Splendor in the Grass: Lawn Lessons
-Louis B. Cady, M.D. Shrink-Rapped Column # 11 – August, 2001
As I became aware of the thumping of my heart within my chest, I knew it was fast. I was sweating heavily, and I was flushed. Checking my pulse, I quickly determined that it was racing along at 190 beats per minute – but I knew I was fine, still.
Having the ability to “detach emotionally” is sometimes advantageous for physicians, and my past training had certainly prepared me for this. I considered my pulse and wondered about such things as “total cardiac output” and “VO2 max” which I might be using. I reflected back on my previous treadmill exercise test which had been done, at my request and instigation, after I passed the “big 4 – 0.” I remembered the relaxed way my physician friend and his treadmill assistant had told me they were going to put me on the “maximum Bruce” protocol because of my aerobic training – just to make it interesting. And I remembered the “beep-beep-beep” of the EKG as he slowly ran me up to considerably over my theoretical maximum exercise rate – all the way to 190.
“Say, isn’t that a PVC?” I had asked him, watching the monitor as I puffed along. (For those of you who are not budding cardiologists, just realize that PVC is not a piece of synthetic plumbing pipe, but a “premature ventricular contraction” – a sign that the heart is being asked to do something it’s not too happy about.)
“Yep,” he said, “but you’re doing fine. I just want to max you out and get you a definitive result.”
Well, my result was fine – a clean bill of health, clean cardiac plumbing, a great ticker – all the good things that everybody, including physicians, want to hear about their heart.
And, in truth, standing there on a hot summer morning in my yard, I wasn’t about to keel over from an M.I. I was standing behind my lawn mower on that particularly bright, sunny July morning. And not just any kind of lawn mower. Not one of those yuppie ride-on types. Not even a gasoline job. No, this was your basic, push it yourself, rotary, totally manual blade job – one that I had recently acquired to cut a small swatch of grass in my backyard and one for which, I had recently found, I had developed an inordinate fondness in terms of deploying it in my front yard on Saturday mornings for meticulous grooming duties. With all due humility, I felt that in my quest for “stacking” and ultimate use of my time I had come up with the ultimate and elegant synthesis of my desire for a good lawn and physical conditioning: “aerobic lawn cutting.”
This innovative method had actually worked out well. On this particular morning, however, I realized that I was about at my limit. I had been pushing the contraption UP a hill, several times, and through some fairly tall grass. It had therefore taken a bit more out of me than usual. As I leaned there against the handle and caught my breath, I began to consider if there were some lessons to be learned here.
Since you’re reading about this in my column, you obviously know that the answer was, “YES!” And that one incident, and reflections on our finite human physical limitations, led me to an epiphanous compendium of deductive inferences, or, to put it in Hoosier speak: “I had some really GOOD ideas.”
Steven Covey had his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” In place of that, I hereby modestly propose my own list: “The Doc Cady Seven Habits of Highly Effective Lawn Cutters.”
Habit Number 1: “Heart attacks typically prevent you from finishing the lawn.” On that July morning, I was grateful that I was in excellent shape, kept aerobically and physically trained, and was in no particular danger. [Note to the reader: a heart rate of 190 beats per minute is still quite high and potentially dangerous, perhaps even potentially fatal in terms of bringing out a cardiac arrhythmia (“heart rhythm disturbance”), if the person is out of shape or has an underlying cardiac problem. Most forty-somethings should not be exceeding 150 – 160 beats per minute unless they are VERY fit and trained. If in doubt, see your physician NOW!]
The issue here is that pushing yourself beyond reasonable limits is an error in judgment which could be costly. The presumptively “highly effective lawn cutter” might not get to finish his lawn if pushed past his or her limits; but the hard charging male or female executive, chain smoker, boozer, skirt chaser/pants chaser can also come to grief, either by pushing him/herself beyond the point of physical endurance or beyond chemical (or societal) tolerance. People who are out of shape, have “dun-laps”, and choke off and gasp for breath while they are sleeping because of their obstructive sleep apnea are classic examples of those pushing their bodies past normal physiological limits. The take home message: exceeding rational limits on human behavior can not only be dangerous to your career, but dangerous to your health, as well. Your yard won’t get finished – and neither will your career.
