How to Be Successful: Fail

Lindsey Stirling, now massively successful, getting chewed out by the judges on AGT.

With 1.8 unique applicants per available position in US veterinary schools, many applicants will not be admitted.  Most intern applicants do not get their #1 pick. Many resident applicants don’t get a residency.  You will make a mistake that kills a patient. One surgeon I worked for said, “If you haven’t seen a complication doing this, you haven’t done enough of them.”  In veterinary medicine: You. Will. Fail. The question is, when you do, what do you do next?

“Failure is part of the recipe for success.”

“Just because you’ve failed doesn’t MAKE you a failure.”

“The loser and the winner have both failed, it’s just that the winner gets back up and tries it again.”

“Learn from each and every one of your mistakes.”

These are just some quotes I think speak to the issue of failure in a positive way.  Our culture doesn’t deal with failure well. We have this concept that, if you fail, you aren’t good at what you do.  The reality is far more nuanced. In medicine, how often should doctors make mistakes? Most people would say 0%, but that isn’t realistic since we are all human.  We don’t talk about failure in medicine, and I think that does a massive disservice to our profession.

So, if you try enough things, eventually you will fail.  The problem then is: how do you become OK with failing? It’s a tricky balance to strike: you want to be successful, you want to TRY to succeed, and you can’t ignore failure, but you can’t let failure overtake you.  I think the issue boils down to: what do you do when you fail?  

You will have some negative emotion initially- that’s perfectly human and you should let yourself have those feelings.  Then, do you ignore the failure, learn from it, or become consumed by it to the point that you feel you can never succeed?

Ignore failure.  This way is the path of the narcissist, the egotist, and the sociopath.  If you fail and ignore it, you won’t become a better person. You’ll continue to make the same mistakes and won’t grow in life.

Become consumed by failure.  This is the path of the disaffected, overwhelmed, and despondent.  You fixate on a failure, or even a series of failures, and begin to believe that failure is who you are.  You focus on the negative.  This is a downward spiral which is hard to recover from.

Learn from failure.  This is the path of the healthy, growing, developing human being.  You make a mistake, or have a failure, and figure out what happened, why it happened, how it happened, and what to do to prevent it from happening again.  The focus shouldn’t be on blaming who failed (yourself or someone else). The focus should be on what you can take from that experience to make you (or the system) better for the future.

Living life and practicing medicine involves failure.  Complex systems will have mistakes occur in them, and you are a part of many complex systems.  When you experience failure, don’t ignore it, don’t wallow in it. Be sad, or frustrated, or whatever negative emotion you need to experience.  Then think about the experience, learn from it, and become better.

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