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  • Valerie Brooke, MD

The Owl and the Cheese

In 2001, Drs Friedman and Forster designed an experiment where two sets of college students were tasked to complete a computer maze, where a cartoon mouse had to get from one side of the maze to the other as fast as possible. In one group of students, there was an image of a cartoon owl hovering over the maze, and in the other, there was a block of cheese at the exit of the maze.


Can you guess which group of students completed the maze faster? The group that was running towards the cheese completed more mazes at a faster rate than the group that was running from the owl. The researchers interpreted these results as a way to understand how promotional cues (excitedly going towards a reward) and prevention cues (fearfully moving away from a threat) affected the study participants' ability to influence their creative insight and generation of novel ideas. Promotional cues were more effective than prevention cues, which is quite contrary to how many assume that negative input is more effective, that the stick is better than the carrot. Or as Ben Stiller’s character White Goodman’s states in the movie Dodgeball, “[Ugliness and fatness are] only your fault if you don’t hate yourself enough to do something about it.”


In trying to understand how in the last year I was able to shift from feeling depressed and burned out in my work, to a place where I again feel passion for being a physician, and for being alive in general, I had to change my focus from the stick to the carrot, from the owl to the cheese. My journaling, my healing, the things I chose to focus on shifted away from what wasn’t working, where I would spiral down into victimhood and complaining, toward a vision of what I wanted to create. How did I want to live and work and what did this vision look like?


It started with my physical office space, once filled with just my file cabinets, bookshelves filled with textbooks and journals, and a large dry erase board that had all my professional goals, both grand and small, written down with small check marks next to the items I had already completed. It was a daily reminder of all I felt I needed to accomplish, while the dusty journal articles were a constant reminder of me being behind in my reading. I would be a good physician when I completed the check list on the board and read all my journals.


First, I erased my board, to start with a clean slate. I went through all my journals and ripped out only those articles that were relevant to stroke rehabilitation. I let go of the belief that I had to read all of the journals, all of the articles, and the unrealistic goal of keeping up with everything researched in my field of physical medicine and rehabilitation.


Then I decided I wanted to make my office space more inviting and warmer, less sterile, and fuller of life. I am not lucky enough to have a window, so I brought in two pictures, one of birch trees by a river gifted to me by a physician friend, and the other a mountain side of colorful deciduous trees, reminding me of my home state of Vermont. I brought in small frames with pictures of my favorite family members and friends. I bought a false candle/lamp, a handmade piece of art, a heavy stone, as well as several plants that could grow in artificial light.


I finished off my new office space with a warm light green rug that completed the sense of being in a sacred place. I started to fill my dry erase board with inspiring quotes ripped out from my daily Zen calendar. Quotes that remind me to breath, to let go of what’s not working, to remember what’s really important, to not sweat the small stuff, as my father used to say, or another of his favorites, to keep my thumb on it.


The rug covers up the stains I had been complaining about for years. The artwork covers up the stark walls, bringing lightness to a previously dark space filled with artificial light. The picture frames are filled with those I love, balancing out all the books and journals on the shelves, reminding me of who I was coming to work for in the first place. And the plants remind me of life, growing weekly with the water and food I nourish them with. In short, by making my office a space I actually look forward to going to every day, I have moved toward the cheese instead of away from the owl, focusing on what I have created rather than what still needs to be done. My professional to do list is still there in my head, always in the background, but much easier to accomplish now that I see the cup as half full rather than half empty.


And that is what I have continued to do in my life, both at work and at home and with my relationships. Focusing on what I want rather than what I don’t want. Motivating myself by looking forward rather than back. As I have been able to become clearer about what I do want, the path to discovering how to get there is becoming so much clearer. I’m still figuring it out, every day, but with a sense of joyful anticipation, rather a powerless sense of dread.



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