Life is Iterative or Why Hope Springs Eternal

I’ve always liked the word “iterative”. Perhaps it is because it captures the essence of what daily life is all about for me.  Its not a word I grew up hearing and I probably had to look up its meaning in the dictionary the first time I heard it as an adult.  In digging around looking for definitions more recently, I found that iterative comes from Latin and is the active verb of the noun iteration. To summarize, iterative means repeating a process to achieve a desired goal using prior information to improve the process. While often applied in scientific or mathematical processes, it is very applicable to almost any process in our lives.

The essence of this word that I believe captures human experience is two-fold. First is the idea of repetition and that much of what we do everyday lacks variation or change. The second is the idea that there is always a chance to do something better or improve. Let’s break these down.

If you think about a typical week, most of our existence is fairly repetitive. We wake up around the same time every morning, eat the same breakfast, get to work the same way, probably have a consistent work schedule week over week, go home the same way, etc… You get the point. Viewed in this way, our lives are dull. What we do, how we do it, when and where we do it, and the expected outcomes are consistent.

As a surgeon, I would argue that my life is more varied but I would be wrong. Pull the time scale back to the months or years range and the pattern becomes consistent. Sure there are blips that alter the pattern. Various life events such as births, special occasions, travel, natural (or unnatural) disaster, or illness disrupt the repetition but viewed through a broader time scale, they are small deviations in an overall stable pattern.

This on the surface seems like a depressing view of existence but there is value to the repetition. It provides all of us stability and for many processes, this stability creates consistent results. Think about the amount of energy you would need to expend if you had to figure out a new way to get to work every day or had to perform your typical work different each time. While some of us enjoy the chaos of constant change, this translates into a great deal of energy with unpredictable outcomes.  It would be exhausting if every action we performed had to be reinvented each time.  As a surgeon, I value consistency. If I had to come to the OR and use different types of instruments than I was used to each time to do the same surgery, it would be a struggle and would not be beneficial for patients.

This repetition also creates reliability. My kids need to be picked up from school at a certain time, taken to their activities and lessons after, and have time for homework, dinner and get to bed at a certain time. If chaos reined over repetition, this would create stress and anxiety for all involved.  As creatures of habit, the reliability of repetition buffers us from the whims of change.

But life is not all about repetition without change and this is why I believe the word iterative captures life so well. If instead of zooming out on our time scale to see the stable pattern, we zoomed in to the seconds, minutes, and hours of our daily lives, we could then see the rich variation that allows us to to improve upon the repetition. This is at the heart of what makes life interesting- the almost countless unconscious and conscious decisions we make every day that slightly change the trajectory of our lives.

I’ll give you an example. When we moved to Ann Arbor, we enrolled the kids in “Learn to Skate” when they were old enough. It seemed like the thing to do. It’s too cold to do anything outside for months on end but we needed some type of winter sport for them to burn their almost inexhaustible energy. All three of my kids now figure skate and about 6 years ago, my wife joined them on the ice and has been progressing in skill through the adult programs and competitions. A little over a year ago, my family asked me to be in the Holiday Show with them at the rink. I never really skated before and did it mainly to be a good sport.  I like performing and I thought it would be fun to do something with the entire family.

This required me to buy some skates and take a few lessons with their coach. Most people look at figure skating like dancing- pretty people in costumes gliding across the ice. After my first lesson, I learned that the physical requirements were high- strength, balance, and attention to detail distinguished the people who looked like they were exerting almost no effort on the ice from those who were not as good.

Despite my initial reservations, I have continued to skate.  I spend enough time at the ice rink picking up and dropping kids off that it made sense to do something productive while I was there.   I do a weekly learn to skate class, take a half hour lesson, and practice on my own. While there is a great deal of repetition, what I find fulfilling about learning to figure skate is that just because you are capable of performing a certain move, there are always small adjustments in posture, blade position, balance, etc… that you can make to be better. In fact, the process of learning to skate is iterative to an extreme because as you progress, it uncovers weaknesses in the more fundamental skills that you have to go back and improve.

Of course, this is true of most sports or technical activities. As a surgeon, while I may perform the same 8-10 operations on a regular basis, I am constantly trying to be better and to help those I work with and train be better. This comes from iteration in the small details. I once worked with a surgeon in my training who seemed to re-invent each surgery every time. It would drive me crazy because there was no repetition to create the stability and consistent outcomes that surgeons and patients expect. To me, improvement in a iterative life means paying attention to the small details and learning what does and does not work from previous effort. While major changes are sometimes required in surgery as new technology or techniques allow us to make quantum leaps forward, it is the learning and attention paid to the small details that cumulatively add up to improvement most of the time. This is true for a surgeon as much as it is for a lawyer, electrician, or manager. Our lives may have a certain repetition when viewed on a broad scale but the richness of our existence comes from the small decisions and changes we make every day to try and be a little better at what we do or to be a better person.

Sometimes our decisions do lead us down the wrong path. We all make bad decisions, big and small. When we recognize them, it is sometimes possible to correct course. Some of us fail to recognize that our small choices lead us to bad places or negative outcomes. Even worse is when we fail to recognize the negative consequences of bigger decisions. Ultimately, our decisions catch up with us and the normal human response is regret. It may seem like there is no way back from the dark place we have lead ourself to.

But if we accept that life is iterative, we can all learn from bad decisions and outcomes and make conscious decisions to change. Like most of us, I have experienced regret in my life. As a doctor, we all experience bad outcomes. The advice from more experienced surgeons is to learn and be better for our next patient. But this does not take away the pain and suffering that our decisions may have caused. To me what has helped when my patients have experienced less than ideal outcomes is to make the choice to remain present, to engage. Sometimes there are no actions that can reverse what has happened but just being there to listen, to bring in others who can help, and share the burden with the patient and family provide a path forward instead of merely filing the lesson learned and moving on. I’m not advocating to be weighed down and dwell on every bad decision or outcome, but only looking forward prevents me and the other people involved from truly learning and healing.

In my personal life, I also live with regret- things I should have said or done or failures to deliver on things I promised. These are painful and I carry around many of these failures as a constant reminder of where I have not been the person I wanted to be. I know it sounds cliche, but there is almost always the opportunity to change, to do or be better. This does not come from grand gestures but the small actions and decisions that are part of an iterative life. It may come from simply apologizing to the person we let down or making a conscious decision to change the way we behave. But it also comes from being willing to forgive ourselves. Moving on may allow us to bury our mistakes but it doesn’t allow us to heal. Making the effort to make amends when we can and to forgive ourselves for these mistakes allows us to both incorporate the lessons learned into future actions and move forward.

I subtitled this Post as “Hope Springs Eternal”. No one else I know uses this expression so I have no idea where I picked it up from. It comes originally from Alexander Pope’s 1734 “Essay on Man”. To, me this phrase captures the driving point of this post. In our daily lives, I believe we have free will and the ability to make choices and decisions that impact our trajectory. I know circumstances are stacked against many people in this world but we do have the ability to choose how we behave or act in the moment. Most of these choices amount to nothing but some have an impact on us and those around us. These outcomes may be good or bad but we have the ability to learn from them and try to be better the next day or time. Nothing should be so hopeless that we can’t make a choice to try and turn things around. While much of our existence may seem repetitive, hope does spring eternal in the small choices and decisions we constantly make. It is by these small actions that we can make our own lives and those around us just a little bit better.

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