It took Dr. Anthony Williams a long time to get to where he is in his journey. He started out as a chemical engineering student in Oklahoma, and after he graduated, it would be seven years before he migrated north to Minnesota for medical school. And it wasn’t until the end of residency that he started blending his lived experiences with his underlying passion for writing and storytelling.

But now, five years out of residency, Dr. Williams has fully realized and combined his passions with his vocation. Not only is he an internal medicine and pediatrics hospitalist at Regions Hospital, but he’s also the associate program director for the Regions med-peds residency and associate director of the Center for the Art of Medicine.

Dr. Williams is deeply interested in the places where his work and lived experience intersect with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). So on this episode, he shares some of his experiences, lessons he’s learned along the way and advice for finding one’s place in DEI work. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

Find what feeds your soul

Dr. Williams recognizes that DEI work can seem overwhelming from the outside. There are so many levels it can occur on – from legislative initiatives and institutional policies to interpersonal relationships. And we aren’t all cut out for the same work. Dr. Williams knows that, for himself, political advocacy wouldn’t be a good fit. He wouldn’t be able to sustain it.

Given this, Dr. Williams’ advice for people who want to make things better is simple and intuitive: look at what you already do. When nobody is watching, when you aren’t being pushed or pulled by external forces, what do you gravitate toward? For Dr. Williams, it’s writing and mentorship. He mentored people in undergrad and medical school, and he knows he'd always be writing and creating narratives no matter what else he did. These kinds of work are naturally sustainable for him, and they’ve brought him to where he is today.

Change your mindset

Once you know what kind of work you want to do, you have to find a space where it’s taking place. Dr. Williams believes that people have a tendency, consciously or subconsciously, to look at entering DEI work as an individual effort. They look at it as themselves going up against the big ideas like racial biases or health equity, and with that, they become concerned with failure. Maybe they’ll do something wrong and cause harm or overstep their bounds.

Dr. Williams stresses the importance of getting out of this individualized mindset. At the end of the day, this work isn’t about us as individuals – it’s about the goal of the work, which is almost always communal. We each may bring certain strengths to the table, but we have to accept that we are all limited in our experiences and knowledge, and we have to be open to learning.

Dr. Williams knows this firsthand: he’s perfectly comfortable discussing issues of race in medicine, but when it came time to work on a project related to disability, he was no longer in his area of expertise. He had to embrace the discomfort of being uninformed, sit back and ask questions. In other words, he had to practice cultural humility.

Remember we’re all human

The mindset that Dr. Williams encourages for approaching DEI work isn’t only useful there – it can also extend to our daily lives and work. This, in particular, is where Dr. Williams’ passion for narrative comes into play.

Rather than approach his patients as a representative of medical knowledge, he puts his humanity first. He looks for places where his lived experience resonates with that of his patients and lets that resonance lead. That way, when the discussion reaches topics like treatments and recommendations, his patients are more receptive. They know Dr. Williams is someone with a story like theirs and that his advice is coming from the heart. Dr. Williams also knows he can’t achieve that dynamic with every patient. But he still does his best for them and will bring in another provider if he thinks they have a better chance of connecting.

Dr. Williams’ experiences show us what good work is truly about: connection. And connection requires empathy – certainly for others, but also for ourselves. When envisioning the work we want to do, we have to be kind and reasonable about what we can do, what our strengths are and where we’re limited. This self-knowledge shows us where we can help, and where we can learn. To hear more about Dr. Williams’ perspective, experience and projects, listen to this episode of Off the Charts.