I would encourage those who are interested in mindfulness to start the habit of meditation. This does not require shaving your head or only eating only barley or anything extreme. It could simply start by taking one minute sitting upright in a chair and do nothing more than focus on your breathing.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jordan M. Spencer
Jordan is a Second-year Resident Physician in Internal Medicine and Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. Jordan enjoys studying not only how to heal disease but also how to better individuals mentally, physically and otherwise to both prevent future disease and allow them to live more abundant lives. He currently sits as the National Vice-Chair in the Residents and Fellows Council in the Assembly Osteopathic General Medical Educators
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Ohboy! There is a lot that could be said, but the very short version is as follows. I always knew I wanted to be a physician, I remember doing a dissection of a cow’s heart in 5th grade thinking that was the coolest thing ever. As my schooling moved along I found I enjoyed both the science (pharmacology, physiology) of medicine but also the art of medicine (establishing deep human connections). Residency in both Internal Medicine and Psychiatry gave me the opportunity to fully embrace both of these parts of being a physician. I look forward to what I will be able to do with this training in the future.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’m running a blank as to “most interesting” as well as struggling to not overshare, so I will decide to settle on the following. As a medical student, I was able to go to prison for the mentally ill. One patient demanded to be addressed as the King of ___ (some English county). He was so adamant about this that just two hours prior to my meeting he had cursed at and spit on his judge in court because he had not been addressed appropriately.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is a heated topic with tons of thoughts, opinions, and debate. The following are some of my thoughts but by no means do I claim to have the panacea of understanding on the matter.
I’m going to respond to two demographics using the construct of Daniel Pink’s (Drive) three-part framework for self-motivation for employees: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose.
First I speak to the students and trainees. Look at the three parts of the framework then decide what is within your locus of control and forget the rest (for now). Mastery is going to take years (that’s the whole point of the incredibly long process you are going through), and autonomy during school/training is a laughable concept. Therefore focus on developing your purpose which you can grow daily with mindfulness, creating your ideologic foundation that will act as your moral bedrock during the rest of your career. A strong purpose will allow you to move through the sacrifices and difficult times that are sure to come.
Next, the actual attending physician (especially the younger ones) should try to focus on autonomy. Hopefully, during their training they developed a strong sense of purpose (see the paragraph before) which acts as the gas propelling them forward. The idea of school and residency would have presumably given said doctor the knowledge or mastery in their field to practice appropriately. At this stage of the game, my thought is to focus on autonomy.
In large part I would argue one of your best methods to become autonomous is by having saved large amounts of income over the years leading to effective financial independence. Ie DON’T buy that fancy car you have been drooling over the day you get your first “big kid paycheck” delay your gratification just a little bit longer (Whitecoat investor blog would suggest 5 years). This money will act as a safety net which will embolden you to voice opinions and encourage policy that is more conducive to mental health and workflow without fear of reciprocity. As a worst-case scenario, you get fired and you simply are at a point financially you can decide “do I want to keep working or do I want to retire”. My guess is the vast majority of us would choose to continue to work however on our own terms, which is now something you can demand because again you can always walk away
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
My answer will actually reflect back on the prior question. Employers create incredibly incentivizing retirement plans, allowing your employees to become financially independent as soon as reasonably possible. Make the retirement policy an opt-out system with an impressive match policy as suggested in the book Nudge by Richard Thaler.
This will allow your employees to focus less on their next raise and per Pink’s argument more able to help make high level, creative, complex solutions to organizational problems. I can’t imagine a stronger force of employees than those who show up to work not because they have to (remember they have maxed out retirement plans and feel secure) but rather they want to, they are driven by a higher purpose and not simply the almighty dollar.
I would, in turn, encourage the development of a strong sense of purpose within the organization. Create a set of values or a virtue driven goal that everyone can rally around. History abounds with people who were willing to work and even die for an idea/purpose. Tap into universal truths (kindness, love, liberty, civility, basic human rights, healing) and build the company’s purpose around these truths, then challenge your employees not to die for these truths (little dramatic in my opinion) but rather to live for them.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Well, I would like to share twenty but I will resolve myself to share two.
Just prior to going to college my dad slipped me the book How to Win Friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie. Some day during my first semester I casually tossed open a page and began reading, and reading, and reading. A series of a thousand lightbulbs went off in my head as I learned the art of dealing with people. There were so many plain and precious commonsense principles, I would at times become giddy with excitement as I read it. I spent upwards of a year choosing a chapter a week and making a conscious effort to apply that given principle into my daily life with astounding results (sadly while I have read it a number of times since I have never done that process again).
The other would be Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. This book by random happenstance landed on my lap during a major turning point in my undergraduate years. It became my flagship, practical step by step equation to achieve goals and be successful. I could go for pages so I will suffice it to say that it is a book I have scoured time and time again.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Meditation/mindfulness: With many forcibly at home (This interview happening in March 2020 during COVID crisis) we now have a preponderance of opportunity to learn/practice mindfulness.
