Dr. Michael J. Collins: “I wish someone had told me to focus more on the positive rather than the negative”

I wish someone had told me to focus more on the positive rather than the negative. I spent much of my professional career focusing inordinate attention on the minority of patients who didn’t do well and spent relatively little time feeling good about the majority of patients who did great. As part of my series about […]

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I wish someone had told me to focus more on the positive rather than the negative. I spent much of my professional career focusing inordinate attention on the minority of patients who didn’t do well and spent relatively little time feeling good about the majority of patients who did great.


As part of my series about healthcare leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Michael J. Collins.

Dr. Michael J. Collins spent several years working as a construction laborer, truck driver, cab driver and dockworker, trying to get into medical school. After completing his residency at the Mayo Clinic, where he served as Chief Resident in Orthopedic Surgery, Dr. Collins and his wife moved back home to Chicago where they, and most of their now-grown twelve children, still live. He has lectured extensively on topics relating to medicine and writing. In writing this book, he hopes to raise awareness of the difficulty doctors face in learning to care — without caring too much. The very qualities — compassion, sensitivity, dedication — that often lead young people to a career in medicine, often make it difficult for them to reconcile their ideals with the cold, hard reality of morbidity and mortality: conditions no amount of caring can ever change.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! What is your “backstory”?

Like my father, grandfather and great grandfather, my seven brothers and I were born on the West Side of Chicago. I worked my way through college shoveling furnaces at South Bend Foundry during the school year and driving trucks in the summer. Following graduation from the University of Notre Dame, where I was a less-than-stellar member of the hockey team, I spent several years trying to figure out things I should have figured out years before. I worked as a truck driver, cab driver, construction laborer, dockworker and even did a little freelance journalism for the Irish Press in Dublin.

I was a 24-year-old, uninspired construction laborer when a coworker asked me how much longer I was going to continue to piss away my life. That rude awakening made me reexamine my priorities, return to school, and pursue a career in medicine. After completing residency, where I served as Chief Resident in Orthopedic Surgery, my wife, Patti, and I moved back home to Chicago. We have lived in the same house for over thirty years, raising twelve wonderful kids.

Can you share the interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was a third-year orthopedic resident at the Mayo Clinic and was at a low point in my career. I was overworked, overstressed and in danger of becoming the kind of doctor I never wanted to become. This was a pivotal moment for me because I had been failing to see the big picture. I had been developing into an adept technician, learning to repair tendons and reduce bones, but I had forgotten what brought me to medicine in the first place. It wasn’t reducing fractures and replacing hips. Those were the means, and I had let them become the ends. People need to know that someone cares.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The words “funny” and “mistake” don’t often go together in a surgeon’s world. If a mistake is made, it usually isn’t funny. When I made a mistake it ate at me for a long time.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I am working on a new novel. Like all my books, it is doctor oriented. I don’t like to talk too much about works in progress since they need to evolve. I don’t want to strait-jacket myself or my creativity by deciding too early exactly where I’m headed and how I will get there, but in general terms I’m working on another book about a doctor who struggles with what it means to be a doctor and what obligations that entails.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was 2 or 3 years out of college and unsure where I was headed in life. Jesse, one of the guys with whom I worked, took it upon himself to give me the kick in the butt I so badly needed. I was working for a construction company on a “breakout gang” where my job was to lift 50 or 75 or 100-pound chunks of rock and throw them on the back of a truck. Here is an excerpt from my second book, Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs about the event:

It’s not that I suddenly don’t like being a rock thrower. I do — and that’s the problem. It’s not exactly prestigious, but that’s not what’s bothering me. Anyone who wants to look down on me because I work with my hands can go take a flying leap for himself. But I’m beginning to feel that something is missing. I’m heading nowhere. All I do is throw rocks, shoot pool and drink beer. My life isn’t evil or slothful, it just lacks direction.

Sometimes I think it would be easier if I had one of those miserable Irish Catholic childhoods people talk about. It would be easier to want things to change, to dream of something better. But to me a miserable Irish Catholic childhood is an oxymoron. For twenty-four years I’ve had a pretty nice life — and it’s hard to admit that it’s coming to an end. But I’m starting to realize that I can’t be a child forever, that I don’t want to be a child forever. I’ve had my turn, and now it’s time to grow up. It’s time to start asking myself the question my friends must have asked themselves years ago: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

My friends are now in law school, working for accounting firms or getting started in the Secret Service and the FBI. I’m throwing rocks on a breakout gang for the Vittorio Scalese Construction Company; and, as Jesse says, I’m goin’ down.

So what, then? I want to do more than just make money, more than just live for myself. It sounds corny, but I want to do something important, something noble. I want to make a mark on the world.

I don’t know where I get the idea of being a doctor. No one in my family has ever been a doctor. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. No other profession offers such opportunity for altruism and compassion. If I truly want to help other people, I may have found what I’m looking for.

Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?

It’s the things we see and do when we are young that are likely to make the biggest impressions on us. I was a voracious reader as a kid: things like the Landmark Books, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, but the books that probably had the biggest impression on me were sports books by authors like Clair Bee, John Tunis and Joe Archibald, books designed to inspire young boys with stories of guys who worked hard and always tried to do the right thing.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Thank you for the implication that I have brought goodness to the world. I certainly have tried. I am the oldest of eight boys and was (and still am) conscious of my responsibility to set a good example for them. Likewise with my children. They are my legacy and I believe the world will be a better place because they are in it. I wish I had done more with my career as a doctor. I did my best to help those who came to me but have always regretted that I never went on a mission trip or something of the sort.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Like a lot of people, my favorite life lesson quotes came from my father. I suppose the one that had the most impact on me was his advice on the three things I needed to do if I wanted to be happy. “First,” he said, “find God. Second, find your spouse. Third, find your job.” Looking back, it was pretty good advice.

Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?

I don’t know that orienting your life around things that will help you “feel great” is such a good idea. I want to feel great, and I want you to feel great, but I don’t think feeling great can be achieved if you place it as a primary goal. One ought to feel great because of things he or she has done. So the lifestyle tweak I would suggest is to be a good person. Focus on your responsibilities. If you do that everything else will fall into place.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

First, I wish someone had told me to focus more on the positive rather than the negative. I spent much of my professional career focusing inordinate attention on the minority of patients who didn’t do well and spent relatively little time feeling good about the majority of patients who did great.

Second, I wish someone had told me to think more about what I am doing. Orthopedic surgery is not just about fixing torn rotator cuffs and replacing knees. Look at the big picture.

Third, I wish I had known how difficult it would be to have a busy career and still be a good father.

Fourth, I wish someone had told me to use my time wisely. There is precious little of it left after work and family. I wish I had spent more time with my friends.

Fifth, I wish I had known not just how important my job was and how necessary it was but also how much fun it would be.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The vacuum in most people’s lives now seems to be spiritual. I don’t know how to help people in that regard, but I wish I did.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I suppose it would be Barack Obama. I voted for him but felt he never really accomplished all he could and should have. Somewhere, somehow he got distracted, derailed. Too much Hollywood and glitter maybe. Anyway, I believe he remains fundamentally a solid person who has a unique opportunity to lead and inspire. His ass needs kicking, not kissing, if he is ever going to get back on the right track. I’d like to help him realize his work is not yet done.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Michaeljcollinsmd.com is my website. I also tweet a fair amount: @MJCollinsMD

Thank you so much for these wonderful insights!

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