Pursuing the Path Less Traveled

Dean Health System President & CEO Dr. Craig Samitt has spent his life learning how to embrace his own differences and use them to challenge the status quo professionally and personally.

When Patrick Farabaugh asked me to sit down and write the story of my “authentic life” and to describe how I’ve gotten to where I am both professionally and personally, I must admit that I asked myself, “Why me?” When I first reflected on what I could possibly say, my initial thought was that my story was not that magical, not that motivating, and not that inspirational that it would offer guidance to others who would want to pursue a similar path. As I sat down and began to write, however, I realized that my lack of self-awareness regarding my approach to life, my philosophy on leadership, and my drive to succeed were simply due to the fact that I’ve always lived this way, and that I could no longer see that I’ve approached life a bit differently all these years.

Internal Motivations

As I reflected on the drivers of my internal motivation, and what has enabled me to move forward and succeed despite potential adversity, I would have to say that it’s been due to three things:

First, I’ve always worked to embrace and exploit what has made me different and what has made me special, rather than shy away from my uniqueness by trying to blend in with the crowd. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always pursued the figurative “path less traveled,” and have been undeterred by those who would tell me “you can’t,” “you won’t,” or “you’re unqualified.”

Second, I’ve always seemed to challenge convention, to seek out the unseen truth in any story, to challenge authority figures, to be a purposeful devil’s advocate, and to be openly proud of what made me different than everyone. I’ve always been that way and always will. Those who know me well know that I “call it like I see it,” and am sensitive to, but not beaten down by, what other people think. To put it another way, I’ve never let anyone throw obstacles in my way, as I will always find a way to maneuver around the challenges people have thrown in my path.

Third, my life has always been about challenging the status quo, even with myself. Call it lifelong personal improvement, but I’ve never been one to settle for unrefined weaknesses. If I see something I don’t like about my personal life, my career, my health, or my circumstances, I put huge effort into changing it. Not only do I have lists of goals for work, I have lists of personal goals for myself.

A Different Rule Book

Because of my willingness to embrace my uniqueness, to continuously challenge my own personal status quo, and to step around any obstacles in my way, I started playing from a different rule book from very early on in my life. While all of my friends from my New Jersey high school went to Ivy League colleges close by, I went to a non-Ivy League school much farther away. I wanted to be different. While my traditional friends and family would return home for summers or take somewhat traditional jobs in between years of college, I tried to pursue jobs internationally that were designed more for graduate students or physicians. I wanted to be different. When all of my medical school and residency colleagues chose to pursue high-paid medical sub-specialties, I chose to go into primary care and head off to business school because I wanted to “fix healthcare.” I wanted to be different.

Coming Out

And then I hit a bump in the road that, for just a moment, suggested that different may not be that good; I came out to my parents.

While it may be trite to tell my coming out story here, I do think it’s relevant to my message. You should know also that I broke nearly all of the “gay handbook” rules when I came out. I was traveling with my sister and my parents in Arizona where my sister was doing a medical residency rotation. The big event happened when my parents overheard me talking very early on Thanksgiving morning to a friend who I had coincidently visited many times in recent months and whose name I had mentioned just a few too many times. Something must have clicked for them, and it was instantly clear that it was time for the “conversation,” even though I wasn’t prepared. Our initial discussion went very badly, and it remains a blur, even now, 17 years later. But the major snippets were: “You’re never welcome home again…we won’t support you now that you’ve destroyed your career…we’ll come to your funeral…” My immediate reaction was intense pain; my next reaction was calmness and maturity (I felt that I had become the parent at that moment and they were the children); and my final reaction was resilience. In fact, my overwhelming driving emotion shortly before I left Arizona and returned to business school was, “Oh yeah? I’m going to prove you wrong…” (Things are totally back to normal with my parents, by the way.)

While for some, coming out is a sufficiently traumatic experience that results in a desire to conform to the norm, to hide one’s true self even further, or suppress one’s happiness and lifestyle, my coming out experience had the exact opposite effect on me. I wanted everyone at home and at work to know everything about me. I wanted my differences to define me, not control or limit me. I wanted to get closer with my friends, colleagues, and direct reports by sharing personal details of my life as a way to strengthen my relationships with people as opposed to constructing walls. I wanted to walk around the obstacles that anyone threw in my path and to prove that my uniqueness made me stronger, not weaker. And I’m so glad I did that—because my honesty, my directness, and my uniqueness made me progressively more successful and more avidly embraced by my friends and my colleagues. And most importantly, it gave me the confidence to “be who I be,” as a close friend of mine puts it, and not to be troubled or restricted by those who would seek to define me.

Embracing Uniqueness

Fast forward to present day, and I continue to live my life this way—perhaps even more so. There’s no better example of my being willing to embrace my uniqueness than my decision to move to Madison. For an avid east-coaster who has never lived anywhere else, being part of a community that is smart, cultural, accomplished, academic, honest, and diverse has been very empowering for me. It’s easy to feel right at home in Madison when you’re an individual who is proud of what makes you different.

Challenging the Status Quo

One defining present-day example of challenging my own personal status quo dates back about two years ago when I was climbing Camelback Mountain in Phoenix with my partner and some friends. About halfway up the mountain I needed to stop, and I begrudgingly turned back because I could not physically complete the hike. And what was my reaction? “Never again…” I came home to Madison, and on Christmas Eve, I started the P-90X fitness program and completed the intense 90-day course. Today, I double hike (up and over and then up and over a second time) Camelback on a regular basis. My personal motto must definitely be, “Never let anything get in my way, even if it’s a mountain in 100-degree heat.”

Having the opportunity to join Dean has probably been the biggest highlight of all for me. One of the primary reasons why I left clinical medicine in the first place to pursue the business side of healthcare was because of my belief that healthcare had significant opportunities for improvement, and that there was no reason why the healthcare industry should not be as high-performing as some of the best companies in the world. We know all too well the opportunities that exist to improve the service, quality, access, and cost of the healthcare that we as caregivers provide and that we as patients receive. You won’t be surprised to hear that my passion in healthcare has been to choose “the path less traveled” by truly fixing healthcare and being part of the creation of a healthcare organization that sets a national example for how better care can be delivered at a lower cost. In my view, that organization is Dean, and that is one of the primary reasons why I came to and stay in Madison.

I hear folks whisper about me around the country, and say, “Look at him. He wants to make Dean, an organization in Madison, Wisconsin, the best healthcare organization in the nation—even better than Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser or Geisinger. Yeah, right…” And what is my reaction? I turn to them all say, “Oh yeah? I’m going to prove you wrong!”