Book of the Week 10: When Breath Becomes Air

You’re constantly pushing yourself to be the best you can be, every day. You go to the gym when you could have gone straight home to unwind on Netflix right away. You put in that extra hour studying for the exam. You’ve been doing this for years, your entire life, just to reach your greatest goal.

And in an instant, everything you’ve worked so hard for gets taken away.

A book unlike my previous reviews, usually in self-help or business, this quick memoir of a neurosurgeon easily became a bestseller during its release early this year, claiming a solid 4.37/5 rating on Goodreads with over 24,000 ratings. After spotting this book in a Barnes and Noble and looking up its stats, I decided to give this a shot, and oh was it so worthwhile.


25614898Rating: 5/5

Verdict: Quick, impactful memoir providing a rare perspective on insights in the medical field, in life and death, in chasing your passions, and in forming meaningful relationships with everyone you meet. Absolutely emotional in every regard.

Paul Kalanithi loved the little intricacies in the laws of science, particularly in how the brain works and how it’s able to enable every action we perform. He equally loved the world of literature as it provides access to human meaning and brings the aforementioned laws of science into communion.

Sciences and the Arts

Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.

In the beginning of his college career, he struggled in choosing a path of science or literature, eventually choosing the life of a neurosurgeon while still reaching out to patients and forming precious human relationships every day.

As an engineer who also studied art, I instantly made a connection with Kalanithi, appreciating his early struggles in choosing a bright future. While it’s rare to stumble upon individuals who are likewise chasing passions of both sciences and arts, most of them I’ve personally met have been similar to my interests, in both software and art or music. Because of this, meeting Kalanithi felt similar yet refreshing.

I love how while two fields may appear to be complete opposites of each other, they still complement each other in the most subtle and unexpected ways. You can see not only in his writing style but also in the way he approaches his patients as a neurosurgeon how literature influenced him.

Life and Death

That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.

We live, as his wife Lucy describes, in a death-avoidant culture, a culture that inhibits our ambitions and potential.

Kalanithi however approached death with grace, not with fear. He let himself be vulnerable as he approached each day with purpose and meaning, even in his final days.

If only we all lived like that, every day, while we’re still ahead. Although this book touches upon the sensitive topic of life and death, it coincidentally aligns with what I had stated in a previous book review about a particularly successful business:

When you’re failing, it’s easy to understand the need for self-renewal. The status quo is not working, and only radical change can fix it.

But we’re seldom motivated to seek self-renewal when we’re successful. When things are going well, when the fans are cheering, why change a winning formula?

The simple answer is this: Because the world is changing. Every year, customers’ needs and tastes change. The competition heats up. Employees change. Managers change. Shareholders change. Nothing can stay the same forever, in business or in life, and counting on the status quo can only lead to grief.

Kalanithi understood that death was inevitable. He understood this in his patients who live in said death-avoidant culture. He understood how death could devastate families and friends more than the victim. He used this to his advantage as not just a neurosurgeon but as a human being, making his focus in his field on “guiding a patient or family to an understanding of death or illness.”

We’re just human beings trying to survive in this world. We simply can’t avoid the laws of nature. So if we can’t avoid them, we can at least prepare for the inevitable.

If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?

Keep Chasing Your Passions

Even if you are perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Kalanithi spent his entire life chasing his passions in academia. With a BA and MA in English literature, a BA in human biology, an MPhil in history, and a Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he is the quintessence of fighting through one’s endeavors.

And right at the end of finishing his residency training in neurological surgery, everything was taken away from him due to lung cancer.

However, even death approaching didn’t stop Kalanithi. Don’t let any obstacle, not even death, get in your way. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Keep chasing your passions; it gives life purpose and meaning.

Knowledge Isn’t Everything

How could I ever learn to make, and live with, such judgment calls? I still had a lot of practical medicine to learn, but would knowledge alone be enough, with life and death hanging in the balance? Surely intelligence wasn’t enough; moral clarity was needed as well. Somehow, I had to believe, I would gain not only knowledge but wisdom, too.

Kalanithi could read as many books on medicine as he wanted, but it wouldn’t help much when he would be put in a situation where he’d have to make an immediate judgment call. Pull the cord?

It frustrates me to see just how many people believe that just because they’re knowledgeable doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Especially as an engineer, I see it everywhere, from the fellow new grad to the project managers, almost like an engineering privilege. Even if they don’t intend of any ill will, subtle microagressions such as “of course…” “why not just…” “logically…” etc., shows this engineering privilege, this belief that knowledge is all they need. They may be striving to become more knowledgeable, but what’s the point if you can’t even make an emotional connection with another human being?

It unfortunately doesn’t help that as engineers we don’t work with customers, only our coworkers who grow accustomed to our quirks and habits, our coworkers who we no matter what have to figure out how to work with to bring out the best work not only for ourselves but for the team.

Stay hungry, stay foolish. Stay open to the world. Only then can you pick up on wisdom, on making these judgment calls, on understanding how human relationships grow, on how the universe brings everything together.


Despite the words of wisdom imparted from the last few months of his life, a simple review, let alone one of my reviews which focuses on how to improve our lives with said book, could never do this book justice. The true value of the book comes in the meaning, the emotions, of Kalanithi’s narrative.

The purpose of life isn’t happiness. The purpose of life lies within experiencing the widest spread of emotions, and sharing these emotions with others. Being able to both appreciate Kalanithi’s ambitions and sympathize with his death is beautiful.

Until next week, guys.

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Author: Kevin Who

Developer. Designer. Smasher. Reader. Creator.

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