Flawless Execution

Sitting at the keyboard, I try to visualize my readers. An audience of casually, but neatly, attired adults from early 30s to late 50s, probably a bit more than half female, most with an interest in health care. Everyone out there knows that older people faced with physical tasks move more slowly than those middle-aged and younger. And I suspect that, like me when I was a mid-career physician, you attribute this slowing to the physical impact of increasing years on one’s strength, flexibility, and fitness. But there’s another factor, not widely appreciated, that gains in magnitude as one ages: the requirement for flawless execution.

Let’s take a task as simple as preparing the breakfast coffee. A mid-30s mother of two can do this without really focusing on it, multi-tasking while making sure two youngsters are dressed, fed, and on their way to school with everything necessary for the day. In contrast, a retired physician in his mid-70s knows that if he were to accidentally swing a glass coffee pot full of water against the edge of a granite counter, the impact would result in shards of glass and puddles of water all over the kitchen floor. The dog would want to inspect it all, with great hazards to her paws. The results of the error would require getting down to the floor, no longer a quick or easy process. Glass shards are hard to see. Would he find them all? What if he needed more paper towels — another up and down?

Or suppose, just suppose, in the confusion the bag of ground coffee were to fall over on the counter? Another clean-up! And if some of the coffee has some fallen off the counter-top onto the floor, then there’s another up-and-down with its inevitable question, “Did I get it all?”

With advancing years, one has the advantage of having repeated the simple tasks of daily life thousands of times. We seniors have our habits and routines. But daily life becomes a constant struggle with gravity. Earth wants to draw not just our artifacts but our bodies themselves ever nearer. Wading a trout stream, walking the dog, climbing the stairs, all these activities require flawless execution. Otherwise, gravity will extract the inevitable penalty for error.

So, younger colleagues, the lesson for the day is patience. The older people among you may want a bit more time. Watch them carefully, though, and you may well get to see flawless execution.