I remember when I decided that I wanted to become a physician as a senior in high school and how much I was going to “crush it.” I had every expectation that I would try the hardest and, consequently, be the best in my class. In my eyes, my life was set if I worked hard enough and essentially outsmarted everyone else. Very quickly, I realized how intelligent and hard-working everyone in my cohort was and ostensibly accepted the reality that I probably was not going to be the best, brightest or smartest. However, throughout my four years of undergraduate studies, my sense of worth rapidly evolved to the point where the value I held for myself was inextricably tied to how I was doing in my classes — essentially, what grades I received. An “A” meant I was solid, whereas a “B” meant I was not doing quite as well. At the time, I did not necessarily realize how toxic it was to have my sense of worth measured by a simple grading metric as I was able to achieve excellent grades just by my merit and effort alone.
Then, medical school hit me, and I mean it hit me hard. I would describe it as a boulder rolling down a hill straight towards me, multiplied by ten, and that is how scared and unprepared I was for my first few weeks of medical school. I felt like I was repeatedly slapped in the face by unknown forces that were constantly telling me that I was not worth it — that I was not cut out for this type of life and the demands it requires. I received my first exam grades and felt a very unfamiliar tinge of disappointment that I had been able to avoid for years. Here I was, having worked so hard to get to this point with a string of accomplishments and successes that I proudly carried on my back, and I experienced the feeling of being average for the first time in my life at what I thought was my most singular talent — academic excellence.
After a not-so-brief period of disappointment and arguably mini-depression, I saw my so-called mistakes for what they were — a learning experience and a chance to reflect on how I viewed myself. I realized that I had tied my sense of worth to this one thing, and much of my life and identity were built upon accomplishing one goal. It came as no surprise that when I did not meet that goal, my foundation was destroyed. My sense of confidence was lost among the fire inside me that I was trying to fervently quench. Even though I was very quickly running out of water, an epiphany hit me like another slap in the face that being average in a field comprising the top one percent of academic excellence is still pretty good.
Of course, being excellent in a field of excellence would be great and is definitely something I am still striving for, but being average is okay too. Not only is it acceptable, but it is also expected, understandable and maybe even appreciated. In many ways, I am happy with my average performance, not only because it means I am doing things mostly correct, but also most importantly because it made me realize that there is more to me than just a capital letter in the form of a grade. There are parts of my personality — positive, negative and surprising — that I am discovering every day. With each discovery, I understand myself better and hopefully the lives of my future patients. Grades certainly have their purpose, but they will not make me a better or more empathetic physician. What will, however, is the methods I pursue to overcome these difficulties and learn from my shortcomings. With this fresh mindset, I think the next time life slaps me in the face, I might just slap right back.