The Lessons I Learnt from Getting it Wrong
A fourth year medical student reflects on the mistakes he's made and how to reconcile these experiences for reflection and growth.
“That’s a shit answer.” Ouch. There was an abruptness to the admonishment that made it doubly jarring. I hadn’t quite braced myself for a reception like that. After the initial shock subsided, the aftertaste of humiliation lingered. I stood frozen in place in that operating theatre for what felt like an eternity, the gears of my mind simply ceasing with unease. I scrambled for an appropriate response, before finally uttering, “what would be a better answer?” The anaesthetist started to give an explanation. I don’t remember precisely what it was. I wasn’t listening. I was just simply trying to regroup and recover from the intellectual blow.
And so went my first day of clinical placement ever, the first day of third year. This was about two years ago. I think back now and wonder if maybe the comment wasn’t designed to be taken so personally. Maybe the quality of the answer was objectively poor. Maybe the anaesthetist was overworked, underslept and stressed. Maybe it was the pressure of the job that made her language curt.
For a while it wasn’t clear what I should do to reconcile this moment. I wanted absolution. I wanted redemption. At the time I held the worldview that public failures of such a nature were a black mark on my career and even my character. As juvenile as that sounds, I know a lot of us suffer from this anxiety. I wish I knew then, what I know now, creativity and ambition means allowing yourself to make mistakes. You can’t progress when paralysed by fear. You can’t learn, you can’t grow. I couldn’t even focus on the damn explanation the anaesthetist gave me that would have solved my problem because I was in such a state of panic about having this fear realised.
The dread of recognising the colossus of knowledge outside of our understanding— and the admission of imperfection, incompleteness, and powerlessness that it invites— is what will set us free and help us grow. From what I can tell, medicine is a field that attracts overachievers and perfectionists. There is something about the high stakes, complex, and onerous nature of it that lures us in. We love it because it challenges us, but we must make sure that we are in a position to let ourselves grow from the experience, rather than be paralysed by how confronting it can be.
Creativity and ambition means allowing yourself to make mistakes. You can’t progress when paralysed by fear. You can’t learn, you can’t grow. - Abraham Shamshad
Case in point, back in a preclinical anatomy tutorial, I was called down the front of the seminar room to participate in a game of an anatomy themed “Celebrity Heads”. The premise was very simple, instead of a celebrity name, I was issued a term from the head and neck anatomy. It could even have been construed as a fun idea… if you knew your anatomy. I sat in that chair, those lights beating down on me, desperately floundering for a clue that would illuminate my path back to the reassuring blanket of the audience. The harsh lighting made it such that I couldn’t really make out my audience, just silhouettes, spectres peering down at me. “This must be what it feels like to be in the electric chair,” I murmured. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I was trying to be honest, but it still mustered some stifled laughter from the wraiths above me. I never actually arrived at the answer. The tutor eventually took pity on me and ended the activity.
The answer was “coronoid process,” it’s the insertion point for the temporalis and masseter muscles on the mandible. I’ll have a hard time forgetting that one, but in hindsight, that makes the entire exercise a success, a worthwhile ordeal, something that pushed me forward when I really just wanted to hide in the back row. It forced me out of the prison cell of my comfort zone, it revealed and corrected a deficiency all at the same time.
You see, the freedom to get things wrong or to admit not knowing, a right we all have, but don’t often call upon, can be the difference between development and stagnation. These mistakes are indeed stepping stones to success, but they also give us things that the immediate rewards and celebration of getting it right simply cannot provide. Making mistakes is an end in itself. Mistakes give us grit, they illuminate the parts of our character and intellect that require a little more work.
We must get it wrong, bask in the distress, forgive ourselves, hopefully learn something, and most importantly, return the next day to do it all again. That’s not part of medicine, that literally is medicine. So, why not set ourselves free? Let’s grow together. Let’s help each other. Let’s share our mistakes, because we’re not lesser for having made them, we’re greater.
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