I had been following Vinh's work via Facebook for couple of months. He contacted me briefly via an email through my website after the Boston magazine article very early on with the idea to start his own busking project as a medical student. "I guess what I'm trying to say, is that I want to be Student Doctorbedancing." He was studying at Howard in Washington DC. His vision was much more communal than mine in some ways. From the outset, he sounded more like he'd wanted to get other students at his school involved. I offered him some advice and gave him my blessing. I was thrilled that I could inspire someone into such a concrete action, but I ultimately didn't have much hope for his rendition of the project for several reasons.
Initially, I didn't even think he would actually execute on the idea. He had no need to. For me, it was personal. Years had passed, and I had continued to get into mild troubles along my career trajectory. As I spoke to my friend Aki about this, we jointly convinced me that I was exceptionally talented (it wouldn't take much to convince me of such flattering ideas) but fighting in the wrong arena, like Michael Jordan playing baseball. I prescribed to this hypothesis, but had never really tested it. Perhaps the only reason I believed it was because I wanted to believe it. It offered me an excuse for my purported shortcomings at my workplace. By starting DoctorBeDancing, however, I was testing the hypothesis. I was well aware of this, and it was terrifying. I had deposited everything that made Adnan himself into a single entity and offered it to the world. DoctorBeDancing was a symbol combining everything that I was supposed to be good at. His endurance and spirit drew from my ultra-running. His exaggerated motif of a physician drew from my costuming capabilities. His dancing was an extension of my own greatest power to grab attention, communicate with people and influence my surroundings. He even used the fact that I was a doctor as a red herring style exclamation point (Although I was a doctor, there was no reason that the most common question asked should be "Are you really a doctor??" -- it was frankly irrelevant to the fact that I was pouring sweat into the concrete to raise money for charity while making people smile and dance. Anyone who would do this should be applauded, not just a doctor.). DoctorBeDancing was all that was best in me. If he failed, it would mean that my greatest strengths weren't good enough. It would mean that my excuses for regularly facing difficulty at my job were baseless. If DoctorBeDancing failed, it was going to alter my perceptions of myself, and it was going to hurt.
Furthermore, the project had been taxing on me physically, mentality and emotionally. I had come from a background of ultra-endurance athletics and endured the purported gruel of residency unscathed, but I felt exhausted day after day from DoctorBeDancing. The only reason I could continue was because I was striving for something big -- something extraordinary. I wasn't even 100% sure what that was at the time, but DoctorBeDancing was my attempt to achieve it. DoctorBeDancing was my child, so I had to nurture it until it could stand on its own. Vinh, or any other person, wouldn't feel this drive -- this survival instinct pressing them through the difficulties. He probably didn't feel the need for redemption through his dancing, and he probably wouldn't feel the pressure for success when he faced the inevitable hardships of street performance. Would he be willing to go out even when it hurt? Would he be willing to give up days off to perform? Would he be able to stand up to the police or aggressive homeless people if they molested him? I doubted it.
Vinh also mentioned "[wanting] to help mobilize [his] very multi-talented classmates to exhibit their creative passion on the streets". I wasn't entirely certain what he meant by this, but I imagined it meant he planned to get a series of co-dancers from his medical school cohort. Personally, I felt that relying on other people was a folly. I'm sure that part of it stemmed from my own protracted battle with omnipresent feelings of isolation. But mostly, it was a logistical and motivational problem. Busking alone represented intrinsic motivation on the part of the individual. Relying on a group transformed it from the sacrifice of an individual to a social activity. If the motivation was derived from the social aspects, the idea risked dying in the absence of social support. For example, if a person only runs with a running club, then that person is more likely to stop running in their absence. The person may enjoy the club more than they enjoy running -- it presents a confounding variable which risks drop-out. Another logistical reason was that the fewer people who danced, the more attention and donations that were collected. I had noticed this quite early in my busking career and had chalked it up the idea that one person dancing was a performance while many people dancing was just a dance party. People will stop and watch a performance and pay, but they would rarely stop and watch a dance party. Early on, attention (read: memorable moments) and donations were the one of the only motivating factors which would come into play. If they were cut down by the diluting effect of having too many other people, then the idea risked collapsing on itself before it could gain a foothold. Beyond the rational reasons, my skepticism was also fueled by a certain ideological paradox. The idea that DoctorBeDancing tried to spread expression of individuality. In my mind, a group of people expressing their identical individuality jointly wasn't an expression of individuality -- it was mob mentality. This was the same reason I was reluctant to participate in flash mobs when invited on multiple occasions (plus, I was really bad at choreographed dance routines -- it didn't feel natural). I believed that any lasting endeavor would be the result of a personal war we waged and regularly involving other people was contrary to this thesis.
I didn't express any of these notions because as I mentioned, I didn't expect Vinh to act on the idea anyways. So, instead I told him, "The biggest recommendation I would make is to just get out there and do it. It's so incredibly rewarding to see so many people smile. The details will work themselves out as you go!" And with that, all the other thoughts evaporated.
