Failure doesn’t fit into the lives of any medical student. We are all crazy type A people with the goals of achieving 110% in every exam, scooping up all the awards on graduation day, being Medical Student of the century and ultimately becoming doctors who deliver the highest quality, evidence-based care to eternally grateful patients 24/7.
However, outside of this fantasy world, failure is a very real concept. It is also something that many of us may not have been familiar with before commencing med school. In high school or during undergrad degrees, were used to being at the top of the class but suddenly, after years of constant academic excellence, we are rudely awakened to the prospect that we might not even achieve the pass mark.
It is pretty unlikely that any of us aim to fail. Failure can be a painful and humiliating experience. There are many different responses to failure and here are some unhelpful reactions that I have noticed:
- This is essentially brushing off mistakes and burying the emotions that come along with failure. Unfortunately, not acknowledging failure can be harmful as there is no chance for reflection or growth.
- “Everyone thinks I’m stupid…”
- A very common response! It can stop people from being open about failure and seeking help from others.
- “Maybe the university should actually teach us!! They didn’t tell us this would come up on the exam!!”
- “The questions were worded poorly!!” (I will admit that this is my favourite response to any exam question that I get wrong!)
- Not taking ownership of mistakes can make a person feel better about themselves, however it makes it harder for them to start making changes and improving.
- “I can’t even pass a simple exam, I must be an idiot, I am going to be a terrible doctor if I ever manage to pass this degree…”
- Being in a profession where we are sometimes viewed as highly successful people who have all the answers, failure can challenge our sense of who we are.
- It causes people to doubt themselves, completely lose confidence and heighten their level of anxiety. Fear of failure can be a great motivator, but if it completely takes over a person’s life it can be debilitating.
- Quitting itself is sometimes necessary but quitting simply because of failure is not helpful.
These are just a few things that I have noticed which can block us from successfully learning and growing through failures. So what is a “helpful/healthy” response to failure? Here are a few tips that I’ve gathered over the years.
Allow yourself to process the emotions that come with failure. These might include fear, regret, anger, sadness… etc. Have time to experience the emotions but don’t dwell on them for too long otherwise you might become too self-critical.
This follows on from the point before. Taking time to recuperate and regain your passion for medicine is very important. Don’t jump into the next thing too quickly because you might lose your motivation. Winston Churchill once said that success is “the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm”. Make sure you give yourself the chance to regain that enthusiasm.
Shift your thinking
Thinking of failure as being unsuccessful isn’t the most helpful mindset to have. Failure is a great opportunity for intellectual growth and to facilitate maturity. As such, the disappointing result may actually turn into a wonderful chance to learn.
It is also important to recognise that everyone is fallible, even our greatest role models in medicine have made mistakes. We should try to be open to talk about our mistakes and failures rather than be embarrassed by them. In Dr Ayan Panja’s article called ‘Failures can be the pillars of success’ he wrote, “being aware of my own fallibility makes it easier to accept shortcomings in others”. Once again, this highlights how failure is universal and how recognising this can make us more tolerant of others.
Reflect, Recognise, Research
Try to be as objective as possible and reflect on the mistakes that you’ve made. Identify where you have gone wrong and learn how to improve. Reassessing the task and knowing the requirements is a good place to start. You might also consider finding different methods of learning if previous approaches didn’t work out for you. It is also a good idea to get advice from other people, for example, people who have passed the exam.
When the time comes to resit an exam, complete a clinical rotation again or whatever else it might be, be confident. You will have successfully overcome the “trauma” of failure. Be sure of yourself and believe that you are capable.
A few weeks ago, I met the lovely Dr Louise Teo. Louise encountered some “roadblocks” in her medical training, which actually opened up many different doors for her. She has kindly agreed to tell us about her journey in medicine so far!
Failing an exam was one of my most difficult setbacks in medicine, yet it took me on a journey that has made me a better doctor. Up til then, things had been pretty smooth in my career. The failure was magnified when seniors and peers belittled us for having dared to fail.
There are many reasons why one may fail an exam, none of which may be straightforward. Yet, as doctors, we usually want a plain black-and-white answer. Going to work the day after learning my results was tough, but I realised I could grow from the experience. I can empathise with my patients when they don’t reach their goals or have their own setbacks at work. Failure doesn’t always mean you haven’t tried hard enough, and it helps if you build yourself a network of friends or other supporters who care about you beyond your career achievements. Failing became an opportunity to become a better version of myself, and to solidify my identity beyond medicine.
While locuming, I explored the journeys of others who’d failed, then succeeded. This led to the creation of themedicalstartup.com, where I could share stories of others who had faced challenges while doing their best in medicine. Everyone has their own unique journey, and I’ve learnt that what you see as an overnight success, is the result of years of persistence, of showing up, and striving to learn from your setbacks. Startups face failures every day, yet their founders grow wiser from these experiences. I hope we can be kinder to each other in medicine, and realise that failure isn’t the end of your journey as a doctor.
Louise’s story in finding her own path in medicine is truly inspiring! Be sure to check out our interview with her, which will be released in the next few months!
So, I hope this has helped some of you in coping with the concept of failure. Failure and mistakes can happen to anyone at anytime, for example, failing an exam, not getting onto a training program, failing the training program, missing a diagnosis, prescribing the wrong medication… the list goes on! We need to realise that we are all fallible and embrace failures as learning opportunities. As Arianna Huffington once said, “failure is not the opposite of success, it is the stepping stone to success”.
Please check out Louise’s awesome website! http://themedicalstartup.com