Before starting medical school, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan and visit an array of Buddhist cities peppered with ancient temples and samurai villages. As I explored these breath-taking communities, I discovered the samurai’s commitment to the pursuit of perfection in lifestyle and skill. Now, as I face the challenges of being a medical student, I find myself turning to the canon of the samurai.
The samurai dedicated themselves to perfection in all aspects of their existence. Attaining perfection was considered an expectation prior to death. The ancient samurai warrior expended their efforts through daily training until they mastered a new task. After samurai acquired a skill through countless hours of work, they would consistently polish it. From eating rice to the art of shooting a bow and arrow, the journey towards perfection was not an event, but rather a way of life.
Time is a precious commodity to us medical students. Our time is consumed by a range of study activities, which include creating outlines, tracing biochemical pathways and reviewing flashcards. Furthermore, many of us also have to somehow fit in quality moments with family and friends. Invariably, it may often seem that there are not enough hours in the day to finish what we have set out to do.
Although we may never be perfect doctors due to our human fallibility, I think it is important to strive for perfection in our skill and in this regard, we can turn to the samurai for instruction.
The samurai warrior was committed, patient and perseverant. But above all else, the samurai knew the secret to balancing life’s many demands.
I had the special privilege of researching this balance during my stay in the samurai village. I was fascinated by historical accounts written by highly respected leaders. These leaders instructed their fellow warriors to unstring their longbows while they were not training.
The purpose of this command was to preserve the spring and effectiveness of the bow. If the samurai warrior did not unstring their bows both literally and figuratively, then they risked losing the physical and mental stamina to reach their goals.
Samurai inserted rejuvenating activities into daily routines to practice unstringing their bows. I believe this lesson of unstringing your bow is also the key to success as a medical student, resident and physician.
When I started medical school, I felt like I could barely keep my head above water. I studied an average of fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. I felt like I needed to sacrifice my sleep and exercise to excel academically. In fact, I looked for ways to gain an extra minute here or there to study.
I never took the time to figuratively unstring my bow. I was able to maintain this imbalanced lifestyle during the first semester of medical school, but I quickly learned that this grueling schedule was actually negating my ability to endure.
During my second semester in medical school, I made it my personal mission to emulate the balanced lifestyle of a samurai warrior. I still dedicated my day to learning and mastering medical science concepts, but, contrary to my first semester, I now forced myself to occasionally unstring my bow.
This proved to be quite difficult in the beginning. The first time I took a break from studying, I decided to walk down the study hall. In these few minutes I remember passing window after window full of medical students diligently working. I thought I was doing myself a disservice and creating an unnecessary challenge.
As my experiment unfolded, I limited my break to jogging up and down the stairs of the study hall. These breaks were brief, and I immediately returned to my windowless room to continue my studies. Little by little, I was learning to unstring my bow.
I soon found it more productive to totally leave my study environment. I started choosing activities such as hiking, biking, exploring, skiing, visiting friends, cooking and exercising. It rapidly became apparent that completely unstringing my bow had several life-changing benefits.
My mind opened with clarity to study. I found myself enjoying medical school more than I ever thought possible. Innovative ideas burst into my thoughts, helping me in leadership positions, volunteer activities and clinical experiences. Overall, I became a much better medical student, health provider and person because I learned to unstring my bow.
Unstringing my bow allowed me to savor moments instead of simply letting them pass by. Because I made this choice, I recognized the richness that life has to offer. I also now understand that despite facing challenging experiences, we can live happily.
The samurai warriors’ constant pursuit of perfection in their craft and lifestyle has inspired me to become a better medical student. In many ways, Japan is still at the forefront of my thoughts. It has been an honor to walk beside the samurai warrior in my journey towards medical professional perfection.
Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published in IMpact.