For a significant portion of his 32-hour trip he considered one simple question to which he still had no satisfactory answer: “What in the world am I doing here?” It was hard to believe it took so many flights and so many hours to get anywhere. Yet it was almost unimaginable that a mere 32 hours ago he left his house in the neaveau-riche community close to several of his favorite ski resorts. He didn’t spend much time there, never as much as he wanted. That’s partially why he was so agitated. He grew up skiing dozens of days every season as his parents ran a language school in the French Alps. His current job planted him in North Carolina, some distance in any direction from a decent mountain. His schedule wrestled away almost any opportunity to ski he could find. What had been a 15-minute bus ride up to the ski station several times a week whenever he wanted during his childhood, was now a significant effort. It only occurred when he lined up all the moving parts of his life, but never more than twice a year. Even those few times he made it during the ski season, he often ended up bringing a work project or colleague. Sometimes a co-authoring for a publication that needed editing on the flight, sometimes an eligible young lady coming to spend the weekend, sometimes both. Sometimes the same person was both.
He loved his home in the mountains, its massive over-sized timber beams, generous use of slate, river-rock and copious amounts of glass. He directed the design and architecture team himself to ensure a mixture of his three most influential schools of thought. “French Alpine” was an obvious one, while the clean lines of “mid-20th century Finnish minimalism” appealed to his sense of order*.* The third he rarely mentioned by name as he toured guests around while sampling a bottle from his private reserve of Crozes-Hermitage. However, it was there all the same: “conspicuous consumption.”
Seth Queller held American/Canadian dual-citizenship, as his father, (from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota) and mother, (from a tiny northern town of Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan) met at university in Seattle. Their first conversation started over the peculiar similarity between the names of their home-towns. Seth lived in small-town France from birth until he left home, completed his university studies in both Canada and the US and worked in several cities since finishing his training. This movement gave him a sense he wasn’t sure what ‘home’ was. He considered this a unique advantage, a hand of cards dealt to him to play in his favor. Seth could move for work without feeling like ‘leaving home’, as he had no family ties restricting him. He didn’t have to worry about a wife’s career or school for kids. Instead of a tight group of friends he had a network of acquaintances scattered all over the globe. He didn’t mind international travel at all, and his language abilities came in handy. But this sense of “this is not where I’m from” was the strongest he had ever felt. Far beyond “this isn’t my home” and much closer to “I have no idea where I am.” Not just in a tangible, geographical sense, but in a way that approached what a college freshman who’s taken one class in philosophy would like to call an ‘existential crisis.’
His upbringing did partially explain what in the world he was doing here, at least one small piece, his fluent French. Having spent his entire twelve years of schooling in the French public system gave him a native-like grasp of the language. For his entire childhood, his parents ran a small cluster of 300-year-old, stone, farm buildings converted to a language school for missionaries preparing to serve in French-speaking countries. In doing so his parents also worked as missionaries, living via the support of various individuals and churches back in North America. But this upbringing also partially explained his distaste, no – his revulsion – for being where he was. Those twelve years also gave him a near-native grasp of the French disdain for religion, their almost militant ‘laïcité’. This distinctly French version of secularism emerged as a hyper-reaction to the iron-grip the Catholic church held on that country for centuries. Modern France was a place where 60% identified as ‘Christian,’ though, few differentiated ‘Christian’ from ‘Roman Catholic.’ Only half of those believe in God, and only half of those would have been to a church in the past year. Realistically about 3% of French hold beliefs that in any way line up with traditional Christianity. So despite various things, and in fact, because of other events, he emerged from that childhood firmly in that other 97%. Of that, there was no question in his mind, nor in the minds of those who knew him. It was almost cliché, but Dr. Seth Queller was a textbook example of “missionary kid gone bad.” A living example of what caused parents to reconsider taking their young families overseas to ‘serve in hard places.’ Ironically, many of the families who lived and studied at the language school probably dreaded that hypothetical idea. Yet they lived right alongside a flesh and blood, almost stereotypical example, and had no idea.
If he ever thought about it – God, or religion or whatever – which he rarely did, he had lots of people and things to recall if he ever needed to defend not following his parents superstitious ways. Mostly it was just plain anger. Too many times he and people he cared got hurt or watched others suffer. He always held a very strong sense of justice, and he could not swallow the story of a God who is both good and powerful that allows the pain he experienced and witnessed. For him – the matter started and ended right there.
Not that any of that mattered now. He sure was not the one whose idea it was to give up the last two days of treasured ski-break to fly to some tiny, dirty, African country to volunteer his time. Several other people had the idea, but certainly not him. His Dean suggested he needed to appease the promotion committee, six peers who now presented the last hurdle between him and a coveted endowed chair. The Dean recommended he try to counter the effects of all the stories and rumors the committee received from various sources. Dr. Seth Queller was on track to become the youngest person ever to be promoted to an endowed-chair, full-professorship. A well-deserved recognition, he considered, of his brilliant career thus far. In only seven years he had been poached two times to bigger and more prestigious universities. Each time earning himself more prominence, better resources and remuneration he believed in line with his market value. Now he was about to become the youngest holder of a research chair at the Duke University School of Medicine and the most respected member in his department. Well, at least they respected his skill. In terms of being a person, and who he was as an individual, most would use ‘despise’, ‘loath’, or ‘fear’ rather than ‘respect.’ He told himself it was jealousy, which was partially true. Many were in awe of his raw technical skill in the operating theater. His ability to not only pick up new concepts but also explain them in a way that made sense to others at the same time as they were impressed at his ability to do so. Which was exactly what he intended.
