Archive for the ‘Acting’ Category


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The line fell flat and I didn’t get why. Just the previous night, the same line with the same pace, inflection and volume got huge laughs from the audience but that night, nothing, except perhaps a polite chuckle. The only difference? I paused for an extra second to deliver the punchline and that killed it. The following night I used my original timing and the laughs were back. Could comedy be that clinical? Apparently so. And if timing proved to be important in my Acting, that only increased in medicine.

If a patient has a heart attack or a stroke, the two expressions you will hear are “Time is (heart) muscle” or “Time is brain.” The same intervention delivered too late and the effect is lost. I still remember pounding on the chest of a 32 year old heroin addict brought into the Emergency Room in cardiac arrest after an overdose. Every chest compression was filled with the knowledge that time was slipping away and when our team could not revive him, time stood still as the time of death was called. A young life gone too soon. Could a phonecall have prevented this overdose? Could a visit have come sooner and found him in better shape? We’ll never know.

Here’s what we do know. Timing is not simply about chance:

noun: timing
  1. the choice, judgment, or control of when something should be done.

“Choice” “Judgment” and “Control” all imply deliberate action. Although we are not always in control of when certain things happen, we are in control of the timing of most things we do in our lives. But how conscious are we of that responsibility? Timing matters. Have you ever sent a text with either really good or bad news and had that one person who responds two days later saying all the right things, but somehow it doesn’t have the same effect? Timing.

I’m reading a provocative book right now “A Path Appears” which lays the case for how to make a meaningful difference. In the current chapter, the authors describe how tough the conditions are in a certain Native American reservation where up to two thirds of the male population are alcoholics. The unemployment and drop-out rates are unbelievable. So where do you time your intervention? The authors argue that trying to address unemployment before you’ve dealt with the fact that many children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome affecting their cognitive abilities is bad timing. Intervention can work but must be timed correctly.

As important as timing is, it is not adequately taught in school where the focus is on bodies of knowledge. But that knowledge is useless if not delivered in time to prevent a suicide or simply make a moment or day meaningful.

With timing in mind, I have taken a new approach to weekend activities with my boys. I used to schedule things I did with them where it made sense in the day, usually after taking care of my business earlier in the day. Reasonable right? But there was room for other things to interfere with the plan or I would get tired and I would not always get to things I wanted to do with them. Now, I start with them. Today we did big waffle breakfast, chores, an hour of reading together, countries of Africa pop-quiz and swimming back to back. This change in timing makes a difference in two ways: I am more likely to spend more time with them and that’s always a win, but I also convey implicitly that my time with them is so important that I start my day with it before anything else.

Timing makes a difference and it is a choice I am learning to be more deliberate about. And where it is not in my control, I have found peace in these words “He makes everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

Tom MboyaHow is he holding it together? I asked this question often while Tom Mboya was being grilled by a panel of veteran journalists on Meet the Press. I stumbled across an audio recording of this 56 year-old interview and I was riveted, not just by the content but by the poise of Mr. Mboya, a mere 28 years old at the time. Tom Mboya is widely regarded as one of Kenya’s greatest losses, an articulate and intelligent politician, gunned down by an assassin’s bullet at the age of 39. He was one of the fearless architects of Kenya’s independence, but what was there to learn from a 56 year old audio recording of this interview in the US? As it turns out, a lot.

One by one, each journalist asked Tom Mboya pointed questions essentially asking one question “Was Kenya really ready to govern itself.” Some of the questions were at best paternalistic and at worst condescending. Yet, Mr. Mboya remained calm and responded with thoughtful logic, well-crafted arguments and measured passion. It was such a refreshing change from the loud but often empty arguments that present themselves on many modern talk-shows where you wonder if anyone is really listening.

Mboya’s poise in this interview is a further example of something that has been on my mind lately, “bold humility.” I think of it as the sweet spot between confidence and deference. We have all witnessed (or perhaps even perpetrated) the ambitious and confident but ultimately obnoxious personality, with no awareness of personal limitations. On the other hand, we can be humble and deferential to the point that we neglect truth and justice for the sake of not “rocking the boat” or “keeping the peace.” And that is what struck me as so impressive in Mboya’s interview: Even though certain questions called into question the very intelligence of his people, he respectfully, yet boldly and without apology stated his goal, a free Kenya, now. I would submit (to use Mboya’s phrasing) that professional excellence arises from the mastery of the tension between humility and confidence or “bold humility”

In acting for example, the actor must be bold, walking onstage in front on thousands of people with thousands of lines in his head, memorized patterns of movement all over the stage and possibly lyrics, music and dance steps as well. All this is expected to be performed with precision, emotional availability and, where appropriate, flair and pomp. This can be done timidly, but to truly communicate the character, the actor has to risk everything, including public failure to truly shine. That takes boldness. And yet, the most accomplished actors know that the moment the performance becomes about them, the moment they lose the humility that puts the character first, the performance loses its truth and its power and rings false. And this line is so thin!

In medicine, patients expect a certain degree of confidence from their doctors. And yet, there are also those moments that require humility. Consider when the neurosurgeon has courageously taken on a difficult tumor surgery but pauses during the surgery and concludes it’s time to stop the operation. She is too close to a nerve, a vessel or language center. She has the humility to stop the operation there, but also had the boldness which allowed the patient a chance and perhaps bought more time to be around family. Again a thin line exists. How close is too close?

How does “bold humility” play into your choices?