December 2021/January 2022
Welcome to the December/January issue of WonderWell, a newsletter intended to gather the most groundbreaking research and insightful commentaries in evidence-based medicine, wellness, healthcare leadership, writing, and innovation to help you live and work in alignment with your purpose and well-being.
This edition is a bit different from the previous one (and it’s a long one, so brace yourself!), because it’s focused on ONE big topic, which is: what do we ‘attend’ (pay attention) to? I’ve written briefly about this before, after reading a book I often recommend: Attending by Ronald Epstein.
While I was in London for 6 weeks recently, for personal and professional reasons, I met a lot of fascinating people (maybe there was something in the air…besides the obvious SARS-CoV-2?), but one person, whom I’ll dub for dispositional reasons “Mr Darcy“, stood out for one reason: he paid attention to to the *right* things.
Mr Darcy is unique for many reasons: an academic surgeon but someone who grew up with a strong literary background, being diasporic but born in the UK, and having several unusual obsessions outside of work, all of which has allowed his mind to adapt and see connections between disparate things and experience the world differently. This same tendency has undoubtedly also led him to pursue the right questions in his research (think: senior authorship on several Nature papers, even though he’s technically an early career physician and researcher) and numerous professional opportunities.
Mr Darcy also happens to be an excellent cook, namely because he’s a bit of an obsessive. Once he made squid ink breadsticks (with a complicated dip recipe) for a party we attended, because at some point he realized regular breadsticks were not good enough. The extra few minutes to add squid ink paid off for the guests, mostly in ‘awe’ and joy, and even though the dish itself was tasty — that tiny tweak moved it from good to “extraordinary.”
But all of these things aside, Mr Darcy also left an impression on me personally because he paid attention to the *right* things. To be sure, it wasn’t an *excess* of attention — but an investment and calibration towards the things that matter.
It’s quite easy, when we think about it, to give anyone or anything a *lot* of generic attention: spend more money to impress someone, spend more time on one thing (this grit/slogging isn’t always ideal) or person to show ‘effort’ or ‘commitment.’ But the impact tends to be low, over time especially, if that’s the only dimension we focus on. Investing in the correct things, things that lead to the biggest payoff, is often a better, or at least complementary, strategy.
This idea led me to think about how often I pay a *lot* of attention, when I should really be spending the *right* type of specific attention. One big area is cooking.
I’m a relatively good cook: I’ve been cooking for many years. Overall, when I cook for loved ones, they enjoy the meal. But am I a great cook? Definitely not, if we define ‘great’ as ‘exceptional’ or ‘extraordinary’ — I can’t recall one time when a loved one brought up a meal I’ve made as specifically memorable, which is a good marker for ‘extraordinary.’ We know this because we often remember the moments that stand out as well above average — specific meals at restaurants are a big one.
So, for 2 weeks, mid November to December 1st, effectively just as I returned from London, I challenged myself to apply the principle of ‘paying the right attention,’ towards becoming closer to ‘extraordinary’ with cooking. My goal wasn’t to cosplay as a professional chef, in as much as a layperson can’t just put a white coat on and be a doctor, but I wanted to refine my thinking and approach enough to get closer to ‘extraordinary’ — to change up my ‘process’, and iterate to lead to a better outcome and experience.
I decided to experiment with a new dinner dish, or refine one I’d made before, daily, as this seemed the most efficient way to establish a habit, and enter into a learning curve where I could build upon skills each day (so total immersion!).
Instead of focusing solely on one sense (taste), I wanted to explore the other senses as well: aroma (the feeling that hits you just before you take a bite, or when a plate arrives), visual (how are things plated/the art element to the presentation), sound and texture (how do elements pair together and ‘sound’ e.g. a crunch). Flavor/taste was also important, but I wanted to dive into pairing things that we don’t typically see together, or explore ingredients I haven’t used before.
The way I cook is probably how I approach many things, including my writing: I begin with an idea, and build around it. With cooking, I’ve always followed the taste principle of balancing at least four of: sweet/sour/bitter/salt/fat in some way. If I wanted to make one element the center — a cut of fish or meat, tofu, grain, or vegetable — I’d begin there, and then see how the other puzzle pieces fit together, according to the framework of flavor, visual, texture, etc. What worked best was creating a list of several potential dishes, and moving elements around over time.