But there was one other aspect that affected all his interactions with his peers. Simply ‘the software’ is how many referred to it. It hung over his relationship with the university as his employer. There was always ‘the software.’ Seth’s assigned roommate in his first year of undergrad, with whom he formed a bond, and ended up living with for four years. They got along as good as he had with anyone. They were both driven, off-the-chart intelligent, and had not the easiest time forming friendships. Seth because he had not yet learned to temper his natural arrogance, and Cody Anderson because he was a classic introverted genius. He had finished high school a full year early, so Cody had only turned 17 the week before they met. Cody was brilliant, yet awkward. Seth was smart, and good at reading people. Seth following his pre-med studies, Cody blazing through computer science.
After four years when Seth advanced to med school, Cody went straight into a fully funded PhD in artificial intelligence. It was during this time that Seth found an application for some technology that Cody developed as a hobby. On the first day of Seth’s first rotation on a surgical service he watched a shoulder surgery. Given his personality he was shocked at how sloppy the approach was to such a precise procedure. He watched as the orthopedist first tried one kit for a shoulder replacement, realized it would not be ideal, then took another complete kit of device, tools and materials. All because measurements of the shoulder weren’t accurate enough before starting the procedure. Right there Seth realized that he could use Cody’s rudimentary Artificial Intelligence system for something. The program they used to scan and slice white bread in their dorm room because Cody wanted something to test it on. They could use this technology to plan a surgical intervention with incredible accuracy before making the first incision. Using scans as input, Cody’s software could map out the surgery, choose the device, and provide laser guidance for the angle of every cut, and every anchor point. It would save doctors and hospitals massive amounts of time, reduce the number of devices, tools, and equipment needed for every surgery, and reduce post-operative complications. That would almost ensure better patient outcomes and diminish malpractice lawsuits. He realized he’d just found a way to save time and money for one of the most lucrative markets in the world – American orthopedics.
When they sold the technology for 8-figures to a French-based orthopedic firm, Cody tried to keep the financial payout as hidden as possible. He didn’t want to be treated differently by his peers in the Comp Sci department. Everyone expected Seth to buy a red Ferrari, which is partially why he didn’t. But he also didn’t because he saw how to leverage his newfound wealth as an influence on those with impact on his future trajectory. He still wanted to be a surgeon. It had never been because of some petty altruistic feelings, and now it wasn’t the money. Now it was almost in spite of it. Seth wanted to show others he could do it simply to prove that he could. He bought himself a condo in a neighborhood amongst professors, attending surgeons, and the dean of the medical school himself. Seth was careful not to have the biggest home, but by the time he finished his residency it was the most expensive property ever sold in the tree-lined community. He learned that the most powerful thing about his wealth was more than its ability to acquire essentially anything he wanted. The real power was that others knew he didn’t have to play by the normal rules. He couldn’t be convinced to take a position that wasn’t exactly what he wanted because of a dangling offer of a raise. Seth would even list his home with a realtor, around the time of his contract renewal, knowing the threat of another offer would give him a bargaining chip. This would allow him to stay where he wanted and leverage his way to a better contract, just for the sake of winning. The threat of dismissal did not affect him. He would be no one’s dancing monkey. Which is what made his present predicament so difficult for him. It wasn’t the details of what he was doing. It was that he was actually doing something he didn’t want to. He didn’t do that. Other people may be agitated at what they had to stoop to in order to keep their jobs, or get a promotion. They may not like having to teach an extra course, or cover more time in the ER or whatever. But for Seth, this was a principle. He didn’t feel he should ever have to do anything he didn’t want to.
This promotion was not about the money. It was merely a way for him to know he won. What was vital is that he do what he wanted. He thought he should be a full-professor, he felt he deserved to hold a research chair position, and he was determined to see exactly that happen. But now some old profs, protected by their tenure at the university, threatened to keep him out. They didn’t even pretend to base it on his skill, or expertise or knowledge, but because they thought he wasn’t nice enough. They pointed to the clause in the contract for full-professorship that everyone always skipped overstating “… work and character worthy of the appointment.” No one ever imagined using the word “character” in that document for anything other than to feel good about themselves when they were promoted. But now two aged surgeons on the committee felt like proving this phrase meant something. This would be their last stand before retirement and being sent out to play with their grandchildren and bulldogs. So here he was, doing something he loathed doing. It wasn’t even specifically being there or work that bothered him, but being forced to appease others because he had no leverage over them. That’s what he truly detested. Having his hand forced, that there was no way to use his contacts, his influence, his brilliance, his resources to get what he wanted. This was uncomfortable, it was tedious, and it drove him even harder to make sure he would soon be that prof. Protected by his own tenure and full-professor status to make sure this could never happen again.