Combating COVID-19, the Loneliness Epidemic, and the Power of Love | Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on The Tim Ferriss Show

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Due to the timely nature of the content within, note that this episode was recorded on March 24th, 2020.

Key Takeaways

  • “All of us, regardless of what stage of life we’re at, have three basic needs: we all want to know that we matter, we want to be seen for who we are, and we want to know that we’re loved” Vivek Murthy
  • Treasure your relationships—they’re the most important thing you have
    • “It is our relationships that are the foundation on which we build everything else—good health, fulfillment, and a good life”Vivek Murthy
  • “A real friend is somebody who reminds you of who you are even when you forget” – Vivek Murthy
  • Loneliness is associated with a shorter lifespan we well as an increased risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety
  • “Love is the greatest source of strength we have. As a doctor, I’ve written many powerful prescriptions for medicines and antibiotics, but there’s no medicine more powerful than love.”Vivek Murthy


Vivek Lends His Thoughts on COVID-19

  • There’s still a TON we don’t know about COVID-19
    • A few weeks ago, young people weren’t thought to be at much risk, but current data indicates otherwise
    • “This is a humbling virus. It’s teaching us new things. We need to approach it with caution and err on the side of being too aggressive.” – Vivek Murthy
  • “Every now and then, there’s a moment in the world’s history where we’re faced with a challenge that’s far bigger than any one of us—or any one country can solve on its own. COVID-19 has presented us with one of those challenges.” – Vivek Murthy
  • “We really do need each other. As much as we live in a world—and country, I should say—that’s built on an ethic of individual responsibility and the narrative of the single entrepreneur who built a company or the single scientist who finds a cure for a disease, the reality is we’re far more interdependent and interconnected … COVID-19 is a powerful reminder of that.”Vivek Murthy

How Vivek would have tackled COVID-19?

  • He’d instruct his team to adhere to 3 principles:
    • Lead with science in your decision-making & with scientists in your communication
    • Be transparent with the public (even when it’s painful)
    • Know your responsibility in a crisis like this is to do EVERYTHING you can to get resources to people on the front line
  • “We’re encountering a pandemic we haven’t seen the likes of in over a century, and we aren’t prepared” – Vivek Murthy
    • Doctors and nurses are re-using (or not even using) masks; hospitals are running out of supplies; we don’t have enough ventilators. It’s 2020!! We’re the wealthiest country in the world!! Why is this happening?!
  • Vivek would also:
    • Make sure the federal government was providing CLEAR directives to states about when to pull the trigger on various measures—closing schools, shutting down businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, etc.
    • Make sure the government was filling the gaps related to hospital supplies—why should states have to compete with each other for a limited amount of masks?
    • Ramp up domestic production of personal protective equipment
  • In summary, Donald Trump needs to be more like Andrew Cuomo, the governor of NY 😉

Role of a Surgeon General

  • The “law” states that “the job of the Surgeon General is to be the commanding officer overseeing the United States public health service commission core”
  • The Surgeon General is supposed to provide the public with the best possible health information so that people can make good decisions for themselves and their families

How the Surgeon General does this, though, is quite flexibleLoneliness is More Common Than You Think

  • As a shy kid, Vivek’s feelings of loneliness began in elementary school
    • “I wasn’t scared of tests or teachers; I was worried about going to the cafeteria and not knowing who to sit with. I was worried about being on the playground and being the last person picked for a team … I would wait every day until 3 o’clock when the bell rang, and there was this feeling of relief.” – Vivek Murthy
  • As Vivek began practicing as a doctor and working with patients, he discovered something peculiar: many of them were, too, quite lonely
    • “In life’s most important moments—birth, death, and the critical moments in between when you either have success at work or go through a major breakup, you hope that there will be people there for you and you’ll be surrounded by those you love, but for so many of those people, there was nobody at the end.” Vivek Murthy
  • “All of us, regardless of what stage of life we’re at, have three basic needs: we all want to know that we matter, we want to be seen for who we are, and we want to know that we’re loved” Vivek Murthy

What should business leaders do to reduce loneliness among staff during these periods of social isolation?

  • “The workplace is an incredibly powerful place for us to cultivate human connection. When we don’t have workplaces where people feel like they have strong relationships, that has a strong impact on productivity, retention, and overall satisfaction at work.” – Vivek Murthy
    • (Around 20-25% of people in the workplace struggle with loneliness)
  • Create opportunities for people to see and understand each other for who they are, beyond the roles they play in the workplace. People want to be known for more than their skill set.
    • Something Vivek suggests: In weekly all-hands meetings, have each person show pictures of things that matter to them for 5-10 minutes
  • Create opportunities for people to give and receive help
    • Why? Giving and receiving support is extraordinarily powerful when it comes to raising our energy levels in the workplace
  • “Creating a culture of kindness and compassion is extraordinarily important if you want to build connection in the workplace”Vivek Murthy
    • How should one do this? Lead by example.

