“Physics itself evidenced that two different views of the world were equally valid”

AOP chief executive, Adam Sampson, discusses competing interests and the importance of meeting differing needs across the profession

One hand on the left and the other on the right. Both hands are holding a puzzle piece.

One down; one to go. Sadly, at my age, the full Barbieheimer is beyond me – even at my best, five continuous hours would be a challenge – so I cut it up. Barbie on Monday night; Oppenheimer at the weekend.

Tempted though I am to devote the entirety of this column to the rise of pink-hatted feminism, this is not the time or the place. And, as our communications team would emphasise to me, it is more in keeping to spend my time focusing on the more overtly heavyweight figure of Robert Oppenheimer than Barbie. After all, while about half of AOP members are now female, all of them are scientists, so as CEO I should be playing to the majority.

But perhaps, Oppenheimer himself would say, apparent choice is not a necessary one. Back in 1953, Oppenheimer used the annual BBC Reith lecture series to expound on his belief that a proper scientific mind eschewed simplicity of thinking and required a fluency in mental dualism. Physics itself evidenced that two different views of the world were equally valid: a particle could behave like a point but could also be a wave. A scientist’s job was not just to accept one view and reject the other, but to seek to understand and manage both realities.

This thinking, he argued, could and should be applied to problems outside science. There is, he pointed out, a similar duality between the rights and freedoms which are granted to – or claimed by – individuals. The current debate about the rights of trans women to use female toilets is just one such example. Rather than seeking to choose between viewpoints, Oppenheimer would argue, we need to understand both and seek to manage the consequences.

At the AOP, our day-to-day role is to seek to balance the competing views and interests of our members and produce a solution that works for all. The same is true of our approach to managing our staff: to create a work environment which, for example, will allow people to behave with freedom while respecting the views of colleagues who may have different views.

For optometrists, there is of course the fundamental tension between clinical excellence and the need to drive income through retail activity. The most sophisticated and successful in our profession are those who are best at managing those dualities effectively.

An employer who fails to understand the necessity of creating a work environment equally comfortable for those practising different religions, for example, is likely to struggle to attract and retain staff. A practice that only sees those who walk through their doors in terms of potential sources of profit rather than as patients requiring clinical advice is unlikely to build customer loyalty. A business strategy focused only on the here and now is not going to be successful in the longer term.

Managing duality is not merely a scientific nice-to-have but a vital life skill. It is also not always easy: simple truths are seductive and balancing viewpoints is hard work. Looking round the cinema screening, there were plenty of people cheering along with Barbie. But there was, encouragingly, the sense that while everybody wanted a Barbie victory, that did not mean that they wanted Ken to lose.