Habit Number 2: Cutting your grass twice is probably about right, but once probably isn’t. (And if you do it three times – you’re obsessive. Trust me; I’m a psychiatrist. I “know” obsessive when I see it!) Here’s what I noticed: with one pass of a manual lawn mower, some of the grass is still left standing. The quintessential manual trimmer, therefore, studiously goes back and reapplies the blade – typically and optimally, from a different direction. After dutifully employing my aerobic lawn-exercising equipment in this fashion, I occasionally note that there are a few wisps of grass – or weeds – still sticking up. The question is: go back and do it AGAIN – or….. quit? When, in essence, is enough, “enough!”
The notion of “when to quit” is always worth considering. In essence, it reminds me of the concepts of “limits” I learned in calculus from Dr. John Mohat, Ph.D., a courtly southern gentleman with a full head of white hair and the most beautifully organized mind and understated manner I’ve ever come across. A “limit” is seen on a graph where a curve is going up, and up, and up… coming closer and closer and closer and closer…. but it will never touch that line that you’ve drawn. The line is the “limit.”
In life, like in lawns, there is a “limit” to perfection. If I were to go over my yard fifty times, there would still be a blade of grass that managed to elude me. When should managers keep their mouths shut and simply compliment their sales people for a job well done? Sure – they can see something which wasn’t quite right…. but is correcting the salesperson for something very minor like that, instead of focusing on the fact that “they cut the lawn and it looks nice,” possibly demoralizing and counter-productive?
If you’re a surgeon, when do you say, “I’ve put enough stitches in this colon reanastomosis?” I actually saw this question addressed, scrubbed in as a medical student in surgery at the University of Texas Medical Branch. The mature senior surgical resident asked this question out loud while looking at his handiwork. He tested the joining of the two pieces of colon. They were firm and tight. No leakage was seen. He then quoted an even more mature attending physician: “The best is always the enemy of the good” – which was certainly a novel turn of the phrase. He went on: “The longer I have this woman’s belly open, the more chance she will have to get an infection. This is good enough. I’m closing.” Knowing when to “close” is critically important – in sales, in medicine, and, truly, in life.
Habit Number 3: It has generally been my experience that “it’s easier to cut going down hills than going up hills.” This is not only true in lawn cutting with a manual push-mower, but also true in life. Frequently, we get to CHOOSE how we are going to tackle problems. We can do it the stupid way or we can do it the smart way. The really astute reader will take note of the relationship between this and where we started. Doing it stupidly, and excessively, could get you killed. Because there are “limits” to how hard you can work, and how much force you can bring.
It’s easier to write from an outline. It’s easier to sell if you’ve mastered the basic script. It’s easier to do a creative hairstyle – via “free forming” (as my speaking colleague Patricia Fripp sometimes comments) after you cut the basic design and have mastered the basics. It’s easier to manage people if you’ve had some training in relating well, and empathically, if possible, to your supervisees. It’s easier to tune a car engine if you’ve got the right equipment.
For everything, there is an easy way and a hard way – and in some cases, this can amount to a “smart way” and a “stupid way.” My advice: figure out which way is smart and easy, then, like Nike says, “Just do it.”
Habit Number 4: “Increased work yields increased capacity.” This is something I’ve noticed as my “aerobic lawn cutting” efforts have proceeded over the summer. I was in excellent shape to start with. But, strangely enough, and just doing it about once a week, the more you do, the more you can do! This was particularly evident during the last weekend in July when I had less than an hour to cut the entire yard before rain hit. I got it done in record time, and my pulse rarely got significantly elevated.
The flip side is, “If you never start, or if you never try, you’ll never get better, and your capacities will never improve.” In everything I’ve done in my life – chess, piano performance, photography, medicine, psychiatry, public speaking, writing – I’ve always found that the more I do, the more I can do. It’s a generalizable principle. Make it work for you!