The biggest gap was around technique: where I asked myself ‘if my goal is X, what cooking technique would be best?’ And in those instances, a quick google search or Youtube video sufficed to fill in that gap. This is all to say that I didn’t follow any preset recipes for most dishes (Dishoom’s black dal being one big exception!), and don’t tend to write out my recipes, because I simply don’t see cooking as prescriptive: and reversing my exact steps seemed cumbersome.
Adventure was also key: having ‘beginners mind‘ conversations with people at niche grocery stores and asking for advice or ingredient recommendations, for instance.
Part of intentionally gaining any new skill is accepting that failure and risk are part of it. As such, I set an ‘error rate’ of 10%, meaning that if 10% of my dishes ended up inedible, I’d be ok with it. Setting this meant I was free to explore weird combinations, or plate things without the expectation of perfection.
I also wanted to ensure that, unlike when I typically cook, I wouldn’t multitask. This meant that music was fine, but no podcasts/audiobooks or phone calls — I wanted to cultivate a flow state and focus my attention to each step of the ‘cooking experiment.’ It thus became a form of ‘mindfulness’ in action, and allowed for ‘deep work.’
Last: I wanted to set a few boundaries — namely time (the daily experiments had an end date so I wouldn’t totally fall into a rabbit hole but could also spend the time cultivating this new skill; also that most dishes should take about an hour, even if prep involved a few minutes overnight) and ‘gadgets‘: often when we get excited about a new hobby we can be impulsive with getting all the gear, even before we know whether we actually need it. I did change my mind on a sous vide machine: I settled on a basic one that saved a lot of time and effort after I understood the manual investment (because I made the manual investment for one dish!), and because my perspective changed on Black Friday! But I didn’t purchase a blowtorch (which would have allowed me to cook pieces of fish directly on a plate).
Overall, the process was enjoyable, and a fun self-directed learning activity that allowed me to follow my curiosity, take risks, and improve in a tangible way. Now I’m inspired to offer this skill to loved ones as a way to change up the typical ‘ordering takeout’ or cooking something basic. Cooking for someone is, indeed, an under-appreciated love language and expression of care — why not make it extraordinary then?
It also made me realize that, when we often discuss ‘wellness’ strategies and approaches, we focus heavily on things like nutrition, sleep, connection, mindfulness (all things I’ve written about, are described on my website) but we pay less attention to the human need to explore and discover, and the unique benefit it poses to well-being that most other ‘self improvement’/wellness/self-help things don’t. For instance: when is the last time you took a ‘field trip’ to learn about something (eg an industry) that you’ve been curious about, without a professional payoff (eg as part of a job)? And why are adult field trips not more common?
So, as a small step up from Instagram, I’ve added a tab to my website as a nudge to inspire us all to do more curiosity-led experiments in the future, even if it isn’t daily (or even weekly), as part of our wellness. Why ‘peaceful pescetarian’? That was a [now defunct] food blog I had several years ago to document seafood-y things I ate (and a few things I made). Needless to say it didn’t last, but I love the name (though if I could rename it, it would be ‘the peaceful pescetarian and the vegetarian hedonist’ 🙂 ).
We’re nearing the end of this rather long, hopefully not *too rambling*, letter but my hope is to inspire you to consider adding something to your wellness repertoire this holiday season, that perhaps you might carry forward into 2022, that goes beyond what we typically associated with ‘wellness;’ something that challenges you to learn something/get better at something you’ve perhaps been curious about for a long while; something that doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to your professional goals, but has the potential to expand your sense of joy and well-being. Part of this may involve exploring where you might have been paying *excess* attention, and where instead, you might get a better outcome from paying the *right* attention instead. Consider it an experiment that provides meaningful data to help you make better decisions, and re-evaluate how/where/when you spend your energy and time.
In other words, we can all benefit from Mr Darcy’s insight, especially as our well-being may be further challenged this winter due to the new variant: a reminder that we’re in a pandemic marathon, one that’s approaching almost two years, where it might be helpful to expand our toolbox of things that keep us calibrated towards more joy, peace, and wonder during these uncertain and troubling times. And if you *do* try something new, shoot me an email or tweet it to me!
Have a healthy, joyful, and safe Holiday season,
Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D., M.H.S.
ps and on an unrelated note, I’m re-sharing the link to a very worthwhile fund to consider during this season of ‘giving’. I’ll have more to say in the next newsletter.