First, Do No Harm

When a medical student becomes a doctor, they must recite the Hippocratic Oath which dictates the ethics that all doctors must agree to live by. It was first penned by Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, who endeavored to say, “First, do no harm.” That’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I’ve been addicted to a show I found on Netflix the other day, Everest, about, of course, climbing Mt. Everest.

The standout character in each episode is Tim, a beast of a man from California with acute macho-man syndrome. He’s also not a very good climber and fairly out of shape, but determined to reach the summit. He’s not turning around for anyone.

I used to admire guys like Tim – they set big goals and don’t let anyone get in the way. Here’s the problem, though. If Tim wants any chance of making it to the top of Everest (and back down) alive, he needs the help of several sherpas.

About half way into Tim’s summit bid, it’s obvious to everyone but Tim that he’s not going to make it, but he refuses to turn around, ignoring the pleas of the sherpas to go back.

By the time Tim realizes they’re right and he can’t make it, the supplemental oxygen is gone and getting him back down to base camp practically turns into a rescue mission.

One little decision to keep going put the lives of 5 other people in serious jeopardy. is all about pursuing the impossible and helping others do the same; it’s about a personal challenge. Your personal challenge should never endanger someone else. That’s in direct conflict with the idea of empowering others to make decisions for themselves.

Whenever I take on a personal challenge, I try to remember to do no harm. I don’t want my actions to negatively affect anyone who didn’t opt-in to my crazy ideas. But, it’s not always so cut and dry. As much as I’d like to think that the risks I take are mine and mine alone, it’s not true. I don’t exist in a vacuum, and every action has some kind of consequence, good or bad, for the people around me.

It’s important to be courageous and pursue your goals. It’s just as important to think about how those goals affect the people you care about. Carelessness is too often mistaken for courageousness.

The Delicate Balance

I don’t mean to say you should abandon your dream because something could go wrong. Just the opposite, actually. Pursue your dreams despite the risk of meltdown. The art is in creating a dream that’s worthy of the risk – a dream that makes those you care about proud to accept the challenges ahead.

Here are a few things I think make a dream worth pursuing:

  • It’s deeply meaningful to you. If you’re going to put yourself and others at risk, it probably ought to be for a pretty good reason, and it doesn’t hurt if the outcome actually helps others. It’s up to you what constitutes “meaningful.”
  • Success outweighs failure. If success would leave you feeling only lukewarm or if there’s little chance of failing, then it’s not really much of a dream. A worthy dream ought to leave you feeling excited to pursue it and failure would only be a setback.
  • It’s useful to others. You should always pursue your own dream ahead of someone else’s, but your dream becomes that much more valuable if it has the potential to help others realize their own.

Those are the criteria I used when I decided to start I’m taking on some pretty big challenges as I race for the top 1% of the world, but each item on my list is deeply important to me and I know how much value there is in using my experiences to help others with their own big goals.

If I failed one of them, it would be heartbreaking, but not the end of my life or anyone else’s. The potential for complete catastrophe is small enough to go through with them.

The Final Word

The real message here is not to discourage you from taking on a big challenge. I definitely don’t aim to make you feel guilty about your dreams – I have my own and I don’t feel one bit guilty. The point is that, in everything you do, you should endeavor to do no harm.

Back to Everest: It was not the sherpa’s job to die so that Tim could stand on the summit. It’s no one else’s job to suffer so that you can have your own glory. Your goals should propel you and the others around you. No one should have to lose so that you can win.

Beyond just the immediate, I also like to think about the Great Law of the Iroquois and their commitment to do what was best for their people seven generations into the future. It really helps me focus on the long-term effects of my actions.

When you make a decision today, how will it affect people seven generations in the future? How can you commit to “do no harm”?


Photo by: nhussein