What I Learnt from Dr Pearse Keane

Dr Pearse Keane is a Consultant Ophthalmologist and NIHR Clinician Scientist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London; the world's leading eye institute. Pearse was responsible for starting the collaboration between Moorfields and DeepMind — and was recently profiled in The Economist. Some of his most famous research uses deep learning to identify retinal disease from OCT scans.

I was fortunate enough to interview Pearse on the Big Picture Medicine Podcast. Here are my notes from the interview. I've paraphrased for clarity and brevity.

Just Look For Cool Stuff

If you see someone doing something cool — in many cases, those people are approachable and you'd be surprised at how far you can get by just sending an email. Pearse started a fruitful collaboration with DeepMind by taking out a month of LinkedIn Premium and sending Mustafa Suleyman a message.

One Major Area

Pick a major area of expertise and gain a working knowledge in multiple other areas — just enough so that you can have meaningful conversations with people in those areas. Pearse has picked up working knowledge of statistics, health economics and machine learning.

A doctor with some knowledge of coding is more useful than just a world leading doctor, or just a world leading coder in terms of translation. This concept relates to Scott Adams' career advice.

Life is Too Short to Work with Assholes

You may find yourself in the position in which you can work with a world esteemed professor who has a reputation for Nature papers or the like — but of also being an asshole. Just don't do it. Just work with people who are cool and you'll enjoy yourself and be more productive.

This loosely relates to Max Joseph's excellent short film: DICKS: Do you need to be one to be a successful leader?

One Regret

I think back to all of the time I wasted learning operations I would never perform again. If I could have spent a couple of those years doing a data science degree I would.


Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. Grant finds that there are two paths to excellence: originality and conformity. Child prodigies (usually) don't become great originals because they follow the conformity approach: extreme repetition and practice over original thought and creativity.

Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original. As they perform in Carnegie Hall, win the science Olympics, and become chess champions, something tragic happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new. The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies and beautiful Beethoven symphonies, but never compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to the codified rules of established games, rather than inventing their own rules or their own games. All along the way, they strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.

Originals by Adam Grant

Medicine, unfortunately promotes conformity. Entry requirements, medical school exams and specialty exams mean that you can never go too off-piece. Then by the time you become a consultant you're just tired. You have no more energy for originality.

But this doesn't mean taking reckless all-or-nothing risks either — which is sometimes perpetuated by myths of successful originals 'dropping out of Harvard'. Grant finds that instead, great originals create a balanced risk portfolio. They take risks but take steps to mitigate them.

And what about Bill Gates, famous for dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft? When Gates sold a new software program as a sophomore, he waited an entire year before leaving school. Even then he didn’t drop out, but balanced his risk portfolio by applying for a leave of absence that was formally approved by the university—and by having his parents bankroll him. “Far from being one of the world’s great risk takers,” entrepreneur Rick Smith notes, “Bill Gates might more accurately be thought of as one of the world' greatest risk mitigators”.

Originals by Adam Grant

The Patient Will See You Now by Eric Topol. This is Pearse's desert island book. It's a book about the future of Medicine which is grounded in patient benefit. “It's got loads of cool stuff in it... but you can really tell that he's a working doctor and would do absolutely anything for his patients”.

Did You Enjoy this Article?

Listen to the full conversation here. You can find Pearse on Twitter @pearsekeane. You can find me @MustafaSultan.

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