The Space Between

“It’s the space between the bars that holds the tiger.”

-Zen Koan

How does anyone become really good at what they do? Is there a magic recipe?

From the opposite side of the bars, an adult Bengal tiger studied me from his resting spot. He was big, topping out just over five-hundred pounds. He was also strong. Pound for pound a tiger is four times stronger than a man.  Our guide explained this to me while she pointed out some of the finer elements of the great cats stalking behaviors.

The Feline Conservation Center in Rosamond, California, isn’t like a typical zoo. There are few barriers that prevent guest from reaching inside the cages if they chose to be so foolish. Hence our watchful guide. At the observation end of the enclosure, thirteen bars kept me from becoming tiger lunch. Once the great cat fixed on me, they seemed hardly adequate.

In truth, they weren’t. Bunch them all close together and the tiger would surely escape. Space them randomly across the gap and you’d get the same result. In fact, even the slightest alteration in the spacing between the bars would produce the same result. Free tiger.

While we tend to pay attention to the bars, it is the space between them that contains the power of the tiger.

If you’d asked me what saved me from becoming a tiger snack, I would have undoubtedly pointed at the bars. We tend to focus on what we can see. We are drawn to the obvious. The necessary perfection of the spacing would have never crossed my mind. And so it is with our job skills.

If you told me about an EMT that you know who is really good at what they do, undoubtedly, you would tell me about how they perform on calls. You would tell me stories about their great patient assessment skills or their ability to ask that just-right question in that just-right moment to bring the whole call together. You might discus the way the interact with people or their superior clinical skills.

You would point to the things they do from the time the call drops to the time they place the patient in a hospital bed.

Hard evidence. Strong proof.

You would point to the bars.

While it is their performance during a call that defines them as great, it is what they do in between the calls that makes them great. We tend to pay attention to what they do during the calls. It’s what they do between the calls that contains the power of their skill set.

The next time you have an opportunity to work with someone you feel is really good at what they do, pay attention to how they use the space between their working time.

Notice if they leave the hospital room immediately after giving a report  or if they linger and listen to the questions the hospital staff ask and talk with the doctor about their impression of the patient.

Notice how they check out their rig before their shift.

Notice how they respond when they encounter information that they are unfamiliar with.

Notice what they do when they make a mistake. (Yes, they do make mistakes.)

Notice if they spend time on continuing education, or research.

Notice the million little things that they do to prepare themselves for the next call.

What they do on the next call will be the thing that people talk about. What they do before the next call is every bit as essential. I imagine it’s the same for just about anything.

What about you? What do you do with the space between?


  1. Great post!
    Excellent analogy.

  2. An excellent point made, sir! It is only now that you point it out, it makes sense why some are alright, others good and few great.
    Going to keep “the space in between” in the back of my mind.

  3. I love this post! Your writing always gives me a sense of enlightenment.

    I’ll be sharing this article 🙂

  4. Great post and one that will always stay in my mind. thanks

  5. this is definitely being put down as one of my most favorite posts ever-simply brilliant!
    i currently work as a cna at our local university hospital and am going to do a little project with your post-as long as i have your permission. i plan on writing an article for our little 15N Staff Newspaper using this post. i will most definitely be giving you the credit for this brilliant observation. i’m also going to add that the staff jot down on a board or book, listing what they do with that space so that others can grow from this and strive to be the best. i think this will definitely be a success and our floor could use that little oomph!

    thanks again and please let me know 🙂


    ps-i begin my emt program on 06/30 and am so excited!

  6. Another analogy I’ve started to use. I used to work in live theatre, small community theatre nonetheless- but I managed shows in front of 100’s of people. The key to a great performance- rehearsal. It’s very similar to the way one runs their call. Hours and hours of preparation go into that 30 minutes (or so) of patient care- and it looks smooth, natural. Just my two cents : P