Books are powerful. They answer questions, fill in gaps, build skills. Some books have changed my life. Some have taught me how to take better care of who I am professionally. Others have taught me how to take better care of who I am personally. Here are three that had such an impact:

Book One

Growing up, I lived in a traditional household. Gender roles were part of that. Men did this, women did that. Boys did this, girls did that. Along those lines my parents advocated traditional roles when it came to chores. Every night, we sat down for dinner as a family.  When dinner ended, my father would say “Okay girls, help your mother clear the table.” Without fail, the following dialogue ensued.

Dad: Girls, help your mother clear the table.

Resa: Dad, no. Why do we have to clear the dishes? Why doesn’t everyone clear one’s own dishes?

Dad: Resa, help your mother clear the table.

Resa: Dad why do we [my sister and I] have to help clear? What does he do [pointing to older brother]?

Dad: He takes out the garbage.

Resa: Well then. I want to take out the garbage. I actually prefer to take out the garbage. He can clear the dishes.

I knew then and now that I was not simply being fresh. I was onto something. When I eventually discovered Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (Linda Babcock), it explained almost everything.

Babcock quotes research that spoke to the essence of why the chore assignments bothered me. Girls are given routine household tasks, such as cleaning or washing dishes. These tend to promote dependence. In contrast, boy tasks tend to be isolated, promote independence, and may be tied to payment, such as shoveling snow or mowing the lawn. Girls thus receive different messages than boys about their work. This gendered approach not only teaches that there is men’s work and women’s work, but also that the rewards are different. Boys labor for payment.  Girls labor for love. This may explain why women have a harder time assigning a value to their work.

At the beginning of the book, Babcock cites a landmark event that turned her onto this gendered concept. Female graduate students pointed that most of them were teaching assistants.  Meanwhile, male graduate student were mostly teachers.  Consider the ultimate effect of this form of gender assignment. Men complete graduate school with more robust listings on their curriculum. They get better jobs and higher salaries. When Babcock asked for a rationale behind the gender assignments difference, her dean told her that the men had asked while the women had not.

That was my “Aha!” moment.  Large eventual differences in work roles resulted from seemingly innocent early differences in communication styles. Somehow, women were taught not to speak for themselves. Instead, they believed they would be rewarded by diligently and silently doing their work, hoping their efforts would be noticed, that someone would promote them even if they did not speak up for themselves.

Early in my career, I noticed a similar pattern. Certain people were tagged as leaders, given titles, promotions, increased salary, asked to deliver lectures and to collaborate on projects.  They were the ones on the academic lecture circuit.  They were the ones leading committees, receiving awards, publishing articles, and reviewing articles. Somehow these individuals had a secret playbook to which I was not privy. I wondered why these people knew how to navigate this world when I seemed less well equipped to do the same.

The secret was simply to ask.

A few years ago, when I asked one of my professional mentors to review my resume, he noticed that I was not a reviewer for any medical journals. I told him that I had not been asked to do so, that I believed such jobs only originated by outside invitation. Like the book, Women Don’t Ask, he replied that I simply had to ask.

And when I did, I magically became a journal reviewer.

Book Two

I’ve noticed another pattern among my colleagues in emergency medicine.  Some individuals seem to publish all the time. So, I asked a few of these colleagues how they did it.  These were their pearls.

  • In his article, Tuesdays to Write (AEM 2008), Steven Lowenstein discussed the importance of having uninterrupted time for brain power. He suggested making time to write, writing regularly, and making it a habit.
  • Have a standardized title page and cover letter. Save these as your templates, adapting them for specific papers and journals as you need.
  • Write on airplanes when you have uninterrupted time to focus.
  • Reading widely helps you write better through exposure to good sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary.
  • Reviewing manuscripts also makes you a better writer. You quickly learn what is good and bad writing, and what is publishable. Through concentrated exposure to methodologies, layouts, and formats, you are also taught how to utilize them in your own projects.
  • You need to write well. No shortcuts exist for this one.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (William Zinsser) was the best coach for this last pearl. Like a marathon runner looking to shave time off my mile pace, this book helped my writing technique and stride. Zinsser’s main concept is word and writing economy.

  • Strip your writing down before building it up.
  • Simplify everything.
  • Shorten sentences.
  • Strive for a single idea per sentence.
  • Be genuinely yourself.
  • Eliminate flowery, overly complicated phrasing.
  • Use a dictionary. Care to understand your words.

Book Three

When I finished residency, I faced the reality of school loans. I was never taught about finances in medical school. Or any school for that matter.

So, I began to read. And after skimming many finance books, I found one that really spoke to me: Smart Women Finish Rich (David Bach).

Bach’s inspiration was his grandmother, a woman who grew up in Depression-era Brooklyn. She was the head wig buyer for a major department store.  And every week, she invested a bit of money in the stock market, a behavior that inspired Bach to write his credo: pay yourself first.

For many, this can be accomplished simply by automating contributions to a retirement account. (Bach suggests maximizing such contributions.)

Bach also explains something he calls the latte factor, where small purchases add up to large expenditures over time.  I’m an espresso drinker and I love having at least one every day. Doing the math, I realized that paying $4 per day adds up to $1,500 per year.

To be fair, Bach does not argue that we need to give up life’s pleasures. He simply suggests we consciously track what we spend and that we do not spend beyond our means. To this end, Bach discourages credit-based purchases. In fact, he encourages his readers to pay off and cut up their credit cards. It’s psychologically much harder to spend actual cash. He further challenges his readers to give every large potential purchase extra consideration. Habitual spontaneous spending does not lead to financial success.

Three lessons from three books

Ask for opportunities and they can become reality.

Discipline your writing and you will publish successfully.

Mind your wealth habits for financial stability.

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