I would encourage those who are interested in mindfulness to start the habit of meditation. This does not require shaving your head or only eating only barley or anything extreme. It could simply start by taking one minute sitting upright in a chair and do nothing more than focus on your breathing. You may also consider waking up 30 min early to give yourself time to meditate outside of your normal routine (some argue 30 min of meditation equals about 1 hr of sleep so technically you may be “sleeping in”).
YouTube has a litany of free guided meditations and practitioners who explain techniques and give guidance. There are also multiple apps including headspace, 10% happier, insight timer (free), one giant mind (free), and many others that help teach you meditative/mindfulness practices. I will spare you the pages of research touting how good meditation is for your mind and body (also proven increased immunity! Ehh?), just know it is hard to find any aspect of your life that daily meditation will not be able to help in some form or fashion.
There are many who actually take multiple days off work to have meditation retreats where they meditate for multiple hours a day and completely disassociate themselves with the regular world. Huh! Is anyone feeling pretty much totally isolated (quarantined) from the rest of the world? Well, then you’re already halfway there.
- Exercise: This doesn’t mean becoming a marathon runner overnight. I tell my patients “The best exercise is the one you will do every day”. If that means chair yoga, great! If that means pulling out the old p90x great! If that means going for a daily walk (particularly realistic option for those with kids) great! A simple daily walk has been proven to decrease anxiety, increase lifespan, and increase overall wellbeing. I would say start easy, laughably easy, so easy it would almost be hard NOT to do whatever your original exercise of choice is. For example, doing one pose of chair yoga for 5 seconds every day. The key is doing it every day because soon enough you will get bored of that one pose and those 5 seconds, your time and intensity will organically grow out of your innate human desire to be better and do better and before you know it you will be a full-fledged Yogi. This is the principle of planting a “seed habit” as discussed in Charles Duhigg’s The power of habit. But watch out! Success in this field of life may just bleed over into success in other aspects of your life as well.
- Limit social media use: While some use of social media is fine, there are multiple studies that have noted a direct correlation with more social medical use and increased levels of depression/anxiety (ie. The more you use the more depressed and anxious you become). I’m comfortable in saying I believe in the future retrospective studies will say this principle was heightened during the COVID crisis.
- Don’t focus on the things you can’t control: It is totally appropriate to take note of things you cannot control and recognize their existence, even form an opinion on them. However, once you find yourself fixated or ruminating on the subject you have probably gone too far.
- Read books: Read any books, fiction, non-fiction, biography whatever. While not something one can always do a little escapism is a great pressure release valve when we are anxious. Go to a faraway land and get lost in the book, forget about your stressors for a time. Yes, they will still be there when you get back, but reading is a wonderfully productive way to escape even for a time.
For those whose stomach turns as the idea of reading try audiobooks, there are a few apps that allow you with a library card number to have access to thousands of books. Because of my schedule and having turned WAY more pages in school that I ever thought was possible I almost exclusively read via audiobook.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Use the above: First I would say take note of the five things mentioned above. Because if you are not taking care of yourself you will never really be able to care for others.
- Encourage someone to join you: In a non-confronting manner get people excited about joining you in your new adventures. Tell someone you need an exercise buddy (even if that means virtual competition via Fitbit), tell someone else you want to pick up meditation and would like a friend along for the journey. Get a friend or multiple friends to participate in reading a book together (virtual book club meetings). Getting people involved will not only help them use the above-mentioned skills but will keep you accountable as you build new habits and provides fodder for social contact.
- Use technology: There are many who just a few weeks ago would’ve said that we are incredibly disconnected from each other and are only using electronic devices to communicate, always glued to our phone and so forth. Well at this point time that’s all we can/ should be doing. Let’s use technology best we can. Stay in touch with friend’s/family. Talk with them and let them talk with you.
- Build something together (virtually): Write that book (finally) using google docs with your friend that you have been talking about doing for the last three years. Having a common goal helps you forget your circumstances and gives you something to look forward to.
- STOP posting everything that comes to mind on social media: Think about how it will affect those who will see it. Is it good vibes? I would encourage people to ask that question with every post and at minimum be sure the answer is yes 50%of the time. Can you vent? Sure that’s natural and healthy (to an extent) but don’t let it be everything you spew into the cybersphere.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
This is a tough one because there are so many and because people will all have different needs. I would say start with both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association websites for starters.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Theodore Roosevelt
This quote is part of my signature at the bottom of all my work emails. I feel it embodies the role of the physician. Yes, we go to great lengths to learn copious amounts of information in hopes that we can become bastions of knowledge. However if at the end of all that learning we are gruff, unpleasant, and essentially unable to make good human connections, I would argue it was all for naught.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
A cultural revolution of mindful, moderate living, with individuals creating new societal norms which eradicate the concept of the modern consumer (Think the Mr. Money Mustache blog without the expletives). Leading to a mindful society (Think the book 10% happier) that can comfortably and zealously contribute to increasing the world’s abundance. (Think the book Abundance).
Of note, I mentioned a number of websites and books. I have no financial connections to these or otherwise, I simply have the bad habit of reading.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
[email protected] (Literally made this e-mail for this interview)
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!