Habit Number 5 (a corollary to Habit Number 4): “Increased capacity yields decreased time required.” All things being equal, the more capacity you have, the more you can get done in less time. If you’ve got the same amount of work to do, you can get it done FASTER. In medical school and residency training, this was made abundantly clear. Many’s the time I recall doing an exhaustive 2 hour neurological workup on some “intriguing, unclear” neuro problem at Mayo Clinic that an unlucky patient had come down with. I was all set to deliver my definitive exegesis the next morning to the staff neurology Mayo Consultant when they walked into the room, basically ignored me, glanced at the patient, asked roughly three questions, vibrated a tuning fork on the patient’s head, wiggled a finger in front of the eyes, tapped on the reflexes, pulled on the muscles, tickled him with cotton, poked with a sterile straight pin, and then turned to the residents and said, knowingly, “well, of course it’s the XYZ syndrome.” Their “history and physical” had taken all of about two minutes. What capacity! But that’s the way it works. More effort equals more capacity. More capacity equals better time efficiency. Better time efficiency, if deployed throughout your life, can give you a remarkably better quality of life.
One way to improved your capacity and decrease your time is to take some classes: those in speed reading and public speaking are two that I would recommend, particularly if in your job you have to go through a lot of data and occasionally present it.
Habit Number 6: “It’s easier to cut with a sharp blade than a dull blade.” Now, I have to confess. So far, my push mower hasn’t made it to the blade-sharpening shop. I haven’t needed to yet, and, to be sure, because my “capacity” has grown during the summer, my physical muscles have overpowered the need to sharpen the blades. But one of these days, the blades will get to the point that their dullness will overpower my “increased capacity.”
So too, with our lives and our work. Covey tells a great story about two dueling lumberjacks in his book for his “habit number 7” which he calls, “sharpen the saw.” It doesn’t matter if it’s your saw, your lawn mower blade, your ability to speak in public, or testify in court so that a judge and jury don’t believe you’re a liar, or flip tidily winks, or knit baskets, or speed read, or play a sport. Getting coaching and “sharpening” your skills pay big dividends.
Habit Number 7: “A short cut means the weeds won’t be seen.” Now I have another confession. There are weeds in my grass. Why? Because (a) I haven’t grubbed around and pulled’em up, (b) I’ve been chicken to blast’em with some noxious chemical which I’m afraid would take out a swath of nice, healthy grass around my weeds, (c) I’m embarrassed to go to the lawn and garden store and ask for some “weed killer for weeds that look kinda like this… it’s about five or six inches, it kind of looks like St. Augustine grass gone wild… but I’m not really sure what it is….” In other words, I don’t want to sound like an idiot. (d) I haven’t had the time!
But what I HAVE had the time to do is cut those suckers down. I mean, OBLITERATE them. Once my trusty aerobic lawn push mower and I go over them two or three or four times (I reserve excess effort for really obnoxious weeds) those little suckers are down for the count – at least for the next week or so.
So too, in life. Most of us have a few weeds. I remember many “weeds” of ignorance as I went through medical school. I – and, indeed, all of my medical student colleagues – was terrified about getting grilled on morning rounds about something that we just hadn’t had the chance to learn yet. Showing up, well groomed, with a confident attitude, and LOOKING like we knew what we would talk about if we got called on was of inestimable importance, I quickly learned.
People driving by my yard won’t see my weeds. (I know, I’ve checked it from the street!) They would see them if I didn’t mow’em down with the grass. Mowing your grass – and your weeds – down takes effort, diligence, and discipline. Eventually you and I will probably have the time to kill the little pests off. In the meantime, some judicious trimming – and making the rest of the lawns of our lives look well taken care of – can pay big dividends.
So, there you have it. Splendor in the grass….. seven secrets of highly effective lawn-cutters – and seven secrets to help you and me, both, over the next month.
© 2001 – Louis B. Cady, M.D. All rights reserved.