Dealing With Asymmetry in Our Professional Lives

March 4, 2011
Eric Postal, MD

Some asymmetries can be really challenging to manage, and uncertainty can plaque you well after you’ve signed your reports and moved on to other things. There are other asymmetries in our professional lives, however, that can be just as taxing to us - or even more so.

What comes to your mind in response to the word “asymmetry?” If you look at imaging for a living, there’s a good chance you’ll think of cancer or some other kind of abnormality. At the very least, it’s likely to get you thinking of something abnormal, where there’s either too much of something in one location or too little of it in another. 

An asymmetry raises questions: Does something need to be done? Drainage, a biopsy, maybe even excision? You may at least feel the need to explain why the asymmetry is not a problem - perhaps you know that surgery removed some tissue, or you report that the patient is naturally lopsided: “developmental asymmetry.”

Some asymmetries can be really challenging to manage, and uncertainty can plaque you well after you’ve signed your reports and moved on to other things.

There are other asymmetries in our professional lives, however, that can be just as taxing to us - or even more so.

Asymmetries of effort and reward - Why is it that I’m burning through twice as many cases as the other guy, yet he’s pulling in an equal share of the profits (or more)?

Asymmetries of skill or ability - Why are we distributing cases randomly in the office when we have subspecialists in every area of expertise?

Asymmetries of power and authority - How is it that a non-physician with no expertise in radiology is able to hold a clipboard and tell me how to generate my reports? Or a similarly-unskilled Washington bureaucrat is able to arbitrarily rearrange the rules of my profession?

Such asymmetries may also be termed inequities, or even injustices.

Just as on an imaging-study, these other asymmetries require decisions: Do I try to correct this? Or can I leave it alone? Maybe there’s a middle road, the real-life equivalent of a “short interval follow-up,” trying to tweak the situation without confronting it head-on.

Everyone’s got their comfort-zone. Maybe you tend to avoid confrontation at all costs, like the stereotypical radiologist hiding in the reading room, avoiding human contact, backing down from these daily vexations - but sooner or later, you might swallow enough of your pride that you feel like choking.

Maybe you freely vent your anger at the drop of a hat, and your temper cows people into submission some of the time - but that can burn bridges, and the clipboard-holding regulator from the state probably will find a way to get back at you.

Maybe you thread the needle expertly in these situations; you decide since you’re not getting paid any more than the colleague who’s half as productive as you are, you’ll just start taking frequent breaks and allowing yourself to slow down - but the asymmetries don’t go away, and each of your clever workarounds further complicates your life.

It’s easy to play to your strengths, and become a one-trick pony, but you might find it worthwhile to add to your repertoire. Experiment with the methods that don’t come so naturally to you; get better at them. Start small. Maybe it’s a good idea to reassess who holds the remote control for your TV tonight, and later on you can work your way up to the big stuff like renegotiating your contracts. You may find yourself, well, symmetrizing your own asymmetries.