A Question to Help “Check the Pulse” of Your Employees and Colleagues

  • “Do you have a best friend at work?”
    • People who don’t tend to have significantly lower engagement in the workplace (and that engagement is tied to productivity, as well as how people feel about their colleagues)

How does Vivek relate to mortality?

  • “I think about my mortality often, not in a morbid way, but in a way that I hope will remind me to appreciate the present moment” – Vivek Murthy
    • Remember: tomorrow is never guaranteed. We have no idea how long we have left with the people we love. 
  • If you’re looking to dive deeper into this subject, Tim highly recommends an essay by Tim Urban: The Tail End

Remember Your Anchors

  • This is a piece of advice Vivek liked to remind himself of during his medical residency, what he describes as a “very intense, emotional experience”
    • During this time, Vivek was also struggling internally, going through what one might term an “identity crisis”
  • Because of the above, Vivek knew he needed a grounding force—his anchors. And what were those anchors? People: his mother, father, sister, and a few close friends.
    • “The times in my life when I felt anxious and worried—the times when I felt lost … Those moments were when I lost touch with the people in my life—the people who know me better than I know myself, the people who can remind me of who I am even in those moments when I forget … That, to me, is the definition of a true friend.” – Vivek Murthy
  • All in all, never let your work get in the way of your relationships—THOSE are what matter most
    • Your identity isn’t your job; your identity is the human being you are as a friend, brother, son, etc. to the people you love

A Monologue Everyone Needs to Read to Remind Themselves of What’s Important

  • “If you and I went to a street corner in any major U.S. city and polled 100 people, asking them what their top priority in life was, I can almost guarantee you nearly everyone would have a person as their top priority—maybe their spouse, maybe their child, maybe their mother or father. But if we look at how we live our lives and where we put our time, energy, and focus—if you look at what society tells us constitutes success, it’s actually different. The message society sends us… is that success is driven by your ability to acquire wealth, power, or reputation/fame. If that’s what worth is connected to, then we’ll build our lives around that—that’s where we’ll spend our time … In reality, what gives us the deepest joy and fulfillment is our relationships.” Vivek Murthy
  • “When I think back on the people I had the privilege of caring for in the hospital at the end of their life, I think a lot about what they talked about in their final days. What they talked about were not the promotions they received or how big their bonuses were. They didn’t talk about how many followers they had on Instagram … They talked about the quality of their relationships, the people they loved, and the people they wish they spent more time with. They talked about the joy the people in their lives brought them. That’s a powerful signal to us of what really matters.” – Vivek Murthy
  • “It is our relationships that are the foundation on which we build everything else—good health, fulfillment, and a good life.”Vivek Murthy

Emotions Aren’t a Source of Weakness; They’re a Source of Power

  • Especially for men, strength is associated with suppressing emotion and independence 
    • BUT… We ALL need people. We ALL need connection. Don’t be afraid to show it.
    • Society needs to redefine strength, especially for men, as vulnerability, belonging, human connection, and showing emotion
  • “Our emotions are not a source of weakness; they are, in fact, if used well, our greatest source of strength” Vivek Murthy
  • Ask any great athlete—the difference between good and great isn’t determined by how much time you spend in the gym; it’s determined by your ability to translate negative emotions into positive ones

Lead with Love

  • Two primary forces drive our decisions: love and fear
    • “When we lead with love, we can transform lives and the organizations we’re leading. When we lead with fear, that’s corrosive—it infects the environments in which we work and the people around us.” – Vivek Murthy
    • So, as you go about life, ask yourself: “Am I making this decision out of love or fear?
      • “I find, almost always—if not always, when I make decisions driven by fear, they rarely make me feel good. They often lead to poor outcomes. But when I make decisions driven by love—even if they’re risky or the outcomes are unexpected—I almost always feel better and grow in some way as a result.” – Vivek Murthy
  • “Love is the greatest source of strength we have. As a doctor, I’ve written many powerful prescriptions for medicines and antibiotics, but there’s no medicine more powerful than love.” Vivek Murthy

Vivek’s New Book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

  • Loneliness is more than a bad feeling; it has real health consequences. It’s associated with:
    • Reduced lifespan
    • Increased risk of heart disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety
  • “The morality impact of loneliness is similar to the mortality of impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s greater than the mortality impact of obesity or sedentary living.” – Vivek Murthy
  • Vivek’s goal in writing the book: to strengthen social connection around the world
    • “Our social connection is, in fact, the foundation on which we build everything else. I wanted to work on strengthening social connection because if we could do that, I feel we’d have a better shot at improving peoples’ health and enabling them to live fulfilling lives … It’s when we’re authentic and vulnerable that we build the true connection that powers everything else we do.” – Vivek Murthy
  • If Vivek had credo for the book, it’d be: “Put people first”

Wrapping Up

  • Vivek recites one of his favorite African proverbs: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Additional Notes

  • Tim thinks Vivek should start a podcast
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