Yesterday I spent an hour with the elders in our Assisted Living residence. I do a program with them that I call “Book Bites” and I read an article, memoir or short essay and we have a conversation about it. The essay I read this week was from a 2011 issue of New Yorker magazine and it was written by one of my personal heroes, Atul Gawande, MD. Dr. Gawande is the author of the book “Being Mortal,” a work that really asks the questions that must be asked about the aging process and about how we deal with older adults and their choices. This article predates his book and is on an entirely different topic, the topic of coaching.
Dr. Gawande writes about his years as a surgeon, the way he monitored his improvement in skill and ability by tracking statistics against national averages, looking at complication rates and watching his own numbers come down. Until they stopped coming down and leveled off causing him to ask, essentially, whether there was something he was missing, something he didn’t know and that perhaps someone else could help him to see.
He began to explore the topic of coaching, looking at coaches who work with athletes and musicians, exploring the role and value that a coach can have. He spent a fair amount of time observing a project that teaches coaching techniques to teachers, helping them not just to impart information but to really build the strengths of each student.
The punch line of the essay is Gawande’s decision to ask a former mentor to observe him in surgery and provide some coaching. The surgery is performed and Dr. Gawande thinks he has done it perfectly. His mentor, now coach, on the other hand, had made a number of observations and notes, many of which were small things yet things that made a difference. Over the course of time, the coaching continued and Dr. Gawande felt that he gained a great deal in his practice and skills.
The essay sparked a lot of conversation among our elders. We have a few retired teachers who quickly understood and embraced the concept that coaching is not teaching and teaching is not coaching. One of them shared a story of being coached by a new principal in the school that she worked. She remembered with great clarity that it was her seventh year of teaching and that the coaching changed the way she worked with her students from then on. And she proudly recounted that many of her students still are in touch with her, so many decades later. Another elder shared that she’d been a championship golfer and that her coach taught her so much more than technique. In fact, she would watch him work with other golfers just to learn from him and he continued to coach her even when he could no longer play golf. His impact touched her life for many years and continues to the present day.
But my favorite moment came as the program drew to an end. One of our elders is a retired rabbi and he waited to speak to me while the room emptied. When our moment came he told me that this essay had really provided him with a realization he’d never had. For many years he worked with rabbinical students and for years after their time with his congregation, they stayed connected with him. In fact, he said, he only lost touch with many of them when he retired. “I didn’t realize the role I was playing,” he said, “I didn’t realize that I was their coach but I was.” He smiled as he said, “And I also realize that some of them coached me as well.”
As I thought about his comment, and the clear pride he felt in recognizing this role, I could not help but think about the coaching role that elders can continue to play. Coaching is not doing, it is observing and sharing and using the benefits of experience to help others grow. Here’s a natural resource we could use more effectively, a resource that is not just available but, in many cases, eager to contribute, eager to have a sense of purpose.