture, George finds it creates more value for people by preserving their nostalgia and memories of the past, while also affording a home for new experiences. He can also validate that restoration leaves a smaller carbon footprint and is more sustainable than building an entirely new structure.

ERG has expanded its reach and its business. When George first founded the enterprise, it employed one person — himself. Today, it’s grown to a team of experts across many disciplines. The growth of his investment company has given him a reason to leave medicine, but after 26 years George doesn’t feel ready.

“Some days I question medicine. ‘Why am I still doing this?’ But then I’m always reminded. There’s nothing quite like helping someone heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. I like healing people. Plus, I feel indebted to my practice. Hand surgery brought me to the dance, I always say. It also keeps me connected with people on a level I would find difficult to replicate. As a hand surgeon, you see a high volume of patients. On any day in the clinic, I see 90, which is a lot more than I would if I didn’t practice.”

“‘There’s nothing quite like helping someone heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. I like healing people.'”

Still, George wishes he could devote more time to his work at ERG. “I love business and would like to spend more time on it,” he says. “There’s a lot of exciting work out there for us.”

He recognizes that his position affords him the opportunity to invest in the “We” mindset more than most people. But it’s a position he’s earned. Still, he recalls when he first began embracing this mindset, which occurred before medical school.

“I tell people all the time, ‘You don’t need anything to make a difference. You just need you. You have everything you need.’”

In other words, it doesn’t take an investment company or a doctorate in medicine to live by his philosophy or reap its benefits. Rather, as George will tell you, we can all embrace a mindset of “We” just by investing more time, energy, and attention in the people across from us.

And seeing what George has been able to accomplish through this frame of mind, one can’t help but wonder about the societal benefits if everyone bought into this mindset. What impact would this have nationally and globally? What would we accomplish? What problems would we solve?

It’s hopeful to consider, possibly naïve, yet nonetheless it remains inspiring and encouraging to think about.

“One can’t help but wonder about the societal benefits if everyone bought into this mindset.”

The next time you catch your attention solely focused on your concerns, try to see things differently. Push yourself to think beyond “Me” and consider “We.” As George confirms, you’ll be surprised not only in what you do for other people, but what you do for yourself. After all, “We” is the nature of our existence. The world is vast, and we are all just one neuron in an organism of many.

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