Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Better

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Better

A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

by Atul Gawande

Better by Atul Gawande
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 288 pages

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Atul Gawande, a 2006 MacArthur fellow, is a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and a frequent contributor to The New England Journal of Medicine. He lives with his wife and three children in Newton, Massachusetts.

Both his parents were physicians — his father a urologist and his mother a pediatrician — and initially he resisted following in their footsteps and instead wanted to be a musician: "I wanted to be a rock star. I played guitar and wrote songs and even had a couple of club shows. I was just terrible."

Attending Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship he considered becoming a philosopher until he realized he didn't have the knack for asking the right sort of philosophical questions, and so he went to medical school after all. "It turns out you can be a doctor and be almost anything," he says. "Even a writer." After Oxford he worked in a research laboratory and as an adviser to the Clinton administration on health policy before earning his M.D. in 1995.

He began contributing little pieces to Slate about 10 years ago, while still a resident. "Slate was perfect for me," he explains, "because it enabled me to fly under the radar. It was just like going through surgical residency. I did 30 columns for them, and it was like doing 30 gallbladders. Then I had to learn how to get comfortable with 4,000-word and then 8,000-word essays for The New Yorker."

He now feels that writing is the most important thing he does: "In some ways, it's harder than surgery. But I do think I've found a theme in trying to understand failure and what it means in the world we live in, and how we can improve at what we do." More.

This article was originally published in April 2007, and has been updated for the February 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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