Compassion and Altruism as a Means to a Better Life (and career)

by Richard , updated on May 20, 2016

photo (74)In August we featured a blog from Steven Solodky, When Life Hits You Hard – the Existential Career Crisis.

Dr James R Doty’s life journey follows a similar path and is nothing short of inspirational.

Despite a chaotic and dysfunctional upbringing with limited positive role models he became a Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine.

He has set up a research centre to examine the neural basis for compassion and altruism and is the Chairman of the Dalai Lama Foundation.

His life journey has been marked by a series of chance encounters that have literally changed his life and are an outstanding example of how critical it can be to be open and mindful of opportunities for change at unexpected times in our lives.

What were the chance encounters that turned James Doty’s life around?

Dr Doty’s father was an alcoholic and his mother was an invalid.

He found himself having to provide primary care for his parents at an early age. He found himself often having to go out and get his Dad out of jail.

At one stage he was “shadowing” a police officer as part of a Scouts program, when his father was arrested and brought into the police station whilst he was there.

He found as a result of this environment he had very little parental oversight and was stigmatised at school as a lost cause.

He was struck by the paradox that often as not the people around him that had the means to help did not; and those with very little themselves were often the ones that were bending over backwards to lend a hand.

He however never felt anger or bitterness about this but rather felt sorry for them because he innately sensed that helping others made you feel good in a way that money cannot buy.

At 13 years of age in the midst of a very unhappy childhood he wandered into a new Magic shop and met the mother of the owner.

This woman suggested that if he came back into the store each day she would teach him something that could change his life.

Intrigued, he turned up because he could sense that she had a genuine concern and care for him.

What she taught him was based on Eastern religion and meditation mixed in with mindfulness training.  This was intertwined with the power of visualisation, positive psychology and self-hypnosis.

One key aspect was to learn how to identify what might initially be unclear goals and how concentrating and using visualisation and repetition of focus could clarify those goals on a subconscious level.

He discovered the importance of mindfulness to help learn attention and focus, living in the moment (not being distracted) and to lessen the effect of self-judgement.

He started to realise that his negative thinking was flawed and that his possibilities were actually unlimited.  She taught him that only he really defined who he would be.

In the fourth grade a doctor came to James Doty’s class.

After his presentation, he took time out to speak to him and answer his questions.

From this point James decided he wanted to be a doctor.  Although this was now his goal, what he had not realised was that the path is rarely direct.  It can in fact be very circuitous.

James had no awareness of how to apply to university to study Medicine or the concept of admission cut-off dates.

He happened to be in science class in high school one day when a young woman next to him was applying to university.

He had no idea where he should be applying, so he simply said he was applying to the same university.  As luck would have it she had a spare application, helped him with it and he was subsequently accepted.

With his very difficult upbringing, which included having to work and to deal with his mother’s suicide attempt, his education was disrupted.  As such his marks were “dismal” for admission into Medicine.

He had to get a letter of recommendation from a pre-med committee.  He approached the appointment coordinator of the committee and was told:

photo (75)“You are wasting their time because you will never get into Medical School.”

Because of James’s work with the woman at the Magic shop, he demanded that she make an appointment, which she reluctantly did.

The Dean of the School turned up for the committee meeting because he was so intrigued by the audacity of James in demanding an appointment.

James proceeded to turn the tables on the committee and lectured them on what right they had to destroy people’s dreams.

He pointed out that high school grades (beyond indicating a certain level of intelligence) had absolutely no correlation with whether you would become a good doctor.

At the end of this conversation the committee were all crying.

They proceeded to give him an extraordinary letter of recommendation.

During his Medical School training he was by chance on a Neurosurgery rotation and was told that he would make a great Neurosurgeon.

He had never thought this was in the realm of possibility but was told he would be fantastic.

He had already accepted a scholarship to the military, who were now paying his costs.  He discovered that the military only funded one Neurosurgeon per year, applications were closed and there was now a three year wait.

So James decided to use his one month of vacation time to fly over to Walter Reid Medical School and do a rotation there.  The Chairman really liked him, but had to tell him there were other applicants and a three year wait.

James proceeded to tell him that if he didn’t accept him he would be making the biggest mistake.  In the end he was accepted but there was still a three year wait.

Fortune again smiled on James where the accepted intern extraordinarily had been having an affair with a nurse.  When the affair ended he had started stalking the nurse and he consequently had to be transferred to Korea.

So James was accepted into the Neurosurgery program immediately!

He became a successful neurosurgeon and had the opportunity to invest in ground breaking surgical technology.

The company that owned the technology was in administration.

Despite all advice telling him not to, he went ahead and invested and ended up, as CEO, turning the company around to the point his shares were worth several million dollars.

He made other investments in tech-based companies which became very successful.

He subsequently lost all of these profits in the stock market crash.  His only remaining wealth was now his shares in the neurosurgery technology company.  However he had made prior commitments to bequeath this asset to a number of charities and institutions.

Every person that he asked advised him against honouring those commitments.

Even the charities and institutions told him they did not expect him to honour them.  James however felt because he had made these agreements that he simply had to do it.

He discovered that this decision was one of the greatest things that he has ever done, for two reasons.

Firstly, James says when you grow up in poverty you believe that having money equates to power and having control.  However he found that giving the money away liberated him.

Secondly, the benefits of giving the money away have been so profound in his life context.

For example, the university that had extraordinarily accepted him into Medicine with low entrance marks and no degree had lost their Dean and their library in Hurricane Katrina.

The money allowed James to appoint a Dean, refurbish the library and set up a scholarship for socio-economically disadvantaged students and students that wanted to serve mankind.

This was an amazing opportunity.

James also realised that so much of his happiness was based upon looking back and being grateful for what he had rather than looking forward and coveting what he didn’t yet have.

photo (76)Dr Doty also has had a very interesting relationship with the Dalai Lama.

James had started working at Stanford University on research into the beneficial benefits on health from being a compassionate human being.  He invited the Dalai Lama to come to Stanford University to have a conversation about the work.

The Dalai Lama was so impressed with the work that was being undertaken that he decided to make the largest personal contribution he has ever made to a non-Tibetan cause.

This led to the creation of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), of which James Doty is now the Director.

The theory is that compassion has a genetically favourable basis.

Research indicates that when you sincerely care for others it decreases stress, promotes your immune system and longevity.  The critical aspect seems to be that the caring for people has to come from a genuine, authentic concern for the people.

An intriguing life experience and view of the world.

What about you, how has compassion helped your career?


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Undercover Recruiter (@UndercoverRec) (@UndercoverRec) November 18, 2012 at 6:13 pm

New @InterviewIQ Compassion and Altruism as a Means to a Better Life (and career)

george altman (@mindfullmatters) November 19, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Compassion and Altruism as a Means to a Better Life (and career) @InterviewIQ #HR #leadership

Paolo Pugni (@paolopugni) January 18, 2013 at 2:27 pm Compassion and Altruism as a Means to a Better Life (and career)

Karalyn Brown (@InterviewIQ) (@InterviewIQ) April 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

Compassion and Altruism as a Means to a Better Life (and career) #career

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