A brilliant and creative cardiac surgeon who went on to become the brilliant and creative CEO of the Cleveland Clinic for 14 years, Dr. Toby Cosgrove surprised many when he was invited back to his alma mater, Williams College, to give a convocation address. As his topic he picked: failure. In our latest episode of Tech Tonics, we learn more about Toby’s unusual journey, and why, in reflecting on his exceptional career, he chose to focus on such an improbable theme.
Toby grew up in Watertown, N.Y., in a family that emphasized both academics and sports (all of them, it seems); he attended college at Williams, and told us his experience was “terrible.” He struggled to keep up with the large amounts of reading required, and only later learned that he had dyslexia, a circumscribed defect in “phonological processing,” often seen in the context of exceptional intellect and other talents – the so-called “Sea of Strengths” model. Toby’s described this experience as “terribly dispiriting,” adding “I thought I was dumb.”
Toby persevered, attended medical school at University of Virginia (“the only acceptance out of 13 schools I applied to”), discovered he enjoyed it, and gravitated towards surgery in general, and cardiac surgery in particular. He completed two years of surgical training then served a year at a military hospital in Vietnam during the war, ultimately receiving a Bronze Star for his contributions. He then continued his training in cardiac surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was helpfully told he was the least talented individual in his residency group and advised not to pursue cardiac surgery – a recommendation he fortunately ignored.
In short order, Toby emerged as an incredibly talented, soon legendary, cardiac surgeon, known for his creative solutions to patients with valvular disease. Toby says he embraced the mechanical ingenuity cardiac surgery required.
Toby’s rapid ascent through the ranks of medicine culminated with his appointment as CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, where he focused on two areas that were in a sense at the opposite ends of the spectrum: careful measurement and transparent metrics, on the one hand, and a deep commitment to essential intangibles, like empathy, on the other.
After fourteen years, Toby stepped down as CEO; today, among other responsibilities, he serves as an advisor to Google Cloud, and discusses with us his perspective on the role of digital and data in healthcare.
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Yale panel (with Toby, Ari Emanuel, and others) discussed here.
Profile of Toby on Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity website
New, updated edition of Overcoming Dyslexia, the best-selling book written by David’s mom, Sally, and his brother, Jonathan can be found here.
Profile by Katie Hafner in The New York Times of David’s parents, Bennett and Sally, focused on their ongoing career research in dyslexia
Essay on “Failure” written by Toby.
Famous Cleveland Clinic “Empathy” video, an initiative launched by Toby.