In a memorable episode of M*A*S*H, the harried staff of the 4077 get word that help is on the way: a new surgeon, coming from Boston with fancy credentials. Graduated top of his class from a famous med school. His name is Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III.
On his first day in camp, Winchester finds himself suturing up one of a whole passel of wounded that just got choppered in. But in the middle of the procedure someone hollers for him. Another patient is in worse shape and Winchester’s needed there. He tightens his lips. He intends to finish what he started. In an achingly contained voice, he explains his m.o.:
“I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.”
Hawkeye looks up from his own patient, almost bemused. That may be the way you rolled back home Mr. Ivy Leaguer, he tells Winchester, but this is a war zone. We do “meatball surgery” here: patch jobs — a lot of them at once and none of them beautiful — that save as many lives as possible in these impossible circumstances.
Next thing you know Charles is up to his elbows in a different soldier, and a leaking artery stripes his face with blood. By episode’s end he’s drinking in the swamp with Hawkeye and BJ, wondering how he’s going to make it out of this savage place with any shred of civility.
Winchester serves, on the show, as the stuffed-shirt foil to Hawkeye’s swashbuckling class clown who happens to be right about so many things – not least that life is meatball surgery. It’s fast and furious and you can’t prepare for it and you’re foolish to think it’ll sit still for you to execute your best-laid plans.
Hawkeye is the show’s hero, its gimlet-eyed moral center.
But Winchester’s an interesting cat because he’s not entirely the bad guy. There’s something about his stubborn refusal to compromise that we admire. He’s not wrong to strive for excellence; he’s only wrong to think that it’s always possible. You get the sense that if Charles ever got a whole day to do the work he’d been trained to do, the way he’d been trained to do it, he’d be much less of a knob.
Most of our days are Hawkeye Days. We are the meatball surgeons of the mediated age, multitasking ourselves into the ground. Wartime surgeons — the fictional ones and the actual ones — multi-tasked because they had to: each new incoming bleeder trumped the one they were currently working on. But we seem to live this way by choice. We behave as if we are in a war zone, even though we aren’t. The average attention span of the North American taxpayer is eight seconds — which is two seconds shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. Our nervous systems have become wired this way.
The good news is that we can re-wire them. The science tells us that attention is like a muscle. We can build back up our attention span after it has atrophied from reactive, multitasking lifestyle habits, by deliberately unitasking on things we’re interested in. In other words, with practice, we can be a little less like Hawkeye and a little more like Winchester.
That’s what Big Days are all about.
You get to do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on.