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Failure. It’s everywhere, but in medicine we tend to avoid it like the plague (hehe). We can’t seem to accept the concept of failure. I once had an attending ask me to change the phrase “failed intubation” to “unsuccessful intubation” when writing a procedure note. When I asked why, he said that “failed” looks a lot worse in lawsuits. While this may be somewhat true, there has to be another reason why we have such a strong aversion to failure. It’s something that was drilled into me as a pre-med, where the fear of “if you fail, you will not become a doctor” was constantly in the back of my mind. You can imagine my horror when I hit the first major failure of my career: the first exam of Molecular and Cell Biology II.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” -Winston Churchill

I will never forget as I sat through the test thinking, “this is not going to end well.” When the results confirmed what I already knew, a failing score, I wasn’t sure what to do next. With just 3 exams for the entire semester, including a final, the best grade I could probably get was a C, which is a huge red flag on any med school application transcript.

The fact is that everyone fails. Whether you fail to make it to your dentist appointment on time or you didn’t match into residency, you have to find a way to put it in perspective and move on. When I failed that test in college, I really, truly thought my career as a doctor was over before it started. I even went as far as to meet with the nursing school advisor, education school advisor, and PhD advisor (because that made sense?). It was actually an old high school teacher who, when I told him about this sudden change of heart, laughed and asked, “but Theresa, you’ve always wanted to be a doctor. What changed?” When the truth finally came out, he told me, “you can only find success when you are no longer afraid of failure.

That, my friends, is what carried me through that roadblock in college-- and when it happened again in medical school. It was never that I wasn’t smart enough to learn the material; it was that I was genuinely afraid of failing. The question was, “why?” At that point in time, I played full-time on a varsity team, joined a sorority, did research in a lab, and still found weekends to visit my now-husband 6 hours away. I was so afraid of failing the exam because I sub-consciously knew I took on too much. No single person can possibly juggle a schedule like that. When I finally saw my calendar for what it really was, I felt such a relief that it wasn’t me. I wasn’t a failure. I may have failed myself by over-committing without recognizing it, but I was not a failure.

Long story short, I dropped the class, and retook it the following year, squeaking by with a B. It was the shift in mindset, however, that gave me the confidence to show up as a junior and retake the course. It gave me the confidence to speak clearly in my medical school interviews when asked why I dropped a class. And now, it gives me the confidence to reflect on other times I have failed, and reminds me to get back up and keep going.

Whatever you may have failed at in the past, or are absolutely petrified of failing in the future, just know that not failing is just as much of an option. The key is to identify why you’re afraid and address those issues instead of being focused on the idea of failure itself. Step 1 is fast approaching for some of you. Are you afraid of failing because you’ve failed tests in the past? Or do you have your best friend’s wedding the week after and you mind just can’t focus? Take some time to reflect, identify, and plan. Suddenly, failure won’t seem so scary, or like an option.

Late addition: This is clearly a hot topic of discussion, and the AAP just published an editorial on failure in the clinical setting. Check it out here!


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