There is a certain perspective that only licking your wounds can give you.
I don’t want to admit that medical school is tough for me. I want to be a natural at this. I want to devour my schoolwork and never satisfy my thirst for more. I want to be recognized for my genius by my professors and lauded by my peers. I want to constantly be reminded that I am in my element; that I am hurtling towards success, and that the future is so bright I should keep my shades on.
The truth is that I struggle mightily for modest success. I’m not a natural, my genius has gone undetected and my thirst for knowledge is quenched daily by 2 p.m. I don’t even own shades.
I made some big goals before school kicked off — when morale was at an all-time high. My spirit was up and my head was big. I knew I was the cream and I was ready to rise to the top. Destined for greatness.
And then came the boom.
Oh, first semester of medical school, how do I describe thee? I feel like I dove into a pool of ice water and it took five months to surface … or I was on Willy Wonka’s hellish boat ride. Is it raining, it is snowing, is a hurricane a-blowing? I feel like Robin Williams when he escaped from Jumanji, with a foot-long beard wearing nothing but rags and banana leaves.
I’m not sure exactly where it went wrong. Maybe I was just riding off the euphoria from finally being accepted, but I began the semester with a lot of momentum. I locked myself in study rooms, put in sixteen-hour days, ate my lunch at my desk … I was eager to martyr myself for the sake of my education. I fought the good fight, and for a while I was winning.
Herein lies the rub: I was sprinting, and medical school is a marathon. Or maybe more accurately, it is a marathon that you sprint. Or even a 100K race that you sprint. What I’m getting at is I’m a bad runner. If there is one thing that I have learned after surviving a semester of medical school, it’s that endurance is the name of the game. When your brain is running at certain RPMs for a certain amount of time it starts to break down. You hit “the wall.” And I hit mine hard.
I became increasingly unfocused, which I unsuccessfully tried to remedy with more and more caffeine. I escaped down various internet rabbit holes. I binge-watched an entire YouTube channel on tarantulas the day before an exam, and my wife was barely able to dissuade me from buying an Avicularia versicolor online. I spent an hour reading Benjamin Netanyahu’s entire Wikipedia article. I’m sure I looked very studious to anyone looking at me through the glass door.
I developed a lot of crackpot theories on success. Most of them proved false. I decided that canned tuna was brainfood. I ate a lot of it. I shaved my head to help me concentrate. For one test I thought I would score better by studying less, because I was taking school too seriously. You can guess how that one turned out.
As the weeks went on the ever-present fog that infiltrated my thoughts became thicker. After a while I felt like was teleporting between different study rooms. When I opened the door to leave my room I was frequently surprised to find myself on the second floor, and the next time on the first floor, and then in the room next to the bathroom, and then the room at the end of the hall. I walked into one room and walked out of another. It was like that classic Scooby-Doo montage where the gang gets chased by monsters into and out of every room in the haunted corridor. If someone wanted to meet up to study, I never knew where to tell them to go.
There is a certain cheer you get from seeing your peers in a similar state of deterioration. We are all baby turtles skittering along the beach and it is clear that we all want each other to make it to the ocean. As the semester went on my grades declined from the top quartile, to the middle of the pack, and then to scraping by each exam. I sensed that most of my class was in a similar boat. You could see it in our faces. That camaraderie nudged me along through the worst of it.
D-Day might be a better analogy than baby turtles.
I’ve been around enough elite physicians to know that I’m not one of them. I have zero patents, I am not finished with my full-body workout by 5 AM, and I did not lead the Harvard lacrosse team to a national championship. I’ve been awarded no keys from any mayors to any cities. Perhaps I’m not destined for greatness after all.
But is greatness a reasonable goal?
Stephen King compares good writers with great writers in his distinguished memoir On Writing. He says that no amount of training can make someone a great writer. They just materialize from the ether. Either you are or you aren’t. He goes on to say that with enough grit and determination almost anyone can become a good writer, and that is nothing to thumb your nose at. Good writers can persuade, entertain and inspire. Good writers can yield a lot of power. There have only been a handful of truly great writers in history — the mystical few who embody the zeitgeist of their time, capturing lightning and storing it in bottles for the rest of us to examine.
I’d like to convert that sentiment towards a medical context. Most likely I am not going to design an artificial heart or cure cancer, or be the first person to successfully transplant a human head. But I can be a damn good physician, and that will always be my goal.
I am grateful I struggled this semester. It was a splash of ice water to the face and I needed it. There’s a lot you can learn from a powerful dose of humility.
Don’t complain the next time you’re served a fresh humble pie, because it may just be what you need. Chew on it for a while.