He e-mailed me 24 hours later telling me he ordered a boombox. I was impressed. We became Facebook friends. Then I didn't hear from him again for a while. I hardly took notice; I was very busy anyways. I shot the CBS story that Monday which went viral and caused chain reaction of media requests that would go on to consume my energy for the next several weeks. As my project grew, I was forced to use more social media than usual. On my news feed, I noticed a few pictures and short clips that Vinh had posted. I got an e-mail a few days later:
I got out and danced for about half an hour. It was an extremely hot day (and I wish I was in your peak cardio condition), but I was able to raise a few dollars. I plan on doing this weekly and my classmates are getting involved too.
Thank you for the inspiration,
Good for him, I thought. He had already exceeded my expectations. Months passed, and I would continue to see Vinh's videos and pictures pop up on my Facebook feed. He had a small posse of dancers, and it seemed to be going well. I got excited when I saw an update because this was the most tangible example of what DoctorBeDancing could spawn independent of my own work -- a consequence of the project which could outlast me.
At the outset, I had settled upon the end of October as my deadline for DoctorBeDancing. This was in the interest of sustainability: $10,000 by the end of October. With this concrete goal, it would be easier to make the unquestioning sacrifices I would have to make. After this, I would evaluate the progress of what I had accomplished and where to go from there -- like beta testing. Towards the end of the 'beta' phase of DoctorBeDancing, Vinh messaged me:
hey man! i got nominated by my peers for a community service award
I just wanted to thank you for giving me the idea and for the advice. This is really all thanks to you.
this project has changed my life
Dude, that's great to hear! Hell, I've never even gotten any accolades during my medical training.
I think you're setting a great example for other people.
The key to getting any idea going is to have other people start to act on it. Until then, you're just an eccentric weirdo.
So, your work is one of the best things to come out of my work.
what's crazy for me
is that when I started I couldn't get any of my classmates to come out
and i only raised $5 on my first attempt alone
haha but then I learned how to come out of my shell so to speak, and it really just grew from there
so really, i thank you for giving me this experience
i feel like a different person
brb, gotta intubate someone
It was true. Despite being catapulted to international spotlight and demolishing my financial goals with DoctorBeDancing, I had never received any sort of official commendation for my work. It wasn't something I had even considered. Frankly, I had given up on winning praise from within my profession -- that didn't happen for people like me. It was also true that his project was one of the best things to come out of DoctorBeDancing. (And it was also true that I had to go intubate somebody emergently in one of the ICU's).
His nomination made me happy, and it was enough that I could inspire such an uplifting change in another person who I had never even met. I didn't know much about Vinh or what kept him going when most would consider raising $5 in the sweltering July heat a disheartening failure. Clearly, I had underestimated him. I found his GoFundMe page:
How did I get into this project?
Before entering medical school, I loved to dance. I was an amateur choreographer and really enjoyed expressing myself through music and performance. I also served a service year with AmeriCorps' Community HealthCorps program after college and fell in love with community engagement during that time.
While ecstatic to be learning medicine and excelling in med school, I found a part of myself feeling unfulfilled during my first year. I yearned to make a bigger difference in my community.
"I found part of myself feeling unfulfilled." The words could have been taken directly from my mind. With that I realized what fueled this stranger who I had never met. The feeling of loss of humanity that often accompanied medical training -- we faced the same battle. The same flame that burned within me was alight in Vinh. I had been selling him short because I had neglected to see it until this moment. He had his own battle to face and created an analogous movement with his own flavor. This was exactly the point of my work -- to inspire the world to make a positive impact in their own way. By involving more people, he was able to make the movement even more accessible and arguably better in some ways for it. His rendition added his own strengths where mine fell short, and I could potentially learn from it.
A brand new value of DoctorBeDancing was revealed. That the tinder of passion and goodness was harbored within people simply waiting to be set ablaze by a silly idea like dancing on the streets for charity; and a medical student that I had never met who lived hundreds of miles away proved it to me.
This article moved me. Human rights issues transcend race (or more broadly, in-groups vs. out-groups). What isn't quite emphasized enough in the article is just how much isolation Peter Norman probably faced as a result of his actions. Whereas Carlos and Smith stood up for what they believed in, they stood for a certain group and would be welcomed as heroes back into that group. For Norman, his actions stood AGAINST his in-group (white Australians) and thus would lead his outcast from his own group. There was probably no group which would accept him.
One of the most striking stories my father ever told me was about when he lived in Mississippi in the 70s. It was a racially volatile time in the south. It was a simply story lacking in detail. He said, "I would go to the white people bar, and they kicked me out for not being white. Then I went to where the black people were, and they kicked me out for not being black." Needless to say, he didn't stay in Mississippi for very long. But what happens to those people caught in the middle? What happens to those who do not have a group -- who don't belong anywhere? I imagine Peter Norman knew.
One last point worth emphasizing is that Peter Norman was an ordinary man who did an ordinary thing to stand against evil. This is critical because it reminds us that heroes often aren't moving worlds, they are ordinary people awaiting an opportunity where the path between good and evil diverges and a choice must be made. He had every reason to mind his own business. But as Philip Zimbardo would say, "You've gotta say: Mama, humanity is my business."